You occasionally hear reports of how many people can’t tell the difference between a red wine and a white wine when tasted blind, let alone one red or white wine from another. This is no reason to be complacent, for the simple reason that all wines are nothing but fermented grape juice, and many white wines are made from red grapes.
The fact is that wine experts make mistakes all the time about what they taste, including Harry Waugh, a legendary British connoisseur who, when asked when he last mistook a Bordeaux for a Burgundy, replied, “What time for lunch?” That’s one of the reasons American wine critic Robert Parker refused to ever taste wine blindly. The chance of making a mistake is huge.
Yet those who work intensely, sometimes for years, and often pass exams as often as potential attorneys to become an officially designated Master of Wine (there are only 418 in the world), have developed an exceptional ability to wine from another, one region from another, even one vintage from another. If you think that’s a worthwhile occupation – those who do go into the wine business – prepare to spend most of your free time and a good chunk of your money earning that prestigious title.
For the rest of us, distinguishing one wine from another is helpful in choosing which bottle to go with whatever you eat, or for having a little fun: once, when a sommelier challenged me to try a wine I played along to identify the one he was pouring (with the bottle way out of my sight). When he went to another part of the room, I called a busboy, gave him five dollars, and asked him to tell me what was on the wine label. When the sommelier returned, I closed in and muttered and muttered comments like, “It seems to be coming from a higher altitude, but definitely not California.” I shrugged and told the sommelier exactly what wine it was, including the vintage. His surprise was palpable.
Let’s agree here: wines taste different for two reasons. First, the wine grape itself, of which there are 10,000, and second, where the grapes are grown. There is no doubt that most people with even the slightest knowledge of wine can tell the difference between, say, a Chardonnay and a Gewürztraminer or a Riesling, as they have very different flavor profiles. So Cabernet Sauvignon also tastes very different from a Syrah or a Zinfandel.
The onion is cut thinner when it comes to distinguishing between a Chardonnay and a Pinot Blanc or a Cabernet Sauvignon and a Cabernet Franc. And it would be quite an achievement for most serious wine drinkers to bet their souls on the difference between a Barolo and a Barbaresco, both made in Italy’s Piedmont from the Nebbiolo grape. All these grapes belong to the so-called vinifera family; grapes such as the Native America labrusca variety taste very different.
Where the grapes are grown and how the wines are made will clearly give nuances to the variety, simply because the climate and soil, as well as the height, will influence the growth, ripeness and maturation of the grapes. A variety grown in very warm climates such as Sicily will produce a larger, more potent, tannic red wine with a higher alcohol content, as opposed to a wine grown in cool climates such as Bordeaux and Burgundy, where for centuries, process called chaptalization, wines from the south of Europe, even Morocco and Algeria, were added to enhance the taste and alcohol of the wines. Artificial irrigation is prohibited by law in much of Europe; in California it is not.
Much is made of the components of the soil, including limestone, gravel, sand, etc. Once in the Loire Valley, a producer of Sauvignon Blanc showed me a rich red plot which he left unplanted because, he explained: “There is too much iron in the soil. It would make my wines taste like they came from California.” On another occasion, in Burgundy, a producer had me taste the grapes from two adjacent plots in his vineyard. I was amazed to find that one had more natural sugar, while the other was bland. “These vineyards have been used for hundreds of years. cultivated,” he said, “but this plot, right next to the other, never produced good grapes.”
After these two basic principles, the sensitive question of how much winemakers manipulate their wines becomes crucial. Many vintners insist that they want nature to determine the outcome, with minimal vintner intervention other than keeping the vineyards healthy; some do not filter their wines to remove sediment. Others, largely New World wineries, are doing a lot to create the flavor profile they want and believe the market will too. Of course, varietal blending is a given in Bordeaux when it comes to Cabernet Sauvignon-dominant bottlings, and while that’s now more the rule than the exception in California, Napa Valley intentionally produced monstrous 100% Cabernet-Sauvignon tannic wines in the 1970s and 1980s. .
There are techniques, such as micro-oxygenation to pump up flavors and alcohol, and reverse osmosis to reduce alcohol, but aside from many white wines that are fermented and aged exclusively in temperature-controlled stainless steel tanks, many others spend some time in oak. , and that can make a huge difference in the taste of what comes out. Oak barrels have two functions: one, to allow the wines to settle and harmonize for months or years, and two, to give the real taste of the wood.
The place where the oak comes from also has its characteristics, with French and American being the most common. (When making spirits, the barrels are charred to create more burnt caramel flavors.) New oak has a fresher, greener, more intense wood flavor, while old barrels are widely used for better nuance. But the fact is that one wine from one barrel can taste different from another, even within the same winery in the same vintage, so it’s difficult, if not impossible, to say that the contents of a single bottle match the next bottle. in line, which renders all the overwrought hassle of wine tasting of mango, leather, cigar box and so on almost useless, not least because of the question of whether it is a good thing to taste one of those flavors in a wine.
Given these factors of climate, soil and manipulation, the distinction between a range of wines that are all made from the same grape becomes more a matter of personal taste. Chardonnay, for example, is a fairly neutral tasting grape in its own right, used in very different styles in many places, with the induced caramel-rich and woody flavors of American Chardonnays favored by the American market. French and Italian Chardonnays are generally more subtle and nuanced. So you can also discuss how you want your Pinot Noir to taste. Do you like the elegance – sometimes too subtle – of Burgundy, or the big bomb explosions of Sonoma Valley?
The answer to the questions why so many wines taste different and why not, is often a matter of consumer preference. And if you keep drinking California chardonnays because you love that taste, you may not even recognize a Côte d’Or wine as anything more than a regular white wine. And if you really like mango, leather and cigar box flavors in your wine, be my guest.
But point scoring, usually on a 100-point scale, is no different than judging all kinds of movies – dramas, melodramas, romances, horror movies, westerns, motorcycle movies – with the same standards and expectations. For example, consider that all professional wine tasters, whether in the media or industry, taste maybe 20 wines per clip – all on a given day, maybe Charbono or Zinfandel – each from a single bottle and always on release, with only minimal aging, which is the same would be like saying that a student who gets a 97 for his history essay is clearly smarter than someone who gets a 94.