Wednesday, January 29, 2014

GAAAAA! Too much flavor

Now this is wonderfully counter-intuitive, as the smart people say. A few weeks ago I tasted a Barolo, famed, seductive &c., which seemed to me thin and uninteresting compared to a California merlot from the evening before. And then it happened, as I surfed about the Internet educating myself about wine, that I came across not one but two articles by respected and knowledgeable oenophiles announcing that, indeed, the current market-driven (alarm bells here) explosion of "big," rich flavors in wines is something to be deplored. No less a person than Eric Asimov of The Pour said as much in reference to pinot noir in particular; another favorite blogger, Arthur Przebinda of redwinebuzz and now Sooth, said the same of all California wine.

I was puzzled, and said so frankly in a comment to Sooth which I felt was rather pithy. Why should flavorful (mostly American) wines be considered poorer than thin, sourish (European) ones? Could it possibly be that ordinary consumers like flavor, and true oenophiles are horrified at the plebs' imposing their tastes on the market? I suggested that perhaps centuries from now, historians will simply note that vitis vinifera made very good wines in the Old World, but excellent wines in the New.

Arthur replied that "big" wines heavy in fruit, and alcohol, lack finesse and delicacy, and that since the human tongue can only taste four flavors -- sweet, salt, sour, and bitter -- any increase in "flavor" is bound to be just an increase in sweetness, which is not the same thing as flavor. I'm still a bit puzzled by this. If we can taste sweetness as a flavor, then why isn't sweetness flavor? By the same token, if "sour" is a flavor, then why aren't all those elegant, thin European pinot noirs, full of promising, age-worthy acidity, also dismissed as too flavorful?

I turned from the blogosphere to people I know, whose opinions seem to me worth cultivating. One colleague simply shrugged and said yes, California wines have their own style. He also said there are a lot of amateurs out there who think reading Wine Spectator for two or three years qualifies them to judge the grape. Two others, however, agreed instantly with the idea that modern wines are overdone. One happened to be pouring out a California cabernet which he said reminded him of the "cabs of the early '80s -- it's not such a fruit bomb." I tried it and thought it seemed a little thin. And another simply glanced over the Sooth article that I had printed out and said, "Oh yeah, I agree. It's happening all over." Later in the week, a third wholesaler came in, agreed briefly with "what they've done to pinots -- it's disgusting" and then poured out for us a new California pinot noir which he said was "awesome." I tried it. Oh dear -- it was delicious. Full of flavor.

So I have had to think about all this and try to understand in what sense too much tastiness could be bad. Wine writers, after all, seem to be so often concerned with lost traditions, forgotten grapes, legendary vintages, local peculiarities in this village or that, which have been superb for so long, but are on the point of toppling off a historical cliff into oblivion right now if they are not deliberately maintained, and competing ideas or habits fended off. I wonder if our ancestors said the same thing about the glories of wine carried in goatskins, or mixed with warm sea water?

The only comparison I can think of, to help me recognize that the experts may be correct in misliking flavorful wines, lies in the field of art. I love the paintings of Titian, but I would not want Titian's to be the only art there is. We must have Van Dyck's portraits, and Matisse, and the whole world of Chinese porcelain as well. The same is true of literature and music -- we don't want a whole world full of only romance novels and rock and roll, either. And then I think of the nice people who come into our store. Very often, they buy sweet red dessert wines, the sweeter the better. Even my jaw drops when, occasionally, they wince at these and say "that's kind of tart for me." Yes, these people are driving our little corner of the market to satisfy their own tastes. We stock more and more dessert wines each month. Alarm bells ring. I would not want the whole world to be full only of the wines they like.

Oh dear. The road to wine snobbery is not even a road. It's the deck of an aircraft carrier, and you're launched almost before you know it.

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