by Putnam Weekley

Part I: Jargon Busting
* Phenolic Ripeness
* Reduction
Part II: Canada Has Dugat-Py, But I'm Staying in Detroit!

 

Phenolic Ripeness

Phenolic ripeness is a function of time on the vine. While some tasters include the phrase in their notes, many instead make references to "ripe" or "soft" or "sweet" tannins. Notes about dark color, always as a compliment, are also a testimonial to phenolic ripeness. Color in red wine comes from phenols.

The word "phenolic" entered the general wine vocabulary with gathering medical evidence that wine is healthy because of the presence of phenols. I'm sure no one asked if there is a health difference to be made between ripe and un-ripe phenolics, but there is certainly a difference in quality and taste.

Red wines that do not possess phenolic ripeness are typified by astringent flavors of green wood, seeds and stems. Red wines that do possess phenolic ripeness may be quite tannic, but the tannins are more comparable to fruit skins, nuts and good black teas.

Why aren't all grapes harvested at optimum phenolic ripeness? Because phenolic ripeness sometimes - especially under hot conditions - is at odds with physiological ripeness. "Physiological ripeness" is a horribly opaque term for how sweet a grape is. Physiologically ripe fruit is, by definition, as sweet as it can be while still possessing acid levels appropriate for the requirements of taste and preservation.

And while phenolic ripeness is a function primarily of time spent on a vine, optimum sugar is a function of total heat over time. So natural competition between phenolic and physiological ripeness can explain why all the best vineyards of the world are crowded around a narrow climate band. The idea is to find places where there is enough heat to ripen sugars, but not so much that it happens before tannins become ripe.
 
Brazil, for example, has no problem growing sweet grapes. Unfortunately for the would-be stay-at-home Brazilian "Robert Foley", this happens long before tannins have a chance to evolve from a green, vegetative state. And if Brazilian wine growers wait for optimum phenolic ripeness, the sugar in the fruit will have already begun to rot.

Many wines from Australia, California's central valley and, to a more mixed degree, wines from many of the celebrated AVAs along California's coast are both over-ripe and under-ripe: sweet, jammy, pruny, alcoholic and permeated with flavors of green seeds and stems.

This tradeoff has become an important point of debate among producers in ever warmer wine producing regions. Is it better to pursue ripe tannins or ripe sugars? The answer would seem to be ripe tannins. Technology can help restore sugar balance but nothing can be done to remove the flavor of unripe tannin. In the hottest wine growing climates, savvy producers rely on chemistry and engineering to settle the dilemma.

Low acid in grape juice that is too physiologically ripe can be "adjusted" (by adding more acid.) But artificial acid adjustments can taste phony and are a poor substitute for the real thing. Or, growers who pursue phenolic ripeness at the expense of reasonable sugar/acid ratios can restore balance by physically removing alcohol (the result of sugar) with centrifuges; or by adding water.

So what's the harm if it tastes good?

Wines that are "over" ripe are very popular. Turley Cellars has turned demand for phenolic ripeness into a prosperous mail order business. Hundreds of Italian wines, in particular those associated with oenologist Ricardo Cotarella and his Falesco winery in Umbria, have shown how very ripe tannins are a lucrative appeal in the modern marketplace - regardless of how "balance" must be restored in the cellar.

These wines are "showy" and "intense." But they don't age worth a damn. And I mean that both in the empirical sense - their lack of natural alcohol/acid balance is exacerbated by bottle age; as well as the impressionistic sense - full-bodied, alcoholic, "jammy", purple charm becomes exhausting if you drink such wines every day.

If you're not tired of Turley Cellars' Hayne Zin or Sportoletti's Villa Fidelia yet, you really are prudently spacing out your drinks.

What about Port? The best Port wines are phenomenally ripe in tannin and, even if they weren't naturally "too sweet," the addition of pure alcohol must surely untip any balance, no? How can the fantastic aging potential for Port be explained by this logic of natural sugar and acid balance?

It can't. Port is a mystery.

 

Reduction

The problem with reduction is that it just can't help but sound like a good thing. Mmm: "wine" - mmm: "reduction". But reduction in wine is really a bad thing. It needs to be banished. And to do this, it needs to be understood.

In a typical, randomly chosen tasting note, under "Unico 1986", temporary "reduction notes" are cited in a negative sense ("but they quickly disappear"). Yet what good is a tasting note that employs such opaque terminology? My guess is that it is being used as a euphemism.

On the Novy website, to use another example, the author refers to "reduction," sprinkles some pertinent facts about it into the discussion, and misses an opportunity to make it comprehensible. Oblique references to "a somewhat unpleasant smell" make me suspicious.

What is this smell and taste that cannot be named?

According to Harpers, reduction is the opposite of oxidation. Insufficient oxygen in wine can lead to excessive amounts of hydrogen sulfide, a naturally occurring chemical that is also detected in aromas of band aids, masking tape, cooked veggies, canned corn, rubber and matchsticks.

Some grape varieties are more "reductive" than others: Syrah is reductive; Pinot Noir and Grenache are oxidative.

Considering the entire set of $10-$20 New World reds, the prevalence of reductive DMS (dimethyl sulphide) - responsible for flavors of cooked veggies and canned corn - leads me to the conclusion that reduction is rampant in our land. But this ill must be properly named to be cured. Posting tasting notes with terms like "DMS" surely won't help the average reader more than those that cite "reduction".

In the most accurate sense, reduction and oxidation take place in wine all the time. They are, in themselves, value neutral. It is the excesses of oxidation and reduction that are cited by critics. The words themselves then assume the duty, aided by shadings of context, of denoting perceived flaws.

Our taster of Unico 1986 (Florian Miquel Hermann) might have clarified his impressions had he detailed which sulfurous quality he detected in it. Or he might have used the taboo word "sulfur" itself. But I think he was trying to show respect for the aristocratic brand he was palate-reading.

The climax of his argument appears later: "I hope the 1986 is not the signal for a change in style." "Reduction", in this case, is a malady of sophisticated wines. The Penfold's Bins 128 and 389 I've tasted over the years, on the other hand, merely tasted like "masking tape."
 

Drinking Dugat-Py With Chemists


I missed my publishing deadline for the sake of this last chapter. One week ago, while I should have been polishing up a diatribe against Pride Mountain Vineyards for these pages, I was drinking a Dugat-Py 2001 horizontal in Windsor, Ontario. This took place while gazing through a floor-to-ceiling window at the face of Detroit. Detroit was lit up orange and sunlight-yellow. The broad blue river reflected off the windowy buildings making for an image that was balanced, awe-inspiring and beckoning.

In front of me were open bottles of Dugat-Py 2001 Vosne Romanee, Dugat-Py 2001 Evocelles, Dugat-Py 2001 Premier Cru, Dugat-Py 2001 Lavaux St. Jacques and Rene Leclerc 2002 Groittes Chambertin.

There were four of us to share these wines. Anne was driving. Moderation be damned!

Dugat-Py 2001 Vosne Romanee tasted like briary Russian forests. Arresting aromas of purple berries, sap and pepper dominated. If this was the only wine we drank that night, we'd still be talking about it. Points.

Dugat-Py 2001 Evocelles was distinct. There was an entirely different chromatic theme to this wine - more saturated red and blue fruits. Anise characterized the aromas while the tannins maintained a tight, velvety grip on the finish. Many points.

Lavaux St-Jacques 1000 Points!I raced ahead to the Dugat-Py 2001 Lavaux St. Jacques and found the penultimate infanticidal pleasure of my short Burgundy-drinking career. Anne was dazzled by the decisive, very sweet truffle imprint in the young bouquet. Blueberries, blackberries, truffles and fresh cream characterized the mouth. It finished dry. It was fruits, cocoa and pie spices, yet it was directed at the midpoint between sweet and savory. Most points - 1000 points.

Now, after the Lavaux St. Jacques, for me to patiently examine the Dugat-Py 2001 Premier Cru would be to deny the mandate of my emerging wine id, so I seized the bottle of Rene Leclerc 2002 Groittes Chambertin and poured the night's only Grand Cru into my gigantic Burgundy glass. And I was transported to California for a moment. Sure, we had all braced for an alternative interpretation of Cru Burgundy, but this was like a whole 'nother appellation! Sweet, sticky flavors of red berries, almonds, mint and ginger emerged alternately. Symmetrical and gushing with fruit, after five greedy slurps it finally showed its durable acidity, its "breeding." 821 points.

By the time I got to the Dugat-Py 2001 Premier Cru I was drunk. I can hear the jeering from here. It was a fantastic wine, I'm sure of it. All the Dugats-Py were fierce, concentrated specimens, acidicly coiled with solar energy and commanding attention. Indeterminate number of points.

Our host and his company are chemists. They allowed me to expertify about wine, something I do automatically and surely, at times, inappropriately. That's just how I end pregnant silences. They discussed chemistry at one point, in a way that was incomprehensible to me. But I did comprehend their interest in these wines.

I know other chemists and they like wine too. My mother-in-law and stepfather-in-law are chemists and they have a big pile of full wine bottles. Chemists disproportionately like Burgundy too. As a self-regarded wine psychologist I think they are compensating.

Wine, especially Burgundy wine, is the great unsolved, seductive riddle for the chemist. See the Harpers discussion about reduction above. "More research, please."

Back in the USA, liters of water and hours later, the love of my life wanted her own glass of wine. As we looked upon the Ambassador Bridge from familiar quarters, we were pleased with the dim calm here. Neither of us wanted to migrate to the shiny glamour of Canada, even with all its Dugat-Py and glitzy scenery.

I poured Anne a Cantine Vietti 1999 Perbacco obtained for a modest price at our store; my id was asleep, so I poured a few ounces for my ego. To my shock and amazement, it assumed its role as follow-up to multi-hundred-dollar-per-bottle wines with class. Fragrant floral bouquet, touched with Evocelles-like anise existed in combination with weighty, roasted-nut fattiness on the palate. This is wine. This is the point.


Previously in Putnam's Monthly:
The Archaeology of a Tasting Note

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