Dan Berger

Diversity in wine

Had an interesting Cabernet Sauvignon lately? Not a great one; an interesting one.

There is a difference here, and to a great degree many of the popular wines of the last several decades (i.e., Cabernet, Chardonnay) have been made more or less to fit a homogeneous style that, frankly, isn’t very interesting.

We will use just two examples of wines from the most popular grape varieties:

The majority of Chardonnays tend to be oak-driven soft, generous, and lacking in the very acidity that seems appropriate to serving the wine with food. And as for Cabernet Sauvignon, well, the majority tend to be oak-driven soft, generous, and lacking in the very acidity that seems appropriate to serving the wine with food.

If these two disparate grape varieties sound, in these two descriptions, awfully similar to one another (if not identical!), it was intended to sound that way because it’s true. Real distinctiveness in wine these days has been sacrificed on the altar of sameness. Part of this surely is attributable to wine makers’ quest for higher scores. And thus do wine makers pander to the score-generating wine publications by making styles of wine that are fit more for scores than dinner.

As such, the world of wine has moved toward homogeneity, at least with the major grape varieties. Most Zinfandels tend to be alcoholic and “rich.” Many Pinot Noirs tend to be extracted and “rich.” And most Syrahs tend to be plum-y and “rich.” I think the point being made here is clear. Rich is good, and by contrast, balance is not.

So my question about “interesting Cabernets” isn’t an idle one. If you assume that most Cabs are made in a similar style to one another (lots of alcohol and extract from later harvesting that usually leads to balanced wines, which means a lot of tannin, more oak than the wine needs, and a hardness in a tannic finish) then the interesting ones, few and far between as they are, would be truly distinctive.

But try to find one.

I am referring to Cabs with a lower-than-usual alcohol level (13% would be refreshing); a lower oak level, and a structural balance that works with food. A clue is that all by itself the wine is relatively crisp and almost angular and calls for food to accompany it. And that without food, the wine doesn’t taste as good.

Do such wines exist? If you are seeking a Cabernet Sauvignon that delivers such character, you may have to go to New York or some other cooler locale. In today’s marketing-driven world, “rich” Cabs are nearly mandatory. To consciously make a West Coast Cabernet that has the elements described above is sales suicide. Such a thing would not work with most of today’s brainwashed wine buyers, for whom “rich” is a trait devoutly to be desired.

So where do we go for balanced wine? Best bet is the alternative varietal.

When wine makers deal with grape varieties that do not have a false paradigm that seem to be required for the so-called popular varieties, they are not as highly incentivized to “manufacture” the wine into a points-sensitive style (i.e., rich). And thus the alternative grapes are usually more like what they are supposed to be and not what they are not supposed to be.

Since few Cabs are Cab-like and few Chardonnays are Chardonnay-like any more, consumers who are interested in interesting wines should be seeking wines of more distinctiveness and unique flavors.

As such, I can recommend dry Chenin Blanc; the fine Tempranillos of Idaho; Cabernet Franc, especially from the Loire Valley; sparkling wines (always an overlooked resource for most dinner table pairings), Malbec from cooler regions(!), and wines from Lemberger, Gamay, and Albariño.

Let’s get more specific. A number of Northwest wines with national distribution are more than happy choices for alternative wines with dinner.

--Chateau Ste. Michelle Dry Riesling, Columbia Valley: There may not be a better wine value in the United States (or the world?) than this absolutely sensational white wine that is not altogether dry. The aromas and flavors are pure New World Riesling, and the finish is perfect for Asian foods, Mexican seasonings, or just plain sipping. An utterly sublime effort by Wendy Stuckey.

--Barnard Griffin Rose of Sangiovese, Columbia Valley: This Italian grape variety has a rather checkered history when grown in the United States, but Rob Griffin has found the perfect (yes, perfect) way to deal with it: as a pink wine. However, this is no shy, sweet, and flaccid little thing. It is annually a world-class way to design a best-use style for a grape that more often confuses consumers. Here there is no confusion: greatness is evident immediately after opening it.

--Telaya “Turas,” Columbia Valley: Earl Sullivan uses Syrah as the base for this delightful red wine that he makes in his Idaho winery, using a seed-removal technique that is rare in today’s wine making world. The wine has sensational flavors and lower tannins than most similar wines, and the result is an outside-the-box experience worth trying.

Untraditional, yes. And these three wines illustrate that greatness in wine basically emanates from balance, a trait usually given short shrift from the number mongers.

One final important point: price.

Do you want a rich wine? You’ll pay for it. Such wines call for new oak, generally French, which kicks the price up. Balanced low-oak wines typically cost less, have good acidity, and work nicely with food.

And to my earlier point, are more interesting.

This story was originally published March 16, 2015 12:00 AM.

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