I was at a wine tasting last night: red California blends of Rhone varietals, served blind. These varietals, including Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre, etc. have pretty distinctive traits, both in aroma and flavor: white or black pepper, berries, truffle, earth and so on; each grape has its own signature (see Fourth World, chapter 8). In addition, reds from the Rhone Valley in France tend to express local conditions, or terroir- a Northern Rhone is often distinguishable from a Southern Rhone, by its grape composition, but also by its terroir. So last night I was looking forward to teasing apart these characteristics in the California versions. Several of the wines were elegant and well-balanced, with a suggestion of Rhone varietals in smell and taste, but in my opinion, they were the exception. More often the wines were dense, muscular, burly and thick: modeled after modern-day Chateauneuf-du-Pape, but in style only- not in the nuanced traits I was hoping to find. Judging by the group rankings, people were looking for something else: their top-ranked wines had jammy, overripe fruit (one even tasted faintly of raisins), and none had varietal characteristics. I suspect one of them had been left with higher residual sugar, in order to increase its mass appeal. At my table of 7 tasters, the elegant wines mentioned above ranked at the very top, but amongst the larger group of more than 50 attendees, they did not make the cut. This is one reason group rankings have so little meaning (unless you’re selling the wine).
Of course taste preferences are subjective, and of course California wines don’t need to imitate the French. But it seems to me that elegance, balance and varietal taste are desirable in all wines- and often missing in generic “big reds,” which are shaped for greatest marketing appeal rather than being true to any grape varietal or distinctive terroir. I’ll coin a term- “enological Darwinism”- to describe this phenomenon: the market determines the evolution of winemaking choices and philosophy, and survival of the biggest seems to be where we’re headed. Luckily, the role of a good wine is not just to blow away other wines in a mixed martial arts tournament, but rather to enhance a meal or other social gathering, and occasionally to provoke thought.