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The Illusion of Knowledge
By Michael Apstein
Jun 4, 2013
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Everyone buying and selling wine--wineries, wholesalers, retailers and consumers--does it.  We wine writers also fall into the trap.  We carefully note the blend of grapes in a particular wine and what oak treatment the winemaker has chosen, as though that gives us valuable information about the wine.  It’s a form of shorthand, much like a number on the 100-point scale, that’s supposed to impart knowledge. 

In the broadest sense, maybe the basic indication of grape variety or the varietal composition of a blend does impart something that is telling.  After all, a wine made entirely from Pinot Noir should be, and should taste, different from one made from Syrah--although these days that’s not always the case with winemakers’ proclivity for super ripe grapes and intense extraction.  And wine made from Cabernet Sauvignon should have the firm structure and flavor profile that the grape provides whereas most wines made from Merlot are more approachable and less structured.  An un-oaked Chardonnay should have a fundamentally different profile from one that has been fermented and aged in oak barrels. 

However, it is far too easy to allow a fixation on varietal character and composition to eclipse other factors that can be even more important in determining how a particular wine actually strikes our senses.

Does it really matter if Cabernet Sauvignon comprises two-thirds versus one-third of the blend, let alone 45 versus 48 percent?  The Bordeaux estate managers can tell you down to the tenth of an acre how much Cabernet or Merlot they have planted--but rarely know off the top of their head the blend of any particular year because, to them, it really doesn’t matter.  That’s because, for the French, it’s all about terroir:  In all wine of real importance, it is the land is speaking, whereas the grapes are merely the vehicle for transmitting the taste of the land to the wine.  Indeed, Kees van Leeuwen, a professor of viticulture at Bordeaux University and consultant to Château Cheval Blanc, told me that he sometimes confuses a batch of their wine made with Cabernet Franc with a batch made from Merlot, but he is always certain which vineyard parcel the grapes came from. 

But even if you don’t subscribe to the French concept of terroir, the actual performance of wines almost never boils down to simple varietal composition.  Knowing the precise blend just doesn’t tell the whole story.  To get closer to knowing what will actually emerge from your glass, you’d also do well to know how old were the vines from which the wine was made.  Old vines produce less, but more flavorful, fruit than young vines.  Since the definition varies--what’s “old” in California is sometimes “young” by French standards--even that moniker may not shed light on the subject. 

What’s the yield, not just measured in tons per acre, but what did each vine produce?  When were the grapes picked?  Earlier harvest to capture freshness and acidity or later harvest to capture maximum ripeness and intensity?  How much sorting was done--by hand or by an optical sorting machine--before the grapes even made it to the press?  And even if you knew the answers to these questions, those details only scratch the surface of what components in the vineyard determine the style and taste of the wine.  With all these variables--and there are more--how much does the blend actually matter?

If the variables in the vineyard can make your head spin, just wait until the grapes get into the winery.  The technical data on a wine, found on a producer’s website, might indicate that its oak treatment involved “ageing in 45 percent new oak.”  However, that information doesn’t close the issue of how oak influenced the actual character of the wine.  On the contrary, it merely opens a whole series of secondary questions:  Who was the cooper?  From what country and what forest was the wood sourced?  How deeply was the oak toasted during the coopering process?  How long was the wine kept in the barrels--four months or 14 months?  Moreover, what was the treatment to which the other 55 percent of the wine was subjected?  Was it aged in cement tanks or stainless steel tanks?  Did it undergo malolactic fermentation to convert the harsher malic acid to the softer lactic acid, or not? 

I could go on and on, but you get the idea.  When tasting over the years in the cellars of Maison Louis Jadot, a top Burgundy producer, the first question winemaker Jacques Lardière would ask was, “what age barrel should we taste from?”  It’s obvious that the wine from a one-year old barrel will taste entirely different from same wine that’s been aging in a two-year old barrel.  Less obvious is the reality that the same wine aging in two barrels of the same age and the same type of oak but made by different coopers will taste dramatically different. 

Ludovic David, the new winemaker and estate manager for Château Marquis de Terme in Margaux, told me they purchase oak barrels from more than 15 different coopers, toasted in a variety of ways that provide them with up to 25 different kinds of barrels for aging the wine.  And we think we know something about a wine when the technical sheet says, aged in New French oak for 12 months?

The simple statistics regarding a wines composition or vinification may not only fail to tell the story about the wine--they may actually prove misleading. Based on my tasting, for example, the 2010 Smith Madrone Chardonnay was a restrained, balanced and stylish Napa Valley Chardonnay.  But you would have predicted otherwise judging from the fragments of information on the accompanying tasting sheet.  Entirely barrel fermented and aged in French oak for eight months and weighing in at a stated 14.5 percent alcohol, you’d expect it to be on the voluptuous, buttery end of the California Chardonnay spectrum.  In this instance, the equivalent of the nightly news fifteen-second sound bite gave the wrong impression.

So why do we grab for these snippets of knowledge, especially since they tell only a tiny fraction of the story and sometimes they can be misleading. 

I’m not sure. 

We never ask chefs what precisely goes into their stocks--how much celery or carrots or what proportion of meat to bones.  Making a stock is analogous to making wine--there are many variables to describe.

Maybe our curiosity about basic stats flows from a general discomfort experienced by most people, who can be intimidated about the challenges involved in assessing wine.  Wine comes burdened with a preconceived image that makes passing judgment potentially embarrassing.  Ask anyone about a movie or restaurant and you will get a prompt opinion without hemming and hawing.  But give the same person an unknown glass of wine and ask for an opinion--it’s a deer in the headlights scenario.  People are afraid of not liking an expensive wine or one that’s been anointed 98 points or maybe worse, liking an inexpensive, down-market one.

Maybe it’s our desire to add objectivity to something, such as taste, that is hard to describe or quantify.  That would explain why the 100-point scale is so popular. 

Howie, a friend of mine, explained it succinctly recently with an anecdote.  Initially when he brought wines into work for his employees to taste, they were reluctant to say even if they liked them, saying something like, “I don’t know anything about wine.”  But after a few weeks of regular tastings, all of them were offering opinions without knowing anything about the blend or the oak treatment. 

Instead of looking at the technical sheets, maybe we should just be tasting.

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Email me your thoughts at Michael.apstein1@gmail.com or tweet them to me @MichaelApstein