In a post on his blog, New York Times wine critic Eric Asimov says: “…too many American pinot noirs are simply too big, not so much in alcohol but in body and sweetness“.
Along with others, I have said that the trend of increasing ripeness in California wine has become a runaway train. But it’s not just ripeness and sweetness that are of issue to Asimov (and those of like mind). These wines go beyond rich, corpulent, full-bodied or bold. Some of these pinots are grotesque monstrosities. This is no coincidence or a product of the climate. It is a conscious and deliberate decision on the part of producers. Besides farming practices and harvesting decisions, cellar practices are employed by winemakers seeking to appeal to (or appease) the mainstream preferences.
The fairly common practice of “Hermitaging” wines (adding Syrah to Bordeaux or Burgundy wines) has been the savior of many a tough vintage in France, but I believe that in California, it is hardly ever needed. Still, it is quite common. This is “beefing up” of wines is not necessarily a practice unique to France and is not limited to the use of syrah – as the recent Brunello scandal demonstrates. California labeling laws allows for blending in other varieties so long as they do not exceed 25% of the wine. The official presumption here is that anything more would obscure the character of the variety on the label. But hermitaging is more than a philosophical taboo to pinot purists and (as Oregon pinot noir winemaker, Jerry D. Murray points out) blending in of other varieties does obscure the character of pinot noir and its terroir. I agree. It’s adulterating of the wine.
An ex-girlfriend of mine used to say that pets are like their owners. Could it also be said, then, that wines are like the people who produce or consume them? Do the things we make and consume define us? If wines are like the people who make and drink them, does the nature of California pinot noir reflect some sort of a gluttonous, “pack-in-as-much-as-you-can” mentality on the part of the consumers?
There is an uncanny parallel between rising obesity rates in the U.S. and the rise of “monster” wines. Smorgasbords may be a yellowed memory of the ’70s and ’80s, but it is undeniable that in our society, “bigger, faster, more” has become synonymous with quality and value. Our consumption has accelerated not only in terms of quantity but also in terms of density of content. American consumers seem to want more french fries per serving, more meat in their sub sandwiches and more “flavor” in their wines. “Extreme” is now king.
I don’t think that in the ever-maddening pursuit of bigger, more “extreme” anything (wine included) we’re trying to feed the child within us or fill some need or void. Well, we can blame others who, like attentive stewards, served our needs and catered to our egos, gave us what we asked for and validated our choices and opinions. But maybe it’s more realistic that, in the process, “a little got more ‘n more”.
We now want wines with “more and bolder taste”. There are only five flavors we are capable of tasting – even these “monster” wines. There is, however, mouthfeel which can be made bigger and denser through hermitaging. But it is the aromatics that give us the perception of flavor. So maybe in seeking more “flavor”, we just forgot to stop and smell our wine.
The sense of smell is linked very strongly to memory and emotion. Maybe if we take the time to smell the wine, we have a chance of recalling how it once was. Some time ago…
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