jamie goode's wine blog: Random thoughts on comparing different styles of wine

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Random thoughts on comparing different styles of wine

Since the 'Berlin tasting' reported on in Tuesday's blog post, I've been thinking about the issue of comparing different styles of wines.

My take on the tasting was that the Chilean wines were good, but simple, showing little more than sweet, lush, concentrated fruit. The Bordeaux, Italian and California wines, with one exception, were more complex and interesting, and had better potential to age. That isn't to say they were perfect - they weren't. But they were more serious.

But some suggest that we can't compare such different styles of wine. That wine tasting is subjective. That if someone likes the Chilean wines more, who is to say they are wrong?

I'm not going to say you are wrong if you prefer the Chilean wines, but I think you are mistaken if you consider them to be the qualitative peers of high-end fine wines from Europe's leading regions. There is a level of wine appreciation that is hedonic, based on the sense of innate deliciousness. It is important, but not the whole story.

For fine wine, learned appreciation which is based on knowledge and experience and intellectual appreciation is critical. We are part of an aesthetic system of fine wine. Take fine art as an example. Someone may travel on holiday to a Cornish fishing village and find an 'art' gallery with sentimental oil paintings of cliched Cornish fishing village scenes which they just love. They buy a painting to hang on their wall at home. Who is to tell them that they are wrong; that they have bad taste; that sentimentality is the death of art? After all, isn't art just subjective?

Not at all. There are aesthetic systems that are present in all disciplines, and what occurs now is built on what went before, and is refined by a system of benchmarking, criticism and so on. This applies also to wine. While there are differences of opinion among experts, we all more-or-less agree on what is serious, worthy and fine in terms of wine, if we are honest and have good, well-trained palates.

As a critic, it's my job to have opinions. It is the job of others to decide whether these opinions are reliable and well-judged. In the case of Tuesday's tasting, my opinion is that the Chilean wines didn't show enough complexity and relied on sweet, pure, ripe fruit for their effect. I don't think they'll age well. And there is a problem I have with Chilean wines in general: I find that there is this 'Chilean' character in red wines that overwhelms terroir and grape variety differences, and which is easy to spot blind.

It's not that I'm one of these old fogeys who only likes French wines. I'm an open-minded taster and I have praised top wines from Australia, New Zealand and California - and even South Africa - in the highest terms. I've also celebrated the best efforts of Chile (for example, the wines of Matetic and Maycas del Limari, and also many of Eduardo Chadwick's wines). But all the time I am benchmarking and looking for qualities that I think should be possessed by the world's great fine wines. I still find these qualities more often in the old world than the new.

Chile performs at the value and premium ends of the wine market. But it still has some way to go in terms of fine wine. That's my honest assessment based on lots of tasting. Do you agree?



At 1:10 AM, Blogger Glen said...

Hi, really enjoy the blog and while I have been reading a while this is my first chance to comment. While I agree that it is possible to have an informed opinion I disagree that taste is not subjective. While aesthetic systems may exist it does not mean the systems themselves are objective. Using an arbitrary aesthetic to form an opinion of quality makes the determination of quality subjective. Why is the ability to age considered superior? My bananas don't age and I enjoy them nonetheless. This is not to say that your opinion about Chilean wines not aging is wrong. I feel the true value of a critic is to put a something in context. The statement that Chilean wines don't age is one that is objective. What is subjective is stating Chilean wines are inferior because they cannot age. The statement of quality is a judgment based on an arbitrary aesthetic. It also happens to be an aesthetic with which I agree.

At 3:40 AM, Blogger Claude Vaillancourt said...

I don't agree with your comments. Good chilean wines can age very well. I opened a Don Maxiniano Founder's Reserve, 1996, last fall and it was great with still good fruit and potential to go a lot further. As they age, good chilean wines tend to lose that chilean character that is for you so bad. Chile again is victim of prejucices. Who is keeping chilean wines anyway? I do and I am convinced they have great aging potential. The problem with chilean wine and aging is the lack of history for quality wines in Chile. But one good example is Cabernet Sauvignon, Antiguas Reservas, from Cousino Macul. Here is what Jay Miller was saying lately about that cuvée:

"Cabernet Sauvignon is strong, with a wide range of wines and price points and good quality throughout. Chilean Cabernet owes more to Bordeaux than it does to California. Thankfully there are not as many fruit bombs here. And the icons deserve to be icons. They’re great and evolve beautifully. Take Don Melchor, for example, or Antiguas Reservas—I recently tasted Antiguas Reservas back to the 1968 vintage and they were splendid!"http://www.winesofchile.org/article/87

Here is another link about a vertical tasting of Antiguas Reservas back to 1960. Remember that this is a 15$ wine.

Cousiño Macul Cabernet Sauvignon “Antiguas Reservas” Maipo, 1992Medium garnet in color, aromatic and earthy in character with aromas and flavors of black cherry fruit. It has a nice silky texture with good acidity, round tannins and a pleasant finish

Cousiño Macul Cabernet Sauvignon “Antiguas Reservas” Maipo, 1990Dark ruby in color (seemed much younger than the 1992) youthful with a spicy nose, ripe fruit more plumy and less earthy than the 1992. Fresh tasting, with soft round tannins

Cousiño Macul Cabernet Sauvignon “Antiguas Reservas” Maipo, 1983Medium garnet in color, rather earthy and light in flavors, with a dry tart finish and beginning to oxidize. One of our participants noted the similarities of this wine with Chateau Palmer.

Cousiño Macul Cabernet Sauvignon “Antiguas Reservas” Maipo, 1981One of the stars of the evening. Medium garnet colored with aromas and flavors of dried cherry and plum fruit, herbs and spice box notes. Beautifully balanced with a long lasting finish. Probably the best wine of the evening.

Cousiño Macul Cabernet Sauvignon “Antiguas Reservas” Maipo, 1978This wine was the most Bordeaux-like with red and black earthy fruit, notes of cloves and asian spices, velvety smooth and nicely structured.

Cousiño Macul Cabernet Sauvignon “Antiguas Reservas” Maipo, 1977A rather earthy wine with a gamey and musty character. Light cherry fruit with spice and good acidity.

Cousiño Macul Cabernet Sauvignon “Antiguas Reservas” Maipo, 1965Garnet in color with an orange rim. Complex with a roasted meaty character. Was initially musty, but these aromas dissipated and were followed by sherry like flavors and elegant mouth feel.

Cousiño Macul Cabernet Sauvignon “Antiguas Reservas” Maipo, 1960A gorgeous wine for its age. Garnet with youthful ripe black cherry fruit aromas and delicious fruit flavors. Seemed young by comparision with the 1965 vintage. Nicely deliniated with good acidity and a long lasting finish.


At 7:59 AM, Anonymous Ben Smith said...

Good post Jamie. I think this kind of 'shock potential' New World-versus-established old 'masters' tasting has probably run its useful course - or for now anyway.
The recent Gimblett versus Bordeaux one seemed (although I wasn't there) to be more on the money in terms of what was being compared.

At 11:17 AM, Blogger Steve Borthwick said...

My Granddad used to tell me never accept arguments based solely on one or more of the following three things, revelation, authority or tradition, seems to me like you have an element of each in this debate, particularly when you can't actually taste the wines yourself.

I still think this rule of thumb is useful but its clear in this case that money and history "talks" and the loudest voice is Bordeaux. However I agree with you Jamie that there is no "right" answer about which is "best", just a more likely one for a particular set of consumers.

My own personal rule of thumb is to evaluate based on the length of impression, i.e. if I can remember what a wine smells/tastes like outside of the drinking "environment" for longer, then for me it's better; but then again I'm an amateur enthusiast, not an investor or supermarket consumer which are two other important (but different) perspectives.

At 1:50 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Surely there are two KEY issues here on which no one will disagree - they are (1) Chilean reds do not have the complexity or finesse on the palate of top French Bordeaux (2) the top French Bordeaux cost a HELL of a lot more. Surely everyone will agree therefore that (a) if money was no object then the Bordeaux ones would win and (b) value for money places the Chileans on top by a huge margin.

At 1:54 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Basically, I thoroughly agree. It is subjective to state the Chilean wine is inferior because it doesn't appear to age that well, but, let's face it, don't we all go along with that particular subjective judgement if we are spending considerable amount of cash on a wine?

Macul is in any case pretty atypical of Chilean wine, isn't it? It would be hard to find a less mainstream bodega.

I have to say I hardly have a bottle from Chile, and that isn't because of prejudice - I have plenty from S Africa, Argentina, Greece, Lebanon... It's just that I don't like the full-on nature of the cheap wines much any more, and for a similar price, I can easily find other wines I like far more than the more expensive ones (yes, mostly from the "Old World").

At 5:17 PM, Anonymous Alex Lake said...

Good post, Jamie.

I agree that there is a good degree of consensus about great wine and it's not just about drinking labels/traditions (though that does have a part to play). Whether one can call that "objective" or not, I'm not sure - but perhaps that applies to such things as morals and ethics. I take the point that if a bunch of Martian Wine-buffs turned up, they might decide that Musar was the gold standard of wine... ;-)

I think a comparative vertical tasting is a good way to investigate this issue. I wonder if Chadwick would be prepared to contribute older wines to such a project if one were to organise it in London. Maybe take 4 wines each with about 5 vintages over 25 years and taste blind.

I've not yet had a wine from Chile that I'd be prepared to spend more than about £30 on, but (sadly!) plenty from France. Most of the supposedly good wines (like Sena et al) have been way too young to assess properly.

At 6:43 PM, Blogger Claude Vaillancourt said...

If we are part of an aesthetic system of fine wine, does that mean it a static one? If you apply such a logic to visual art, then forget Monet, Picasso, Pollock or any other great painter who contributed to expand the asthetic system of classical painting.

About the specific character of chilean red wines that according to you overwhelms terroir and grape variety differences. What is it? You had the chance to go to Chile to visit wineries to speak with wnemakers. What are they saying about that? The only thing specific Chile has is 95% of the vineyard planted with ungrafted vines. Would it be the explanation? If so it would be quite ironic from an historical perspective. Maybe phyloxera changed the aesthetic of fine wine more than a century ago?

From my experience, the specific chilean character often defined by pure fresh cassis aromas, and sometime leafy aromas, is related to thiol compounds. Is it possible that ungrafted vines own Vitis Vinifera rootstocks play a role in the overall plant physiology and on sulfur metabolism? The only thing I know is that if you put copper in a chilean red wine strong on cassis aroma, you will see a big drop of that aroma after a while. That is in good corelation with the possible presence of molecules similar to mercaptomethylpentanone or methoxymethylbutanethiol, related to cassis aroma. Another thing I know is that strong cassis aromas and stuff like that diminish or disappear with age. This is coherent with thiol compounds presence. Because we know thiol compounds are unstable and react over time to lose their aromatic power. It is a proven fact in the case of Sauvignon Blanc. Anyways. All that remains just my own deducted theory. Maybe I am totally wrong with it. I would be glad to read a better explanation.

At 6:58 PM, Blogger benny boy said...

Chilean wine (with no exceptions) is dull, at best average and offers a brief and simple fruit hit of basic red or if you must white wine. At the very least Argentina has a grape that it can make semi interesting wine from - Malbec. This is a trueism of the New World in genearl. They cannot reach the heights of complexity, concentration, poise, vigour, length or finish that a French, Italian, Spanish, German, Austrian or Portugese wine can.

At 7:18 PM, Blogger J.Defez said...

Hi, good post jamie.

I agree in your appraisals. When I taste wines of the new world, always there is a common denominator, the lack of complexity, subtlety, sensitivity. Evidently always there are exceptions, but it is difficult to find wines of the new world with these characteristics.
In addition, I think that they are wines that are not OK to aging.

At 7:20 PM, Blogger J.Defez said...

This post has been removed by the author.

At 9:06 PM, Anonymous Andrew Connor said...

On the subject of the greater complexity of Old World wine (though have to say there're some pretty dogmatic people out there) here's an interesting article linking 'minerality' with the biproducts of yeast metabolism in infertile soils (ie soils with a long history of cultivation ergo Old world vineyards)


At 9:34 PM, Blogger The Sommeliere said...

I must concur with Claude Vaillancourt. I learned to drink wine in Chile in the 1970s. The wines were acceptable then, but are world class now. I have 10 and 15 year old bottles of Chilean Cabs which are, to say the least, astonishing. BTW, I am a professional wine columnist, editor, wine critic, educator and sommeliere.

At 10:26 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Any chance of naming them?

At 4:55 AM, Anonymous Andrew Halliwell said...

Very interesting post Jamie and follow up comments, especially Claude's ideas about ungrafted rootstock and thiols. For me though the discussion has gone off-piste and I am not a fan of the simplistic and snobby comments relating to the innate superiority of European wines made by e.g. Benny Boy.

Probably the "best" bottle of wine I've ever tried was Petrus 1982, currently costing upwards of 2000GBP / bottle. But I've also had a lot of disappointing wines from France costing 15 euros from "good" regions such as Haut Medoc in "great" years such as 2005.

If Jamie is able to spot Chilean reds blind and reckons that at the moment they typically don't match the complexity of "great" wines from other regions, that seems to me to be comments I am happy to accept from an experienced and recognised taster. Whilst Chile has a long history of wine production they have generally only been trying to make "iconic" wines for a few years, so it's only reasonable to expect them to have some way to go to catch up with, say, the classics from Bordeaux.

For me this whole "New world v. Old world" argument is tired and wrong. In my experience countries such as Australia are making fabulous wines at all levels benefiting from a huge domestic interest in wine, a range of terroirs (still being explored) and a large group of talented, knowledgeable, passionate winemakers.. How many "bad" bottles of wine has anyone drank from Australia? How can wines from an established and classic area such as the Barossa Valley be innately worse and less complex than new wines from newly planted areas in an old world country, such as the expensive new reds from areas such as La Mancha and the Montes de Toledo south of Madrid?

I'm happy to accept that a lot of great wines come from Europe. It's logical, we have a long history of winemaking and by far the biggest area of vineyards of any continent. I can't accept that Europe by rights has a monopoly of all the "best" wines and terroirs. Outside of the North Pole and the humid tropics there must be other equally great terroirs in other continents. If the Chileans still have some way to go at the top end, then that's fine and I congratulate Sr. Chadwick's bravery and efforts in organizing such a tasting. Chile as a country is making great wines at great prices that make a lot of people happy and their export statistics prove this.

At 8:25 PM, Anonymous peter walsh said...

Fifth para is pompous twaddle. Nobody elected you to be a wine critic because of your palate. It's purely subjective.

At 4:14 PM, Blogger Immodest Bacchus said...

I have a similar issue with Chilean wines, at least their reds. And I freely admit, this is an issue that primarily has to do with my personal taste. But...

I also think Jamie has expressed some excellent general points about Chilean wines and their shortcomings, at least when it comes to their reds. It seems to conform to my own independent experience with these wines over a period of years working in the trade.

When I started out eight years ago as a relative newcomer to wine, I fell almost immediately in love with Chilean reds. No one put me up to it. As I was working in the trade at the time, I had a vast array of potential wines to choose from, both from the New and Old Worlds. But choose them, and by a large margin, I did.

Eight years on, and my taste for Chilean wines has changed. More exact: It has completely evaporated. I never set out to change my taste, but I now find even the best of Chile's red wines are not my cup of tea. Again, with complete honesty (and you'll just have to trust me on this I suppose), this is not due to the slow creep of wine snobbery.

I am a native Californian, very democratic about enjoying wines at all levels from vintage Krug to the kind you buy locally in Venice for 1.90 euro a litre. What I remain most in love with about wine is its vast diversity. What has changed is that most of the same characteristics which originally drew me to Chilean reds, I find now repel me. Namely primary fruit, sometimes (even in some of the very top wines) a regular greenness to the tannins, overly glossy texture without enough complexity, and absolutely, at least on a scale of wines that were purchased 8+ years ago, a much lower success rate for aging into a pleasurable drink.

So, while I still find praise for some of the white wine coming out of Chile, I have an increasingly hard time rating it's reds as being anywhere as good as what can be found in France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, South Africa, and even New Zealand and Australia (though again, I've become far less of a fan of the latter two countries than I was 8 years ago).

To me the verdict is clear. As my own palate and personal taste has become more demanding, much of what attracted me to the wines from Chile and Australia is gone, at least from the list of characteristics that I most look for in a wine of great quality. And when it comes to the isssue of what I enjoy most, the sheer diversity of extremely good wines that available from the world's top red wine producing regions, I find that France, Italy, and Spain offer more great wines of distinctive character than anywhere else, with Chile being definitely close to dead last on that global list.

Is this subjective? Perhaps, but I think that it is interesting that my taste has changed and that it supports Jamie's assertion that there are characteristics in Chile's top reds that at least by my yardstick and his, have yet to match those found in the best of Old Europe.

Finally, in closing, I think this may have much to do with the thorny issue of terroir as anything else. While the sites for Chile's most exciting white wines have been being constantly pushed to the boundaries of the region's potential growing zone, the reds have stayed farther back and more top examples still remain linked to more traditional sites. Issues of clonal selection, root stock, and wine making styles aside, until Chile can develop the sheer bewildering range of potential terrior for its red wines as can be found in France and Italy, and as it seem to slowly be developing for its whites, certainly then in both diversity and sheer complexity, its red wines will struggle to match the best that are currently found in Europe.


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