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Snooth User: JenniferT

General or typical differences between "representative" or "varietally correct" wines (not blended or heavily disguised with oak, etc)?

Posted by JenniferT, Apr 21, 2013.

Hello:

A bit of a long question, I apologize. I'm trying to train my palate and learn blind tasting by assembling groups of 100% varietal wines that are (supposedly) true representative.

Right now I want to assemble a group of wines that will illustrate how to differentiate Argentine Malbec from Carmenere, and pick out similar wines. I don't even know which wines would be very similar - to tell the truth, I'm not too worried because it will be a nice confidence booster to not have a series of wines that all taste nearly the same...which is very humbling. Like most things about this process, but I digress. 

So far, here are my candidate grapes that would be useful to compare (as in, they are arguably similar): Malbec, Carmenere, Merlot, Nero d'Avola, Grenache, and Tempranillo. I am trying to avoid the more obscure grapes for now. I'd love have any feedback or suggestions on this list.

More importantly, I am pouring these wines to show how to differentiate them. So it would be nice to know what to look for. The kind of annoying thing is that i have spent HOURS pouring through so many references that provide lovely descriptions for wines made from these grapes....however these descriptions kind of seem VERY similar. And it has gotten to the point where I have no idea they are even supposed to be different (in general)!!

Here's what I have so far:

Merlot - maybe shows the brightest fruit, sometimes with cherry or mint, lightly to moderately tannic (more so than say, pinot noir or cab franc).

Carmenere - has the same intense purple ruby nose as Malbec, but is muddier, often smokey, and more lush. I also read that it is more likely to stain your glass when you swirl it (which presumably corresponds to the body of the wine).

Malbec - Very similar to Carmenere but is more like red flowers and can show tannin/woody oak.

Grenache - sweet berry, often spicy and jammy with the lowest tannin and highest alcohol.

Zinfandel - similar to Grenache but less alcohol?!

Tempranillo - likely to be fuller bodied than any of the others.

Nero d'Avola - all I have read is that it has soft tannin and plum/prune fruit. I don't even have a guess as to what characteristic or set of characteristics would typically differentiate this one.

 

SO.... I realize this is a HUGE question but I would love to get some feedback! I have amassed quite a bit of wine and consulted with a few different sommeliers to try to ensure they are good representatives of what they actually are (hope that makes sense). Now I just need to figure out the distinguishing characteristics to look for when I drink them.

THANKS!

 

Jennifer

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Replies

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Reply by Welkja, Apr 21, 2013.

This seems like an ambitious task. I don't know the expertise of the people you are having at the blind testing, but  I feel it would be better to start with same representative varieties from different regions to illustrate the influence of terroir on a grape varietal such as pinot noir from Burgundy, Oregon, Sonoma Coast, Carneros, Chile, etc. If anything, start with two representative varietals to show differences in a region , such as Syrah and Grenache in the Rhone region. It starts getting very complicated when too many varietals are introduced. This would show differences from the northern Rhone to southern Rhone.I hope this gives you some ideas. 

Welkja

 

 

 

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Reply by gregt, Apr 21, 2013.

Jennifert - I'm sorry but those are just terrible descriptions you have. Please get rid of them.

Next thing you need to remember is that what is "correct" regarding a certain variety has more to do with your preconceptions than with the variety in question. When is the last time you had a 12 pct Cab Sauv with no oak? So how do you compare that to a 14.5, ripe, tannic CS with eighteen months in barrel?

How many big, ripe, oaky Nebbiolos have you had? Or from various regions in Australia, Washiington, South Africa, Argentina, or California? So are those correct or is the Nebbiolo from Barbaresco the "correct" version?

What about Riesling?

Tempranillo is fuller-bodied than "any of the others"???  Other what? Cab Sauv? Merlot? Malbec? Really?

Where is it grown and how is it dealt with?

If you spoke to some somms and they told you that you have "varietally correct" wines, I'd say those somms are full of sh*t and I'd dismiss whatever little bit of knowledge they claimed to possess. 

You can have wines that typify regions and styles, but even that is really BS. You want Tempranillo? Well, you can find a forty year old Rioja Gran Reserva, you can find a young wine from Toro or Walla Walla in Washington, or a big, young, extracted wine from Rioja.

Which is "correct"?  

Answer - the one that corresponds to your prejudices and preconceptions.

And you can do that with Merlot, Pinot Noir, and lots of other grapes. 

There is NO "standard" which wines must compare to and consequently no "true representative" versions. Pinot Noir does not reach it's epitome in Burgundy. That region is only one place on the planet. It is completely different from spots in Clare Valley, Martinborough, and Sonoma.

Which of those would be the "correct" rendition? People might say that Burgundy is the correct version but those people are talking crap. What they are really saying is that they prefer one rendition to another.

My suggestion is to take your wines and show them as representative of a place. And DON'T worry about the character of the variety - that will vary based on where the wine is grown.

Zin is similar to Grenache but with less alcohol? The grapes aren't even close. And why would Zin have less alcohol than Grenache, which tends to grow in really hot climates? 

Not to disparage your plan - you want to learn and I really do support that. But don't think that there are correct versions of any grapes. There are only those versions with which we are familiar. California is huge. France is huge. Spain is huge. Italy is huge. There are huge differences in weather and climate in different parts of those places. 

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Reply by JenniferT, Apr 22, 2013.

Thanks for your answers. As I said I am still a beginner, and I am focused on learning blind tasting right now.

Last night, in particular, I learned that I have no understanding of grenache. I tasted an Old Vine Australian Grenache, and to me it was indistinguishable from Pinot Noir. I did however start to get a handle on how to differentiate the Carmenere from the Malbec (I thought the two were very similar).

Perhaps I used the wrong phrase when I used "correct" - by "correct" I really meant to imply a wine that is a true representative of what an average varietal wine would be, for a given grape, grown in a given region. I hope that makes things clearer. I am trying to establish reference points to learn blind tasting.

For example, if I want to learn what a wine made with "Grape Varietal X" in region "Y" tastes like - then I had better make sure I taste wines that are good examples of that. For example, if I choose an excellent wine "Z" that presents very different from most of the other wines made with "X" in "Y", that's great and all...but I don't feel it will help me develop my reference points to blind taste.

Blind tasting has correctness...the descriptions are subjective but in the courses students are required to deduce what grape variety and region the wines are. It is nearly impossible to pass without  getting the varietal and or region correct,  so these skills are what I am really working on developing right now.

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Reply by JenniferT, Apr 22, 2013.

Greg T- yes, "familiar" examples would have been a better term -  I think this is what I tried to get at.

And I know that this approach over-simplifies things, but I almost feel like I must take that approach - just to serve as a starting point. 

For example, I have no background info in any wine when it is tasted blindly. So when presented with a wine I must immediately compare it against a set of "typical" or "familiar" characteristics to enable me to make my best guess at what I might actually be drinking.

If I weren't solely focused on learning to taste blindly, I don't think I would take quite the same approach, but the blind tasting is really the goal right now.

Thanks!

Jennifer

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Reply by gregt, Apr 22, 2013.

OK.  Just re-read my post and it seems a little more strident than I meant it to be.

I get what you're trying to do. Too bad you're not in NYC because I'd just pour the wines for you and you could learn that way.

But let's take your example of Grenache. It's nothing like Pinot Noir in any version I've ever had.So here is a little suggestion for you. Get some friends and get a bottle of Tres Picos by Bodegas Borsao. It's around $10 a bottle. And get a bottle of Bodegas Alto Moncayo Veraton, which may be around $15. Those are both from Campo de Borja. Then get a bottle of  Las Rocas, which is around the same price. 

Now go to Australia and get a bottle of the Bitch Grenache and a bottle of Hewitson's Grenache or Turkey Flat or Marquis Phillips, and if you want to spend some money, a bottle of Clarendon Hills Grenache. You'll have three Australian versions.

Then from France, get a bottle of Pesquie, which isn't all Grenache but is a blend, and maybe a bottle of Giraud Chateauneuf Du Pape Premices, which is pricey, or Pierre Usseglio Mon Aieul, or Shatter Grenache, made in Roussilon by 2 Americans. The French versions from CdP are the "standards" and they're considerably more expensive than the others. 

Anyhow, there's a reason I picked those wines. Half of them are related by importer, producer, or winemaker. If you want, find a Banyuls or something from Maury and you'll have a completely different experience as those can be fortified and sweet.

Grenache will have a bit of a strawberry/raspberry note and can often have some pepper and spice. The problem is, the grape is usually blended. So in France, you won't find Grenache, you'll find something from Gigondas, Ventoux, Chateauneuf du Pape or whatever, and for the most part, they will be Grenache blends. 

There are many other wines you could get, but these eliminate some variables and you'll have had wine from Spain, France, and Australia and you'll get an idea of the grape.  You'll have to draw your own conclusions.

You can do the same with something like Chardonnay, which has very little personality of its own. So people do a lot to get some character in it - they let it rest on the lees, ferment and/or age in oak, etc. Get a white Beaujolais, something ubiquitous like Kendall Jackson Chardonnay, maybe something from Washington, and something from anywhere else. I'm drinking one right now as a matter of fact. It's a CA Chard with notes of melon and peach, but I could have found one completely different. Unlike Grenache or Riesling or Muscat, Chardonnay has basically no real personality of its own, so it's a blank slate that the winemaker fills in. The only way to get a bead on the character of that grape is to simply assume one model and compare all others to it, which is unfair. Wine "educators" however, very often do that. 

The big hurdle is to realize that most grapes are blended. I think it's a disservice to try to convince people to learn specific varieties because the character of a grape depends so much on where it's from. It's completely legit to learn Chenin Blanc from Sonoma say, but it's not fair to expect that to be as clearly identifiable as the same grape elsewhere. Muscat almost always smells like flowers, Riesling often but not always has a faint hint of kerosene, Sauv Blanc may smell like green peppers, grapefruit pith, or cat pee, but other grapes can trick you by mimicking those aromas. 

Regarding Tempranillo - I taste a few hundred a year and still mistake other grapes for that in blind tastings. So hopefully you'll be a better taster than I. But your notes are completely wrong. It can be full bodied, it can be much lighter. All depends on who's the winemaker, what the vintage was like, and where it's grown. 

Cab Sauv, Merlot, Malbec, Carmenere, Cab Franc, Sauv Blanc are all related and they share similar flavor profiles. All can have a big streak of bell pepper and seem bitter and green. I've often mistaken Merlot for Cab Franc. The people who say they can ID it all the time must not have had much Merlot.

Malbec was once the most widely planted grape in Bordeaux. It no longer is. Malbec from Cahors or the Loire is very different from Malbec from Mendoza. Camenere almost disappeared so it's really hard to compare it to anything in France. I had a Bordeaux this week that included Carmenere. The winemaker told me that he was the only one in the vicinity with any. 

Good luck.

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Reply by Richard Foxall, Apr 22, 2013.

I read GregT's posts with a combination of horror and fascination.  Horror because he knows so much and can be so intimidating whether he means to be or not, fascination because he knows so much.  Oh, yeah, also because he's a great dinner companion, so I find him fascinating in general.

I've said elsewhere that I believe there are three legs of the wine-making stool (with credit to JonDerry):  Typicity, which is what the grape lends to the wine--bell pepper notes in the offspring of sauv blanc and cab franc, for instance, or the "roses and tar" aromatics of nebbiolo, meaty and olive aromas and flavors from Syrah; terroir, which is what the growing environment, including soil, climate, and, I would add, vintage contribute; and winemaking techniques, which can be everything from when you pick to the yeasts you decide to let ferment to the cooperage you use to the temperatures in the cellar.  (Rootstock is probably not something the French would call "terroir," but maybe it falls in there.) Untangling these can be tricky, but it's one of the fun parts of running a tasting.  All the same vintage from one growing region but different soils?  Verticals of the same wine to show vintage variation?  Syrah from different parts of the world?  Napa Cabs at a variety of prices?  All of these can be educational. 

But don't ever say grenache and PN are alike.  GregT has a profound dislike of PN, and GdP adores it.  On the other hand, GdP has almost no interest in grenache, and GregT owns some really stunning bottles of grenache-based wine.  If they were alike, how could that be?  Unless, of course, both of them are just nuts.  Which is a real possibility.  Did I mention that they are great dinner companions?  Just never at the same time.

Anyway, what wine tastes like is absolutely dependent on your preconceptions.  Search the forums for "neurogastronomy" and get a few good books on wine and you'll see how it works.  But here's a personal example:  I just finished a bottle of Priorat that I read notes on first.  As a result, I was expecting some residual sugar.  Sure enough I found it.  My wife, who does not like sweet reds except port, had not read the notes.  She found none at all.  Also, your idea of what a grape should taste like will be formed by the first few examples of that grape.  I do think there is such a thing as a Pinot Noir profile, or GregT would not have anything to hate.  But the differences in PN can be enormous, and people will tell you that it finds its highest expression in Burgundian bottlings of PN, while I can't imagine what they mean, having had everything from tannic, woody, over-oaked wines that are almost unrecognizable to me as PN from Burgundy alongside thin, red-fruited, acidic-to-the-point-of-pickle-juice PN from Burgundy.  So what is PN, besides something that, if not overoaked--a winemaking choice, not a "varietally correct" absolute--is a bundle of floral and red fruit (mostly currants, but also raspberry and strawberry) aromas?  I think "varietally correct" is a somm's way of ramming his (or her) prejudices about wine down your throat, rather literally.  And those prejudices lead them to narrow their taste, rather than suggest wines that will please you. 

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Reply by EMark, Apr 23, 2013.

Jennifer, the previous two posts have given outstanding advice from two of the most prominent participants of this Forum.

Here is the two-cents worth that I want to add.  First, please do not be intimidated by the task you are trying to achieve.  Wine appreciation is enjoyable, but, more often than not, perceivable improvement is slower to develop than you may wish.  Second, don't be surprised if your findings do not match the predictions of Foxall or GregT or EMark (especially, EMark, who is shooting from the hip 99% of the time).  Very little in wine appreciation is objective--most of it is subjective.

I agree that blind tastings are a great learning experience, but, again, I encourage you to have fun with them--don't turn it into work.  One thing I have experienced in blind tastings that has been very revelatory (and humbling) is to have two samples of the same wine.  That has demoted me (and others) from pompous ass to giggling fool more than once.  In those cases, in all honesty, I learned more about myself than about wine.

Finally, please come back here to the Forum and keep us up to date on your experiences.

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Reply by JenniferT, Apr 23, 2013.
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Reply by JenniferT, Apr 23, 2013.

In response to your answers - there is lots of information and great suggestions here. It's going to take me time to explore the different aspects of your answers. (And I will). :)

So I will probably come back and post from time to time in response to specific points that you each raised. Super helpful - thanks so much, again.

Now I am home and away from work - we tend to be more limited to what we can buy in Canada compared to many of you in the US. Especially in this area of British Columbia. I actually drove a total of about 14-15 hours (conservatvely) from work just to get to a wine store in Edmonton before I flew out, lol. FYI - flying with 5 cases of wine and schlepping it through an airport in northern Canada isn't a lot of fun. :)

I digress, but thanks in particular for the multiple suggestions - I will buy whatever I can get in the stores here.

I have developed a cellar for this project - about 150 wines right now. I know I have some of the wines that  you mentioned - specifically the Las Rocas which I just came across when I was looking for another wine last night.

Thanks for your help on my wine learning adventure! I will keep you posted, and hopefully you won't die from boredom from the observations and questions from a beginner such as myself, lol! 

And, Greg - I would certainly come to New York to take you up on your offer if I could. :)

-J.

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Reply by JenniferT, Apr 23, 2013.

Oh, and EMark - I totally agree. Sometimes I become so focused on the end goal that I lose the sight of true learning and wine enjoyment. Ironically  that is exactly why I opened a totally different wine that it much more fringe or "nichey" than what would probably show up on an exam. A Falanghina from Italy. What a lovely wine, I even wrote my first review on it. It was nice to drink it for what it is, with no preconceptions and just make the observations. And enjoy. :)

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Reply by Richard Foxall, Apr 23, 2013.

Emark, you weren't fooled by the same wine appearing twice in a blind tasting, you were exploring bottle variation. ;-)

Anyway, JenniferT, anyone who digs Falanghina is okay by me--but my own recollection was that it tasted better when I drank it in Italy. All told, though, I think Italy does whites better than they get credit for, which means lots of deals on Falanghina, Arneis from Piedmont, and Malvasia, before you even get to the more common Pinot Grigio, Vermentino, Pinot Bianco, Trebbiano, Verdicchio.

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Reply by JenniferT, Apr 23, 2013.

I have an Vermentino, Verdicchia, an Arenis, and a Greco di Tufo at home right now...so I'm looking forward to exploring these. I must say I did think the Falanghina was just fantastic for value. I hope that someday I can have a more immersive experience and experience them in Italy too! :)

 

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Reply by Richard Foxall, Apr 23, 2013.

If you get the chance to go to Italy and find your way up to Lago Maggiore, check out my favorite wine shop pretty much anywhere.

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Reply by outthere, Apr 23, 2013.

Boy that's a loaded question and I think Greg T basically told it like it is.

For instance, I did a tasting last week (the entry just below the picture of a rope swing) of a bunch of Syrahs which all came from the same vineyard. 8 were barrel samples from the same vintage and 3 different winemakers and each one was unique unto itself. The vineyard itself has some signature notes to it but as far as that goes which one is typical of Syrah? What is typical?

I understand what you are after but it's not something a person can tell you. What you experience from a glass of wine can differ dramatically from someone else's palate. 

Drink, drink, drink and then drink more. It's the only way!

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Reply by Richard Foxall, Apr 23, 2013.

Drink, drink, drink and then drink more. It's the only way!

Note that he didn't say "taste, taste, and then taste more."  Nope, learning about wine is NOT a good way to stave off alcoholism.

I'm going to say something extremely contradictory here about Syrah (said it elsewhere, too):  I think Syrah has a very strong profile that I would associate with "typicity."  No other grape has, to my taste, the distinctive combination of savory flavors like olive and roasted meats, combined with dark fruit and a thing I call backbone, which is its particular tannic structure.  It hits a part of my brain like no other grape.  So there's things that seem "varietally correct" in a way.  But Syrah is also very sensitive to climate, soil, and season, so Syrahs grown in too-warm areas are like warm blackberry syrup at times--almost completely the opposite of what I want in Syrah, but oddly still recognizable because that's what Syrah turns into when it grows in those hot places or seasons.  And Syrah grown in the wrong soil might have that mineral and tannic structure to a small degree, but it doesn't rise to the level of that backbone I seek.  So which is varietally correct, warm or cool weather Syrah?  I think the Old World snobs would say cool weather, but in blind tests lots of folks would pick the warm weather. 

I will say that the best winemakers IMO succeed by what they don't do, and what they did before the grapes got to the cellar door.  But even that's too simple.

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Reply by EMark, Apr 23, 2013.

I have to comment on Foxall's experience of Falanghina being affected by the geography in which it is consumed because I recently had a similar experience.  The 2011 Txomin Etxaniz Getaria for which I paid $20 and drank at home was much better than the 2011 Txomin Etxaniz Getaria that I had in Las Vegas for which I paid $52.

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Reply by outthere, Apr 23, 2013.

 "I will say that the best winemakers IMO succeed by what they don't do, and what they did before the grapes got to the cellar door.  But even that's too simple."

So which is typical? Depends on what kind of wine you enjoy. I agree with you that for the most part wines that I seem to enjoy most are ones with less intervention or should I say less manipulation. The only way to have a varietal taste the same year I and year out is to "manipulate it" rather than let the wine express the vintage and vineyard.

It seems though that manipulated wines are the most popular with the average consumer. I guess that makes us above average? Or I guess we could be below average. ;)

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Reply by Richard Foxall, Apr 23, 2013.

Emark, you're killing me!  Factor in the airline tickets for a whole family and my Falanghina was much more expensive in Italy, but the price in the restaurant was almost identical to what I paid for it at K&L. 

OT, if there wasn't something like a Syrah profile, you and I would not be so crazy about the grape.  But as to the latter question, I don't care for Silver Oak, so I am plainly not above average.  Or elite, anyway. 

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Reply by EMark, Apr 23, 2013.

Actually. that markup (Mesa Grill by the way) is not worst I've ever seen.  That's the problem with ordering relatively inexpensive wines in a restaurant.  The g-factor is usually not as bad if you are ordering really premium wines.

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Reply by Richard Foxall, Apr 23, 2013.

Well put, Emark.  Somehow it makes more sense to pay $100 for a $60 wine than $50 for a $20 wine.  My wife nailed this at Union Square Cafe earlier this year, going for a Bandol over a Loire Cab Franc.  I was proud of her.

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