Friday, January 24, 2014

What's wrong with this picture?

Nothing too much is wrong with it artistically, I hope. And nothing is wrong with buying a wine from Redwood Creek, another inexpensive grocery store selection -- and another pinot noir from Europe, sold through a California winery because California's pinot crop has struggled for the past several years. Or so I was told when working in Ye Olde Wine Shoppe. I begin to suspect that pinot is sourced from Europe because California can't produce enough of this fussy grape to meet demand, or because California winemakers are jolly decent enough to produce good cheap pinots even if it means buying the stuff wholesale from the "pays de l'Ile de Beaute." Incidentally Redwood Creek wines were first launched in 2002 as a secondary label of Frei Brothers, which is in turn owned by Gallo.

No, what's wrong with the picture is the mismatch between the varietal and the shape of the bottle. A tall, high "shouldered" bottle like this one is traditionally used for Bordeaux and Bordeaux type wines, cabernet sauvignons and merlots. These are wines, the best examples of which will need long aging, during which time they will throw sediment -- the last remains of yeast cells and other good unfiltered things settling out of the wine and collecting at the bottom or along the sides of the resting bottle. When the bottle is at last opened, those high shoulders will, provided the pourer uses a careful hand, catch most of the sediment before it sludges out into the decanter or glass.

The pinot noir grape, however, is not the grape of Bordeaux. It's the grape of red Burgundy and usually its wine comes in a slope-shouldered bottle, as do chardonnays, which are white Burgundies. (White Bordeaux, whose grapes are sauvignon blanc and semillon, also come in high-shouldered bottles, although white wines don't produce the sediment that great reds or vintage ports will. Tradition as well as practicality lies behind bottle shapes.) Pinot noir is the one red wine that does not throw sediment, because it lacks the thick skin and therefore the tannins and the anthocyans -- a Greek compound word literally deriving from "flower" and "blue" -- the natural coloring agents that tint a deep red wine deep red, and then precipitate out with time.

Although it may seem confusing at first, knowing these two basic bottle shapes and what they traditionally contain is a great help when shopping for wine, especially when you plan to give the wine as a gift. (It helps to be able to explain roughly what the wine will be like.) The high-shouldered bottle is a Bordeaux: think cabernet sauvignon, merlot, dark color, heavy tannin, and the great chateaux like Mouton and Latour, or a great sweet white like Sauternes. The slope shouldered bottle is a Burgundy: think pale, acidic pinot noir, or dry, rich chardonnay, and as an aide-memoire remember with this you are in eastern France, far from Bordeaux's Atlantic coast. There is only one other basic bottle shape to worry about, and that is the tall, tapered "hock" bottle, used for German rieslings.

Other wines from other countries packaged in these three bottle shapes will be packaged so because the wines share the characteristics exemplified in what we might call the mother shapes. According to Jancis Robinson in her Wine Course, this is why you will find tannic, powerful Barolos from Italy in bordeaux bottles, and softer, fruitier Riojas from Spain in Burgundy bottles. Australian, French, or California rieslings, sweet or dry, will stand in tall, long-necked hock bottles.

And this brings us back to our Redwood Creek, French-harvested, un-sedimented pinot noir in a high-shouldered, sediment catching Bordeaux bottle. Why?

My guess is that bottle shapes simply don't matter anymore for inexpensive wines meant to be drunk right away. I know that the Bordeaux shape packs, ships, and stores more efficiently than the fatter Burgundy shape. Will we someday then see merlots in hock bottles, and rieslings presented like a Montrachet (white Burgundy)? Or are the jolly decent people at Gallo just toying with our little heads?

See also: In which I buy a weird-shaped bottle

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