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Columns – Paul Lukacs

Our Varietal Obsession
Paul Lukacs
Feb 9, 2021

Wine drinkers have become obsessed with grape varieties. Most consumers identify and ultimately select wines primarily on the basis of varietal identity. And while the world is awash in literally thousands of different varieties, only a small handful produce consistently first-rate wines in an array of different locales. Sometimes irresponsibly derided as 'international,' these are the world's top varieties, the grapes that make a disproportionately large number of the world's finest wines. Perhaps surprisingly, the preoccupation with grape varieties is a relatively recent phenomenon. Before the 1960s, even the most devoted connoisseurs paid little attention to the type of grapes that went into the wines they loved.

Varietal Madness Today
Paul Lukacs
May 26, 2020

Varietal identification--the classification of wines by grape--has been one of the most important developments in the world of wine over the past half-century. It has had definite benefits. But it also has brought problems, and it seems clear that the problems today outweigh the advantages of yesterday. For both producers and consumers, an obsessive attention to grape varieties has become a sort of madness.

Where the Values Are
Paul Lukacs
Apr 7, 2020

Value in wine is a two-headed coin. One is economic, the other aesthetic. Each depicts something different, and each sometimes seems to be at odds with the other. Economic value is set by the marketplace. A wine is worth whatever people will pay for it, as the example of first growth Bordeaux amply illustrates these days. By contrast, aesthetic value is determined by taste--individual taste to be sure, but more to the point, collective taste, what wine drinkers as a whole understand defines quality.

Memorableness: The Key to Wine Quality
Paul Lukacs
Feb 18, 2020

Very few commercial wines are flawed anymore. As a result, wine has become more popular with more people in more places than ever before. And since plenty of other drinks contain alcohol, its attraction has to come from its taste. You might think that this would be cause for celebration. But according to a host of commentators, it's not. Perhaps because so few of us understand how bad the bad old days really were, many wine writers, winemakers, and consumers are not satisfied. They insist that the world of wine remains divided-not between the spoiled and the sound, but between the boring and the distinctive. The argument pitting the boring against the distinctive is, however, as full of holes as an old, moth-infested blanket.

Cognacs for the Holidays
Paul Lukacs
Dec 24, 2019

Long regarded as the world's finest brandy, Cognac can be an ideal holiday delicacy. Though often thought of as a restaurant or club beverage, it seems right at home, when at home, this time of year. Whether a gift for someone special, a treat for guests, or even a present for one's self, fine Cognac offers something special in a special season. Cognac does have something of a split personality. On the one hand, it's a spirit--heady and strong, a drink akin to whiskey or rum. On the other, it's made from wine, and like any wine bespeaks its geographic origin or 'terroir.' The brandies that do that most evocatively are the most special.

Wine's Homogenization: A Brief History
Paul Lukacs
Oct 22, 2019

Wine today is radically different from wine in the past. Not just the distant past, the wines that the Greeks or Romans or even Shakespeare's Falstaff drank, but also the relatively recent past--wines that were drunk, cellared, and admired well into the middle of the 20th Century. Many commentators have identified the influence of science and technology in vineyards and wineries as the chief catalyst of change. Equally significant, though, are shifts in consumption--who drinks wine, and when and why they do so. Put simply, we, the consumers of the new millennium, have changed wine in fundamental ways.

Viognier and Condrieu -- Again
Paul Lukacs
Jun 18, 2019

On vacation in southern France a few weeks ago, I rediscovered Viognier--or more specifically, Condrieu, the grape's ancestral home. Our group of five was having dinner at a somewhat pretentious restaurant with a wine list filled with predictable choices. But hidden among the white Châteauneufs, Côtes-du-Rhônes, and Provencal rosés was Yves Cuilleron's 2016 'Les Chaillets' Condrieu. We ordered a bottle, and with the first sip I immediately recalled why I once had been so excited by this grape and appellation. The wine was everything I could want. It tasted complete, complex, and wonderfully compelling.

Wines to Savor in Spring
Paul Lukacs
Apr 23, 2019

Spring, wrote Shakespeare, 'hath put a spirit of youth in everything.' When young, we dress, exercise, work, and play unlike we do later in life. So too, in spring we think, feel, and sometimes even behave differently than we might the rest of the year. Life suddenly seems fresh and bright, the world ever new and alive. Even the most ardent wine lover has to admit that wine plays a quite small part in this season's delicious enchantment. But it does play a role. Come spring, we tend to appreciate a different sort of wine than we do in fall or winter. Rather than complexity and seriousness, we value freshness and vivacity, brightness and vitality. No matter their color, we especially admire wines whose exuberance echoes that of the season itself.

Cutting Through the Mysteries of Wine Fashion
Paul Lukacs
Feb 26, 2019

Wine is like fashion. Different styles and types become trendy or hot while others fall from favor, all for no apparent reason. At least with clothing, designers bear some responsibility. While few of us wear their actual creations, we do don knock-offs or inspired designs. But with wine, no one dictates consumer preferences. Why people like (and buy) what they do is a confused and confusing mystery. This is not to say that all sorts of people don't try to take credit for changing consumer tastes. Consider sommeliers, who used to be rare birds but now can be sighted at even quite modest restaurants. They have the advantage of a captive audience, and while they may not always be knowledgeable about wine in general, they know, or should know, the wines on their lists.

A Great Wine?
Paul Lukacs
Nov 6, 2018

I was fortunate enough recently to sample a new super-premium wine from Spain's Ribera del Duero. It's called Pinea, the vintage is 2014, and it retails for $150. I venture to say that any red wine lover will consider it delicious. Packed full of sweet, succulent red and black fruit flavors enhanced by echoes of creamy chocolate and vanilla (from expensive French oak aging), with enough tannin for structure but not so much as to get in the way of drinking pleasure, it exhibits plenty of class and sophistication. I rated it at 94 points. And yet . . . I came away from the experience with the nagging suspicion that something was missing. I couldn't tell if that something was in the wine or in me, and my musings here are the result of my pondering just that.

Ten Wines that Changed the World
Paul Lukacs
Jul 17, 2018

It is a truism bordering on cliché to observe that wine the world over is better than it's ever been. Greater variety coupled with improved quality has made the early twenty-first century a true golden age for wine lovers. Compared to the global scene 50 years ago, when select French wines remained unrivaled as both examples and definitions of excellence, the changes have been revolutionary. Many factors account for them. Some involve production, new approaches to grape growing and winemaking. But others involve consumption. New audiences have embraced wine in new ways. In turn, those audiences have been influenced by new tastes, many of which came to widespread attention because of the success of specific wines. Those specific wines were not necessarily the best ones. Their significance came less from inherent quality and more from the effect they had on consumer perceptions and attitudes. In short, they made wine in general more inclusive than ever before.

A New Wine Paradigm?
Paul Lukacs
May 29, 2018

As someone who studies and writes about wine's history, I've been thinking lately that we just might be in the midst of a paradigm shift, with long-held assumptions concerning how to produce, consume, and value wine being challenged and replaced. I should emphasize the word 'may' because the last significant such shift came 250 years ago. Back then, the advent of glass bottles and cork stoppers revolutionized production just as the rise of a new social class with money to spend did so for consumption. Wines, or at least some wines, became collectible objects of desire, not just vehicles with which to relieve thirst or escape troubles. Current changes certainly may be much less significant. Nonetheless, it seems clear that something important is happening. The ways in which many people think and talk about wine today suggest that they are operating within a new and different conceptual framework than were generations past.

Climate Change Means Wine Change
Paul Lukacs
Feb 20, 2018

Last year was a worldwide wine calamity. From wildfires in Chile, South Africa, Portugal, and Spain, not to mention California, to vicious spring frosts followed by searing summer heat in both France and Italy, virtually every wine producing country suffered some sort of tragedy. Things were so bad that the award-winning English wine writer, Andrew Jefford, calls 2017 'one of the most disaster-strewn years since phylloxera.'

Looking Back
Paul Lukacs
Jan 2, 2018

This year marks my 25th of writing professionally about wine--the quality of specific bottles in columns and reviews, as well as wine's historical place and cultural role in articles and books. Plenty of people have been doing this for just as long, but the dawn of the New Year strikes me as a propitious time for me to look back and assess how things have changed. For better or worse, how does today's world of wine compare to that of 1993? Here, in no particular order, are what seem to me the five most important developments.

Two New Paradigms
Paul Lukacs
Oct 17, 2017

The contemporary wine world largely defines quality in terms of varietal typicity, the ability of a wine to taste of the grape or grapes with which it was made. For all the talk of terroir these days, we--consumers, critics, and winemakers alike--tend to focus first on grape varieties. But who decides what exactly a certain variety should taste like? What are the models or paradigms that we should use to assess typicity and hence quality?

The Folly of Winespeak
Paul Lukacs
Sep 5, 2017

What's the deal with the way critics talk about wine? Otherwise sensible people become astonishingly fanciful when it comes to describing how wines taste. This is certainly true of me and my WRO colleagues, as well as scores of other writers, bloggers and commentators. In our attempt to make sense of what we taste, we employ extravagant imagery, referring to all sorts of fruits, vegetables, herbs and spices, as well as even more exotic ingredients including graphite, pipe tobacco, bacon fat, and horse manure, none of which are actually in any wine that anyone would want to drink.

Natural Wine: Really?
Paul Lukacs
Jul 18, 2017

There has been a lot of talk lately about 'natural wine.' What does that term mean? There's no official definition, but the following statement on the wine list at Dame, a restaurant in Portland, Oregon that features only natural wines, is as good a description as any I've seen. 'Every wine on this list,' it says, 'is grown organically or biodynamically, free of any chemicals in the vineyard . . . [it] is made without any additives except sulfur, which is naturally occurring in grapes . . . [it] is fermented with its own living, wild yeast . . . [and it] is made in small, or very small, amounts. It's difficult to find fault with any of that.' Well, actually it's not difficult at all.

Southern Burgundy: Where Chardonnay Doesn't Taste Like Chardonnay
Paul Lukacs
Jun 6, 2017

With Chardonnay, internationalization brings positive benefits but also frequent disappointments. Is there anywhere in the world where vintners make wines with this grape that taste different and hence exciting and distinctive? The answer may surprise you, for it's right next door to the Côte d'Or. This is southern Burgundy, the Côte Chalonnaise and the Mâconnais, regions known not long ago for simple, somewhat rustic wines that no one thought were in the same class as the great growths to the north. Seemingly in a blink of a proverbial eye, all that has changed. Southern Burgundy today is full of energy and excitement. It's where you can find some of the most exciting Chardonnays anywhere, all at fairly reasonable prices.

Don't Pity Poor Pinot Blanc
Paul Lukacs
May 2, 2017

Poor Pinot Blanc. It belongs to a very famous wine family, but its sibling, the rich, noble Pinot Noir, gets most of the acclaim these days. Lush, lavish Gris has plenty of admirers too. Pinot Meunier may not make the society pages all that often, but it comes from Champagne, and consequently lives a luxurious life. Meanwhile, Blanc gets overlooked, if not forgotten altogether. Yet, just as Cinderella entranced her Prince at the ball, Pinot Blanc shines when given the opportunity to perform at the dinner table. A remarkably versatile white wine, it has the uncanny ability to pair well with a wide variety of foods. When you try a first-class rendition, odds are that you'll end up admiring, not pitying it.

Where the Values Are
Paul Lukacs
Mar 14, 2017

Along with my friend and Wine Review Online colleague, Michael Franz, I recently finished tasting some 2,400 wines in my capacity as a wine consultant for the Washington, D.C. based Clyde's restaurant group. Michael and I have been doing this for 17 years now (though we didn't taste as many wines in the early days), and nothing that I do gives me a clearer sense of the marketplace. What regions and varieties are outperforming others? Which are underperforming? Which producers have become complacent? Which have raised their game? And for the purpose of this column, what are the best values?

Forget Natural Wine
Paul Lukacs
Jan 31, 2017

Wine certainly is natural. That is, it doesn't need human intervention to exist. When the skins of ripe grapes (or for that matter, most non-citrus fruits) split open, yeasts in the air begin to convert the sugar in those grapes into alcohol and carbon dioxide. The juice then becomes wine. No one, however, drinks this wine. Instead, we drink wine that has been manipulated by human beings. We drink artifacts, products that have been crafted, meaning that they are in important ways artificial.

Vintage Champagne for the Holidays
Paul Lukacs
Dec 13, 2016

Celebrations call for Champagne. For centuries, this one wine has launched ships, enlivened parties, heralded peace treaties and sporting championships, shared special, romantic moments, and more. Champagne literally bubbles forth with festivity. For millions of people, it merits a splurge, particularly during the holidays. More bottles are sold this month than at any other time, with some retailers reporting that December sales surpass those made all the rest of the year. Oddly enough, this also is when stores offer deep discounts. It's when savvy consumers stock up.

Ports in Chilly Storms
Paul Lukacs
Nov 1, 2016

Port is the ideal cold weather wine. With the forecast here on the east coast calling for the first frost of the season this weekend, it's time to stock up. A glass of port can prove wonderfully warm and soothing. It will comfort body as well as soul, especially on those cold dark nights when, in the poet's words, 'winds roar hollowly, the owl hoots from the elder . . . [and] your heart cries to the loving-cup.'

The Myth of Aging
Paul Lukacs
Sep 20, 2016

Is aging potential a necessary aspect of a great wine? Not a good or pleasurable wine, but a truly great one? Certainly many wine professionals think so. I've asked this question of a number of them, including some fellow WRO columnists, and the overwhelming response has been that a wine's ability to improve in the bottle over time is part of what distinguishes it as great. No matter how one cares to measure what greatness means (with numerical points, for example, or hard-earned dollars) they contend that aging potential is a necessary component of vinous greatness. Well, I think they're wrong, and in fact are perpetuating a dangerous myth.

Thinking Taste
Paul Lukacs
Aug 9, 2016

I have a neighbor who will drink only red wine. White wines don't give him headaches or cause him digestive problems. He just doesn't like them. Or as he said to me once, 'they're not my taste.' I've been thinking about taste a lot lately--what we like and why. It's a tricky subject, with a long history of debate and disagreement. It's also a subject that won't go away. That's because we're constantly expressing our tastes through our judgments. And we judge all the time, with everything from the mundane to the profound. Coke or Pepsi, the Beatles or the Stones, Star Wars or Star Trek, Manet or Monet, even Clinton or Trump--which you choose, even if you refuse to choose, reflects who you are. That is, it reflects your taste. But where does your taste come from?

The Distinctive Dry Wines of Roussillon
Paul Lukacs
Jun 28, 2016

Roussillon is not Languedoc. The two regions are often bundled together-by tourist guides let alone wine writers-but they have very different cultures and histories, and produce very different wines. Languedoc is a horizontal rectangle on the map, and its wines are influenced by the two dominant wine cultures on its sides-the Rhône to the east and Bordeaux to the west. By contrast, Roussillon is more of a vertical amphitheater, and produces wines that owe little allegiance to anyplace else. Many of them are relatively new arrivals in the global marketplace, but the best taste deliciously distinctive.

Revisiting the Paris Tasting
Paul Lukacs
May 3, 2016

It was forty years ago this month that a group of French wine experts misidentified a set of California Cabernets and Chardonnays in a blind tasting as being from Bordeaux and Burgundy, and so ended up with collective egg on their faces. At the time, hardly anyone paid much attention. Since then, however, the event has become famous. Widely referred to today as 'The Judgment of Paris,' it has been the subject of both a book and a feature film, with both another movie and (believe it or not) a musical play now in the works. In France, it has been largely forgotten. But in the United States, it is repeatedly hailed as a Trump-ian triumph of 'America first.' Given this month's anniversary, the fanfare has become especially loud recently. Lost among the hubbub, however, is the story of what really happened--and what it both meant then and means today.

California Shame
Paul Lukacs
Feb 9, 2016

California can produce some of the finest wines in the world, but, sadly, fewer and fewer wines being made today achieve that goal. This is especially true when it comes to value. In fact, most Golden State wines priced under $20 a bottle taste woefully disappointing. Given the high quality of many imported wines in this price category, coupled with the evident potential of the state's vineyards, the perplexing question is…why?

Globalization and 'Terroir'
Paul Lukacs
Nov 10, 2015

For wine lovers, the most important aspect of globalization is not really economic or political. The market is awash in wine, including a great deal of very good wine, and while only the so-called one percent may be able to afford to buy Château Margaux, the rest of us have more choices from more places available to us than ever before. No, the more significant aspect is cultural--specifically, what a number of scholars have described as the worldwide homogenization of culture. Such homogenization is what the advocates of 'terroir' as wine's most distinctive feature or calling card are reacting against. They contend that a good wine should taste of its origin, meaning the place where the grapes were grown.

The Question of Quality: Idealists Versus Realists
Paul Lukacs
Sep 22, 2015

The difference between an idealist and a realist is neatly illustrated by the celebrated tiff between Robert Parker Jr. and Jancis Robinson back in 2005. These two well-known critics squared off over the quality of the 2003 Château Pavie from St.-Emilion in Bordeaux. For Parker, this wine was 'off-the-chart . . . a brilliant effort,' and merited a score of 96 points. It 'traverses the palate with extraordinary richness,' he wrote. 'The finish is tannic, but the wine's low acidity and higher than normal alcohol (13.5 percent) suggests that it will be approachable in 4-5 years.' Those were precisely the qualities to which Robinson objected. "Completely unappetizing overripe aromas,' she wrote: '[It tastes] porty sweet. Oh REALLY! Port is best from the Douro, not St.-Emilion.'

An Italian Snapshot
Paul Lukacs
Jul 28, 2015

VinoVip is an annual celebration of Italian wine hosted by the influential Italian wine magazine, Civiltá del bere. Held in the picturesque mountain resort of Cortina, surrounded by the majestic peaks and crags of the Dolomite Alps, it involves three days of tastings, seminars, talks, panels, and--did I mention--more tastings. This year's event, held a few weeks ago, featured fifty-five top producers, each of which showcased an array of different wines, providing the outside visitor with a snapshot of the contemporary Italian wine scene. Here is what the picture revealed--at least to me.

Thirty Years Old But Not Grown Up
Paul Lukacs
Jun 2, 2015

A drive lasting more than two hours in southern France last month took me across three administrative départements, the Gard, Hérault and Aude. The shimmering Mediterranean was occasionally visible to the left; hills and outcroppings from the ancient Massif Central rose and fell on my right, and for most of the 120-mile trip I saw vines growing on both sides of the superhighway. All were part of one wine region, and when delineated as such, one overarching appellation--the Languedoc. There were so many vines in so many different places that anyone would have to wonder what might connect them. The answer, I have since discovered, is nothing except for reams of bureaucratic forms and paper.

Pinot Blanc Can Be a Star
Paul Lukacs
Feb 24, 2015

It must be hard being Pinot Blanc. You come from a noble family, one of the most renowned in the world of wine, but you are regularly belittled as being dull and bland. Your big brother, Pinot Noir, is an international celebrity with legions of frenzied fans. But You? Sure, you're widely planted, but you're hardly ever the star. Instead, you usually end up playing a supporting role--to Riesling in Germany and Alsace, to Chardonnay in Burgundy (where you're such an outcast that you have to operate in disguise), and to your sister, Pinot Grigio, in Italy. As the British wine writer Oz Clarke quips, Pinot Blanc has a 'perennial personality problem.'

New Year's Wine Resolutions
Paul Lukacs
Dec 23, 2014

When it comes to saving money or loosing weight, New Year's resolutions can be a burden. That's why most get abandoned well before Groundhog Day. But when it comes to wine, resolutions are easy. After all, they're designed to enhance your pleasure, not tighten your belt. Here, then, are ten New Year's wine resolutions, suggestions of ways to make buying and drinking the world's most enjoyable beverage even more enjoyable in 2015.

America's Pinot Passion
Paul Lukacs
Sep 2, 2014

American Pinot Noir is hot. Bottles fly off store shelves, and restaurateurs can't keep the more popular labels in stock. To meet the demand, wineries are releasing new vintages ever earlier, often well before they're truly ready to drink, and charging ever-higher prices. No matter. The country's Pinot passion shows no signs of abating. Since few consumers cared all that much about domestic Pinot Noir until recently, America's current obsession with this particular varietal raises a number of questions. Most important, are the wines worth it? Is their quality high enough to justify the hype? But also, what does all the frenzy suggest about America as a wine culture? How and why did we become so Pinot crazed?