My Wine Aesthetic

I sometimes get asked about the wide variety of wine I taste and report on. People have wondered aloud to me as to how I can be interested in more than one or two regions, or how I can be a fan of very disparate varietals (e.g., Riesling and Syrah), as well as of both traditional and modern style wines from a particular region. I’ve asked similar questions of my wine buddies, and it’s become clear to me that I have the broadest, most eclectic tastes of anyone I know. I think it’s important for me to be upfront here about my biases, such as they are, which include a broader than average palate, as well as a keen love for certain regions (e.g., Burgundy, Rhone, Champagne, the wines of Italy and Germany), but not an exclusive passion for any single area. I also want to share my criteria for appraising and scoring wine.

I consider myself a student of wine, and feel I can only really learn from everything wine has to teach by tasting as wide a variety as possible, preferably in themed tastings, where one can compare a number of samples from the same region, maker and/or vintage. By doing so, I’ve discovered I really do enjoy a wide variety of wines—and that the diversity of flavors, winemaking styles and regional specialties (that often take on yet a whole new dimension when paired with food from the same region) is truly awe inspiring.

Of course I’m a huge fan of high end, well made wines with a track record, as long as they’re not just amped up, over-oaked and over-extracted fruit bombs made to please a major, idiosyncratic critic. Mature Burgundy and Bordeaux made by the great producers is always a treat, and I do look for opportunities to celebrate these wines with fellow collectors. Wines that I’ll go way out of my way for—including flying up to Seattle for the night, or driving down to L.A. for the weekend—include vintage Madeira, aged Barolos, mature Montrachet, and verticals of DRC, Leroy or Comtes de Vogüé.

More of my splurge buying goes to Burgundy these days. When I lived in Los Angeles, the bulk of the big events were high-end Bordeaux tastings (and some Italian events), and I collected a cellar of trophy Bordeaux because I needed them for admittance to most offlines and special dinners. Here in the San Francisco Bay Area, on the other hand, the majority of my wine buddies are fans of Burgundy, and many love Rhones and German Riesling too, so my buying has switched dramatically to keep a supply of worthy Burgundy on hand instead of Bordeaux. I also drink wine with dinner most of the time (something I got used to in my senior year of college living at the French Theme House at Stanford), and I therefore favor wines that complement food. Wines that really make a dish pop, or that bring out a particular nuance or otherwise overlooked flavor are a special treat, and I’ve been fortunate to learn tips on such pairings from a few really great wine directors and sommeliers in this area (e.g., Manresa’s Jeff Bareilles’s pairing of German Riesling with tomato dishes two summers ago was a revelation I’ve made much use of). I also very much enjoy well made wines that are typical of their region, like an inexpensive and refreshing Vinho Verde, or a crisp Muscadet, or traditional Cornas (ideally with some age on it).

Am I a fan of California wine? Yes, I do enjoy Pinots and Syrahs from some of our very conscientious and hardworking local producers who aim for balanced wines with refreshing acidity (e.g., Copain, Rhys, Littorai and Mount Eden). I also enjoy Petite Sirahs if they have quite a bit of age on them. I’m less a fan of New World Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, but there are certainly many that I like—those with purer expressions of fruit, and little or very harmonious oak treatment (although I’m not a big buyer these days, as those varietals tend not to complement my meals as much as other choices).

I’ve tried to educate myself about regions that are less well known (at least in my part of the world)—in the process becoming a major fan, for example, of Greek and South African wine. There is, however, so much well made wine from many regions that is either not available, or represented in only tiny numbers, on U.S. shelves, that it’s hard to taste much of it unless a special trade or promotional tasting comes along. For example, I’ve been reading about Georgian wine lately, and would love to sample the wines I’ve read about from that ancient home of the vine, but that’s likely to be very difficult unless I make a trip there.

Then there are the geek wines. Last year I couldn’t resist a survey of “orange wines”—made with white grapes fermented with extensive skin contact, thereby developing serious tannic structure, and often highly unusual aromas—when my buddy Slaton invited me. I’m also always up for a Jura tasting, and continuing to learn the nuances of Poulsard and Trousseau, and of wines purposely made in an oxidized style, that can be so savory and wonderful with food.

Allen Meadows

In logging so many of my tasting notes into CellarTracker, I’ve learned in recent years that my point scores are usually not far off from those of Stephen Tanzer (and his reviewer Josh Raynolds), as we typically give a wine the same rating, or are at most one or two points above or below each other’s score. I tend to be pretty close to Allen Meadows’s scores on Burgundy too, more than half the time, although there seem to be a lot of Burgundies (generally the less traditional ones) that I like quite a bit more than he does. The major critic from whom I diverge the most is Robert Parker. It’s more a surprise to me, these days, when I like a wine that he’s scored highly, as I’m not a fan of the big, super concentrated, oak-obtrusive wines that he (and his paid staff and long time associates Jay Miller and Mark Squires) give big scores to, especially wines in that style from Spain, Australia and California. I diverge from Parker the very most on Pinot Noir, finding I can hardly stand Pinots he gives big scores to (e.g., Adrian Fog, Brewer-Clifton), and that I’m often a big fan of ones he essentially dismisses (e.g., Copain, Scherrer, and most Burgundies). That said, there are few, miraculously, that we both like, such as Pisoni.

So what is it I’m looking for in wine, and what causes me to give my highest ratings? The primary quality I seek in wine is balance—a harmonious, complementary relationship between the alcohol, acidity, residual sugar, tannins and fruit. I find that kind of balance regularly in German Riesling and Burgundy, which is probably why my personal cellar tips in the direction of those regions. The second most important feature of a wine for me is complexity, and I will score a balanced wine that has complexity over a similar wine lacking that complexity any day. For me, it’s much like music—I prefer music of all types where there is more going on—instrumentation, rhythms, voices—to music that is fairly simple. As indicated above, I’m not a stickler for traditional style, and if a wine is in balance and complex, I will still rate it highly even if it isn’t in the style traditional to that region. I think winemakers should be given lots of latitude to experiment and innovate, and even though I enjoy a lot of traditional styles, I don’t think a maker should be faulted for trying something different just because he’s working in a region known for a particular style. After all, great wines like Brunello and the Super Tuscans are fairly recent examples of such experimentation and innovation.

So I hope this gives a better idea of my overall aesthetic: I like a broad range of wines, I’m drawn particularly to wines of balance and complexity, I can give high scores to both traditional and modern producers, and although there are certain wines and regions I’m particularly passionate about, I’m always open to exploring and taking a wine that’s new to me on its own terms. I plan to add more polls to the site in the coming weeks to help me better gauge the kinds of wine my readers enjoy and are interested in reading about.

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7 Responses to My Wine Aesthetic

  1. JIM CHRISTENSEN says:

    FWIW: I think your reviews are amongst the best. Keep up the great work.

  2. Richard, good to know! The only thing to add is that I also have appreciation for wines of purity, even if they lack complexity. A basic Produttori del Barbaresco for instance or a Bourgogne-level Burgundy may have very light, lustrous texture, amazing perfume and focused expression of simple sour cherry that I could much appreciate, over a more convoluted or complicated wine. One might call it ethereal or elegant. It’s like eating a steamed lobster or crab without sauce. Or listening to a single violin performance – could be brilliant.

  3. Jordan Libit says:

    A really excellent, well thought out posting. Have followed many of your reviews on CT and it’s useful to read your thoughts on wine education. I find that if you like a particular wine, it is definitely worth trying. My trips to Burgundy, Rhone, Italy, Australia, NZ, and various regions in CA have taught me that there is excellent wine made in many places for many different tastes.

  4. Jim and Jordan,
    Thank you for the very kind words, and for finding my blog. I appreciate your comments.

    Gary,
    Interesting point about simple wines and their virtues. I quite agree that in certain contexts–e.g., one glass, as a pairing with a complex dish–a non-complex wine of purity or other virtues is just the thing. My comments in my little piece were in thinking about drinking a whole bottle. If two wines are well made, balanced, but one is more complex than the other, that’s the one I could potentially get through a bottle of. But I appreciate your speaking up for simple, uncomplicated wine as well, as there is clearly a place for them–I was really talking about a comparison between otherwise equals for quaffing, without taking any food match into account.

  5. Jason Carey says:

    I am enjoying reading your blog.. I am very much like you in that I love everything from Australian Riesling to German, New York. I love Burgundy and more elegant styles of Zin, I love Muscadet, Beaujolais, Northern Italy and oh so much more. I have been reading your Celllartracker notes for years. The Loire is my favorite, as well as Cali producers like Wind Gap, Dashe (enfante Terrible series) Donkey and Goat, Clos Saron
    Its unusual to find other people who love so many different types of wine.. And I am with you that the only wines I don’t like are over extracted, over ripe and over oaked.

  6. Paddy Peters says:

    Hello Richard,

    I was reading your article on Tempranillos. You mention very good drinkable Riojas for $12-20. Just up my alley. Could you name 5-6 I could try in SF Bay Area? Like you, I don’t enjoy most Big Cabs or Chardonnays. I have recently really enjoyed Zins from Turley and Ridge also Ridgw blends. I should mention that I am a real novice… But adore good wine and food! Thanks. Also you talk about Burgundy and Bordeaux, is it possible to get good drinkable bottles for less than $30? Thanks again.

    Paddy Peters

    • Richard Jennings says:

      Paddy,
      Thank you so much for you comment.
      Here are some great value Riojas available in the Bay Area:
      2005 Viña Herminia Reserva Rioja – $20 at K&L
      2008 Miguel Merino “Viñas Jovenes” Crianza Rioja – $20 at K&L
      2008 Dinastia Vivanco Crianza Rioja – $17 at K&L
      2007 Martinez Lacuesta Crianza Rioja – $15 at Spanish Table
      2008 CUNE Crianza – $14 at Spanish Table
      2010 Señorío de P.Peciña Joven Rioja – $11 at Beltramo’s

      Did you mean Rhone blends instead of Ridgw blends? Just asking.
      Burgundy and Bordeaux for $30 or less is a real art. I should write a post or two on that. I welcome thoughts from other readers. My best advice is to develop a relationship with a neighborhood wine store and get them to recommend their best Bordeaux or Burgundy at that level. I can recommend some that I’ve rated 88 points or so at that level. The Riojas above, however, are all 90 points and higher for $20 or less.

      Happy drinking,
      Richard

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