Dan Berger

Judging a wine by its roots

Judges at wine competitions see wines differently from average consumers, and in recent years it is getting even more apparent.

If you were to sit down to evaluate a set of, say, 75 Syrahs, at some point you would notice that the wines were getting more and more tannic, not to mention hard to evaluate. Actually, the wines aren't getting harder. It's just that as we taste and taste without sufficient breaks and palate cleansing, our ability to regenerate the palate-protector saliva means we are getting progressively more sensitive to tannins and acids (and alcohol!). Thus the wines seem to be harder than they probably really are.

As a result, most judges seek any justification not to have to put a wine in their mouths. So they become hyper-critical of even trace aromatic flaws. I have experienced cases where a fellow judge actually made up a flaw so he or she wouldn't have to taste the liquid.

Now things are getting more complicated. It has to do with the growing effect in the fine-wine field of regions like New York, Virginia, Ohio and Michigan. And not for just the grapes with which we have become accustomed, like Viognier from Virginia and Riesling from the Finger Lakes.

Virginia Cabernet Franc and New York Seyval are just as deserving of attention in a fine-wine world as $100 Napa Cabs. Are they the same or even similar? Not even close.

However, the fact that they are "odd" or "strange" -- in a mainstream context -- should not take away from the fact that they are valid wines. Indeed, in some ways they are classic wines since they represent their regions so well. Some supposedly "better" wines do not reflect their region at all.

Here we enter a philosophical realm. Who deemed Napa Cab to be the world's paradigm for that grape? Or Bordeaux, for that matter? Who ruled that 15 percent alcohol, oak flavors, a higher-than-in-the-past pH and a virtual sweetness is the only type of Cab that can be ascertained to be great?

And I'm not the only one asking these questions. So are people who seriously look at wine as more a reflection of their place than of their variety.

In this more democratic mode that has recently evolved, wine evaluation has taken an interesting spin. A number of competition directors are now questioning whether it wouldn't be best to evaluate all wines by telling the judges the regions from which each wine emanates.

At the 2010 Riverside International Wine Competition, we evaluated Petite Sirahs by region. The results came out better than expected, though it took longer to do this than other nonregional panels. And we tried this again this year with two panels judging some 200 wines of various types.

In many cases, the place from which a wine came was of no importance to the judges, some of whom said they never even looked at that factor. Others noted that the (assumed) regional characteristics of a few wines made them so distinctive that the judges, knowing the region, found it to be crucial to understanding the wine.

Two cases in point: One panel awarded a gold medal to a Viognier after learning it was from Texas. The reason: The wine was distinctive. The second case is far more complicated, but it resulted in a Pinot Noir earning a silver medal once the judges (who initially were predisposed to giving it nothing!) learned that the wine was from New Jersey.

And now we reach another conundrum: What if a grape variety is planted in the absolutely wrong terroir to make a classic wine? Does it still deserve consideration since it is terroir-based?

Just because a wine grape is from an odd region of the world doesn't mean the entire template for the variety should change. Look at this a bit like Silly Putty. You can stretch and pull it into various shapes and it's still in one piece. But at some point the pulling in opposite directions fails and the putty "breaks" in the middle. At some point, even the most generous and flexible tasters will be put off by the strangeness of what a variety does in some regions.

It may be unfair to suggest such a thing, but I have never tasted a classic or even interesting Pinot Noir from fruit grown in the central San Joaquin Valley. Or a Riesling from southern Italy. Whose fault is this?

Even the most liberal interpretation of the variety's "outside limits" would not conclude such a wine could ever warrant an accolade as high as a bronze medal. Also, I have tasted a number of wines that were manipulated to deliver something more mainstream (such as a Chardonnay that went through complete malolactic fermentation, lees contact and stirring, and new French oak). The result is a chicken with three legs, which only satisfies people who want three drumsticks.

So should we judge all wines by a regional standard? If we do so for Cabernet, shouldn't we also do so for other varieties? But since we have a record of Napa Cabs, and almost none for Santa Rita Hills Riesling, how would such a judging work? Badly, I would think. Until more judges get a definitive handle on how basic varieties grow around the world, we are left holding a bag filled with untested hypotheses.

But at least the question has been raised, and we can begin investigating answers.

Dan Berger is a nationally renowned wine writer who lives in Santa Rosa, Calif. He publishes a weekly commentary Dan Berger's Vintage Experiences (VintageExperiences.com).

This story was originally published June 15, 2011 12:00 AM.

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