Bottle Sketch

Second Tuesday with Stephen Tanzer

In our reviews of more than 1,500 wines in each issue of the International Wine Cellar, we try to use clear, understandable, jargon-free English to describe the wines in (y)our glass.  We don’t anthropomorphize wines and we avoid esoteric, or overly personal, descriptors, which mean something to the writer but not much to the reader.

But even clear English can signify different things to different readers, depending on their own experience level, their openness to new taste experiences, and the preconceived notions they bring to wine appreciation.

One example: words like herbs, herbal, green.  Many consumers new to wine appear unwilling to accept red wines with anything suggesting "greenness," even though long-time collectors know that herbal elements in a young wine are often the precursors of complex aromatic and flavor elements that develop with bottle age (such as tobacco, black tea, tar, forest floor or cedar in classic claret).  Even in very young wines, a note of herbs (dried, medicinal, botanical, wild) can provide complexity, character and lift to a wine. Whether these elements are owing to the presence of garrigue, the wild and pungently herbal/spicy brush that dots rocks and hillsides along France's Mediterranean coast, or the analogous fynbos influence found in so many South African wines, they are reflections of their sites and contribute to the distinctiveness of the local wines.

Herbaceous, or—more extreme still—vegetal:  now that’s another matter.  I use these descriptors for wines that are farther along the green spectrum.  A wine that tastes like canned asparagus or green beans isn’t fun to drink, and if it’s a red wine it probably wasn’t made from sufficiently ripe grapes.  But herbal does not mean vegetal.

And then there’s another category of scents used by wine tasters:  leathery, gamey, wild (“sauvage” is the way the French describe these wines).  If you’re the kind of taster who prizes fruit above all else, you might not welcome meatiness in your wine, but these are not necessarily pejorative descriptors.  Some of the best northern Rhone syrahs have a gamey quality, as do many of Italy’s Montepulciano wines.

When the English Burgundy merchant Anthony Hanson wrote that “great Burgundy smells like shit” in the first edition of his landmark book, Burgundy, in 1982, he was . . . mostly off base.  Wines with strong barnyard or leathery scents were typically flawed wines, due to the spoilage yeast brettanomyces or to the use of old, dirty barrels.  A lot of Burgundies tasted like that before producers got more serious about hygiene in the cellars.  And yet:  great Burgundy, as it evolves in bottle, can show a distinctly decadent quality that aficionados appreciate.  So don’t automatically be afraid of wines with a bit of rudeness. Although every taster has a different olfactory threshold, notes of roasted game birds or animal fur can contribute complexity to a wine.

To a great extent, reactions to freighted descriptors are a generational thing.  My wino buddies, who mostly began tasting seriously about 30 years ago, can handle an herbal quality or a hint of something feral in their wines.  In contrast to some wine lovers of more recent vintage, they’re not put off by bracing acidity in a white wine, or by wines that privilege minerality and soil character over obvious primary fruit.  Flawed wines are rarely the ones I’d want to bury in my cellar, but wines with personality are another matter altogether.

Second Tuesday Selections:

April 2012

Region: France

Vivid ruby.  Dark berries and cherry compote on the highly perfumed nose.  Broad, fleshy and seamless, offering open-knit blackberry and mulberry flavors that become spicier with air.  Shows an exotic floral quality on the finish, which hangs on with outstanding tenacity and lingering florality. 

91 points (JR)
Out of Stock

Region: Spain

Greenish gold.  Pungent aromas of citrus pith, beeswax and minerals, with a deeper note of pear skin coming out with air.  Taut and spicy, with very good density and a distinct pungency to its flavors of candied citrus fruits, pear and lemon zest.  A suggestion of licorice builds with air and carries through the broad, supple, energetic finish. 

91 points (JR)
Average Price: $15.99

Region: Argentina

(aged for 16 months in 50% new French oak): Pale bright yellow. Sexy aromas of tangerine, stone fruits, talc and flowers. Bright and penetrating, with a subtle intensity and a suggestion of sea air to the fresh apricot flavor. A strong calcaire quality gives this wine terrific inner-mouth lift and finishing grip. Winemaker Alejandro Vigil notes that this wine contains the fruit of several different parcels on different soils, harvested up to a month apart. There's always some botrytis in the mix, but this chardonnay is more classic than exotic.

92 points (ST)
Out of Stock

Region: France

Enticing aromas of white peach, pear, orange blossom, lavender and crushed stone.  Uncompromisingly dry and intense but not hard, with powerful penetrating saline minerality leavened by a repeating note of orange blossom.  Really clings to the palate on the dusty finish without leaving any impression of weight.  This will really bite into food.

91 points (ST)
Average Price: $24.00

Region: Italy

Very pale cherry-red.  Subtle perfume of strawberry, cherry, wild herbs and fresh mint.  Supple, spicy and seamless, with lovely intensity and a saline, tactile umami quality that buffers the wine's dryness.  Seems less exotic and cooler than the 2009 version, even though the earlier growing season was warmer.  Refreshing and perfumed on the aftertaste, finishing with a light dusting of tannins, a sexy suggestion of cinnamon and sneaky length. 

90 points (ST)
Average Price: $21.00

Region: Argentina

Good full ruby-red.  Ripe currant, blueberry, spicecake and sexy oak on the nose and palate.  Suave, vinous and nicely delineated; a rather claret-like midweight with real energy.  The berry flavors are complicated by tobacco leaf and fresh herbs.  Finishes sexy and long, with firm tannins and excellent intensity. 

91 points (ST)
Out of Stock

Region: Chile

Bright yellow.  Pungent orange pith and pear aromas show impressive power as well as energy.  Deep, focused and palate-staining, offering intense pit and orchard fruit flavors lifted by a tangy citrus quality.  Rich but structured chardonnay with very good finishing clarity and nerve. 

90 points (JR)
Average Price: $19.66

Region: France

Medium red. Slightly high-toned perfume of raspberry, mint and blood orange. Concentrated, vinous and firm, with excellent energy and a medicinal reserve to the nicely delineated red berry and mineral flavors. Stands out more for its juiciness than its fat, but there's plenty of texture here. Finishes brisk, firm and powerful, with enticing sweetness and complex saline soil tones. My bottle was still remarkably fresh after five days in the refrigerator. Winemaker Jacques Lardiere noted last year that he clearly preferred the Cote de Nuits in 2009, but this wine is a standout.  (Top Burgundies cost a bloody fortune these days, assuming you can find them in the first place, but this very fresh 2009 delivers excellent quality for its price.) 

92 points (ST)
Out of Stock

Region: Oregon

Bright ruby.  Musky aromas of dark berry and cherry skin, cola and licorice, with a brighter floral quality emerging with aeration.  Juicy and precise on the palate, offering densely packed blackberry and bitter cherry flavors that gain spiciness on the back end.  At once rich and energetic, finishing with persistent floral notes and a touch of spicy herbs.  Give this some time in the decanter, or stash it away for a few more years.

90(+?) points (JR)
Out of Stock

Region: France

Pale yellow.  High-pitched citrus zest and herb aromas show very good clarity and pick up a floral quality with air.  Dry and racy on the palate, displaying nervy lime and green apple flavors and a subtle tarragon nuance.  Finishes tangy and tight, with very good bite and spicy persistence. 

90 points (JR)
Average Price: $22.99

Region: France

Vivid ruby-red.  Smoky red berry and cherry scents are lifted by a suave mineral quality.  Juicy and precise, with very good energy to its tangy red fruit and floral flavors.  A jolt of peppery spice adds cut to the long, sappy finish, where the floral note repeats.  Boasts good vivacity for a Beaujolais from a rich vintage. 

90 points (JR)
Average Price: $24.99

Region: California

(blended with 4% cabernet franc; the percentage of new oak for this wine was cut from 100% to 50% for this vintage):  Good medium red.  Aromas of raspberry, milk chocolate and graphite.  Quite dry, savory and energetic, with lovely restraint to its currant, chocolate and mineral flavors.  Serious merlot, and a terrific value.  This is only Ed Sbragia's second merlot bottling, but then it was Sbragia who was responsible for many vintages of the outstanding Beringer Bancroft Ranch merlot during his long reign as head winemaker there.

91 points (ST)
Out of Stock

Region: France

Bright medium red-ruby.  Captivating wild perfume of raspberry, violet, olive, game and leather; this could only be northern Rhone syrah.  The scented palate shows a restrained sweetness to the fresh flavors of cherry, raspberry, flowers and spices, with saline and leather notes adding complexity.  This wine would be have been sweeter and less gamey with aging in new oak, but it would have lost its personality.  Finishes perfumed and long, with a light touch for this very warm vintage.

90 points (ST)
Out of Stock

About Second Tuesday

Since 1985, Stephen Tanzer and his team of renowned, widely published regional experts have spent months of every year on the wine trails of the world, having their passports punched and tasting tens of thousands of wines annually, the best of which are reviewed in the independent, critically acclaimed, bimonthly International Wine Cellar (IWC).

Many wines featured in Second Tuesday will be selected from past, current and upcoming issues of the IWC. But Stephen and associate editor Josh Raynolds will also include superb recent discoveries that would otherwise slip between the cracks of IWC coverage.

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