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French winemakers understand balance

French winemakers understand balance
Burgundy and meDuring a recent trip to the French wine regions of Champagne and Burgundy, I was struck by how winemakers continually talked about striving for finesse, balance and delicacy in their wines.
Contrast that with my sojourn earlier this month in the Napa Valley, where winemakers were more likely to talk about power, concentration and richness.

Perhaps that’s why I tasted so many cabernets with alcohol levels that exceeded 15 percent, wines that in many cases just tasted heavy and clumsy. Where was the acidity, the liveliness? Most important, where was the balance?

France used to represent the winemaking paradigm for grapes such as cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay and pinot noir. But California winemakers will never make Bordeaux or Burgundy — nor should they. We simply have a much sunnier climate, so grapes will almost inevitably get riper. Even a restrained, well-balanced California pinot noir will almost certainly be more overtly fruity than a red Burgundy, which is also made of pinot noir.
br> But ripeness can easily tip into over-ripeness. Wine drinkers’ preferences will vary, of course, but if excessive alcohol makes the wine taste "hot" or if the wine is flat and flabby because it lacks acid, it’s over-ripe in my book.

There are numerous reasons for the stampede toward excess. Many American wine consumers are still neophytes. Plush wines with lots of fruit and even a little sweetness don’t taste so foreign to their palates. And as a reader pointed out several years ago, Americans often treat wine as a cocktail and consume it without food or maybe with a few nibbles. In that sort of setting, acidity and balance are less important.

There’s no question that one of the main reasons these wines keep multiplying is because the most influential wine publications tend to reward them with high scores, which in turn drive sales. Some particularly extreme 2002 cabernets I’ve tasted recently have gotten scores in the mid-90s in Wine Spectator, for example. Want to see your wine sell quickly? Find a way to get that sort of score from the Spectator or from Robert M. Parker Jr.

Not everyone who makes this sort of wine is simply chasing high scores. A veteran winemaker once suggested to me that one reason for the proliferation of these monster wines is that many young winemakers grew up drinking big, ripe wines from California and Australia. They make similar wines because that’s the flavor profile they enjoy and know best.

But I see plenty of veterans making these wines, too. I have to think they’ve been exposed to many types of wines, including the more elegant style that used to set the standard for California. Behind closed doors, these winemakers are probably drinking Burgundy. Few will admit it, but I suspect their wine styles are driven by scores.

I’m starting to see a few glimmers of hope, however. Technical conferences are rife with sessions that raise the question of whether such ripe wines are a good thing. Part of this has been prompted by grape growers, who have been pressing the issue of "hang time." In wine parlance, hang time refers not to how long a basketball player hangs in the air on his way to the hoop, but the length of time between flowering and harvest — in other words, how long the grape hangs on the vine.
Although long hang time is seen by many as beneficial, allowing for greater accumulation of flavor in the grapes, there’s not much consensus on when enough is enough. The issue concerns growers because when grapes are left hanging long enough, they start to shrivel and lose moisture. That means growers, who usually get paid based on the weight of the crop, make less money.

I’m also hearing from more vintners who are troubled by this trend in California wines. While I was in Napa, for example, I was chatting with Jac Cole, winemaker for Spring Mountain Vineyard in St. Helena. He said he’s been trying to dial back the ripeness in his cabernet-based wines, primarily by improving viticultural practices so that he gets the flavors he wants without high sugars that lead to high alcohol. "Balance is the key to everything," he said.
Ultimately, it’s consumers who will have to say that enough is enough. I think that some already have, but I fear that as long as these overblown wines get high scores, people will rush to buy them. And winemakers will rush to make them.

Where to go for a good merlot in San Luis Obispo County

Merlot lovers looking for a local wine can have a tough time. That grape variety isn’t really the forte of SLO County. But a few Paso Robles wineries are doing a creditable job.
The 2003 J. Lohr "Los Osos" Merlot ($15) is a good value, with flavors of bright cherry and notes of tobacco and spice. It has enough structure to stand up to grilled meat. For just a bit more money, there’s the 2004 Robert Hall Merlot ($18), which is a little riper and plusher than the J. Lohr, with black cherry, notes of anise and chocolate and firm tannins.
Those wines should be reasonably easy to find in well-stocked local stores. If you don’t mind making the drive to the west side of Paso Robles, you will find a good merlot and other reds at the small Villicana Winery (all the wines are sold only through the tasting room). The 2003 Villicana Estate Merlot ($30) displays round, ripe cherry flavors, good length and approachable tannins. A good value is the 2003 Estate Cuvee ($20), a blend of about 40 percent each cabernet sauvignon and syrah, with the balance merlot. It’s an easy-to-drink wine with pretty strawberry and cherry flavors and medium weight that would pair well with grilled chicken.
Looking for something a little sturdier? There’s the 2004 Villicana Zinfandel ($23), which offers sweet raspberry fruit, a hint of white pepper and firm tannins. It’s fairly high in alcohol (16.3 percent) and has some residual sugar, but the final product comes together harmoniously.

Laurie Daniel; The Tribune, october 2006
Posted on Tuesday, November 21 @ 20:10:06 MST by pierre
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Colmar. Capital of alsacian vineyards.
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Colmar. Nice city.
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