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The Elements of Quality

by Hank Rubin
From the pages of Epicurean

When I try to evaluate what composes quality in wine, most often I remember an anecdote that Fritz Hallgarten once told me of a monastery in France a century ago, where the cellar master checking his wines prior to bottling, discovered a wine that he thought wasn't quite right. He thought it had an illusive off-taste coming from the oak wood of the cask holding the wine but wasn't quite sure. So he called in the Friar, his superior, for help in determining the source of the foreign taste. They tasted and tasted. The Friar thought that it didn't come from wood but rather something metallic. They could not agree and so finally called the Father in charge of the Erbach monastery, but the Father felt the odd taste was not of wood or metal but rather came from leather. They tasted and re-tasted but could not come to agreement even though they tasted until the cask was empty. Then they opened the barrel, and in it they found a metal key tied to a piece of cherrywood with a leather thong.

Most of us, of course, do not have such sensitivity of palate and, of course, such acuteness is not necessary in order to enjoy wine. In fact, if you possessed a palate so delicate, so sensitive, you might not be able to enjoy the next sip of wine.

So what I am saying is that the elusive term "quality" and the elements that compose it are as much intellectual know-how as sensory acuteness.

Can you measure quality by the color? Wine, even the same wine, is not the same color all the time. It can start out a deep purple, go to garnet, then to a dull amber. As it ages even a great wine such as a Lafite or a Romanee-Conti can lose its color. And the depth of color varies from vintage to vintage. If the wine is very dark one judge might react by giving it a gold medal while the next judge could say that, "This is a monster that doesn't deserve any credit." White Burgundy and Chardonnay from different countries, for example, vary from almost colorless to rich golden depending upon many variables such as the degree of malolactic fermentation, clonal variation, exposure to oak, etc., and the different colored wines could be either excellent or mediocre in character. Will excellence come from the laws and regulations governing the area in which it is made? These may give a hint, but basically all that the regulations of a growing area guarantee is authenticity of origin and certain limitations on how the grapes are grown, but certainly don't guarantee quality.

Another factor used in judging is that we believe there is sort of a one-to-one relationship between the amount of wine produced (grape tonnage per acre) and the quality - that is, the greater the tonnage of grapes per acre the less the quality. Yet yields from the finest chateau vary from year to year, even between two very good vintages.

In the Commune of Listrac in Bordeaux, the yield at Chateau Becade, of which I was then co-proprietor, was one and a quarter tons per acre, but the wines weren't outstanding. After we fumigated the soil to kill the nematodes that had infected the vineyards, however, the yield more than doubled to three tons per acre and the wine was greatly superior. Today with advances in viticulture, such as clonal selection, better pruning methods, trellising, vine spacing, etc., both the yields of grapes and the wine produced have become much better. So while it's true that overproduction can dilute quality, yield is not the key determinant of quality in the bottle.

Perhaps it is a respectable grape variety used that is the key to fine wine. But hasn't every wine drinker had both wonderful and mediocre Cabernets and Chardonnays? It wasn't too many decades ago that Viognier or Syrah were thought to be such poor relations in the wine grape family that they were incapable of making fine wine by themselves; but we know better now.

Is it then the right growing area that we should be talking about? We've all tasted less than respectable wines from Napa or Pauillac. And anyone who tasted the 1965 Lafite cringed at a wine that should not have been released to the market.

Or is it the skill of the winemaker? It certainly is important. Upon retiring after thirty years at Beaulieu Winery, the wonderful winemaker Andre Tchelistcheff said that there were only two vintages of Pinot Noir of which he was really proud. Most winemakers will have vintages that they wish were better.

Well, maybe it is the question of being well-aged, that is, if we hold the wine properly and long enough, it will be magnificent. But aging itself has its defenders and detractors. I happen to like old wines, many don't. Ernest Gallo once said to me "Many friends in the Napa Valley send me their very best wine but hardly ever is there one that lasts well more than six months." The British love really old champagnes which make some people gag. I must confess that l have a love/hate relationship with old sparklers, liking one and hating the next.

Then there's the question of the oak used in aging. Robert Mondavi is enamored with the "Kiss of the oak" but the late August Sebastiani used to say, "If you want some oak, why don't you chew on a twig?" Some vintners will only use new barrels each year, others use older barrels. And each barrel offers a set of variables-the forest the oak came from, the variety of the oak, the age of the tree, whether the wood was split or sawed, how it was formed into staves. Add to that the length of time the new wine is left in the barrel, and whether or not it is left in contact with the yeast lees. Each choice makes a difference in how the wine will taste.

Another axiom: no great wine comes from irrigated vineyards. Yet you will get strong argument if you leave Chalone wines out of any list of California's fine wine. However, there would be no fine Chalone bottles on retailer shelves if the vintners had not trucked water to that vineyard high atop the Gavilan Mountains near Soledad. It's not where their water came from that makes the difference but their innovative drip irrigation system.

Assessing quality is something like asking, "What is a good doctor?" As a layman I want different characteristics from a neuro-surgeon than I do from my internist, or that I would want from a psychiatrist. Similarly there are different things we seek in different wines. So first of all we want an appropriate wine for the occasion whether cooking or eating. For instance, if you take a vintaged Moet & Chandon or some other fine champagne to a large party where most guests are not paying much attention to what they are drinking, it would be a waste of good wine. And it is even less important what you put into a champagne punch which could have as easily been made with gingerale and vodka as with champagne. To use a magnificent very old claret for cooking a culinary masterpiece would be insulting both the wine and the dish because all the character inherent in the bottle would be lost; the subtle taste of the wine's flavors would break down under the heat. You might even end up with an inedible dish. For cooking you need a much younger sort of wine.

Here I've been trying to define the intrinsic elements of quality. Instead I've done a good job of saying what, by themselves, they are not. Each is a building block that if properly balanced gives us the impression of quality.

I have been fortunate in my four decades of wine life to have been able to taste a lot of great and wonderful wines. Many wine experiences. These have included wines of the last century, including wines of the great classified growths. Of all of these, the one that I remember most vividly, perhaps my greatest wine experience, was a lowly California wine, an Angelica, which is held in such low esteem that it is practically not produced anymore.

That bottle of Angelica, from the Isaiah Hellman cellar, was made in the 1890s and bottled in 1904. Although l tasted it thirty years ago I can still remember the way it rolled on my tongue with a sensation similar to the way that the surface of a mixture of oil and water is complex and changing. There were layers and layers of flavors. As I let it rest on my tongue and swished it m my mouth I thought I had already extracted all the sensations but when it reached the back of my mouth there were still different feels. Even when the first tastes were gone, the sensations still lingered. With the second sip it became even better. This is one of the most important elements in quality, that the wine has enough guts to be able to last through the whole tasting, and linger beyond that. Such a wine has enough stuff to lift the palate. It has layers of flavors and complexity, which means that it is well balanced - neither too sweet nor too dry, too acid or flabby.

There are not only variations in wines; tasters change as well. Over the years our standard of expectation changes, often so gradually that we are unaware of the variance. Certainly the degree of defects such as the quantity of acetic acid or sulfur residues that were allowed and expected in the nineteenth century are intolerable today. More recently, our improved technology has led to wines that make most of the white wines we accepted as fine only thirty or forty years ago, seem pedestrian by today's standards, and just as certainly two or three decades from now the current standards of quality will be challenged .

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