WHAT MAKES A GREAT WINE? Traditionally, the great wines of the world have shared several things in common. First, if the wine is based on a single grape varietal, then a great wine must stand as a classic example of that grape type—varietal character is the baseline for a great wine.
Cabernet Sauvignon, for example, should deliver vibrant aromas of black cherries, black currants, black plums, black olives, and eucalyptus or mint/menthol in a young wine. As the wine ages, the bouquet emerges, featuring hints of cedar and cigar box. Great Cabernet Sauvignon is a full-bodied, in-your-face red wine, with a high degree of tannin (that’s what creates astringency or even a bit of bitterness on your palate) as well as a high degree of acidity (that’s what makes your mouth water and encourages you to have another bite of food, another sip of wine).
True varietal character is the easy part of defining a great wine, because a $9 Chardonnay can have as much varietal character as a $90 Chardonnay. So, varietal typicity is a given when considering the greatness of any wine. After making sure that the wine tastes like the grape, things get a bit more complex, a bit more difficult, a bit more illusive.
The next question in judging the merits of a potentially great wine is whether the wine exhibits a sense of place, what the French call terroir. A Syrah from Paso Robles, in San Luis Obispo County, California, for example, may be a great red wine, but does it speak to the soil, climate and other environmental elements that define the terroir of Paso Robles? And surely, that sense of place in the Paso Robles Syrah will be different from the terroir of an Old World Syrah, such as a great Hermitage from the northern Rhone Valley of France. Both wines will exhibit black fruits, with a good tannin/acid balance; the Paso Robles Syrah will likely be more fruit-forward, bordering on black fruit jam on the palate, while the Hermitage will offer more restrained fruit, earthy flavors, and a kick of cracked black pepper both in the nose and on the palate. Both wines are capable of greatness, because each speaks to its sense of place—each is a wine with an address.
It may be time to redefine the idea of what a great wine is.
The classic wines of the world have long been identified with Europe, and it’s hard to argue with the quality of historic wines that are the product of hundreds of years of passion, hard labor and pitch-perfect terroir. Until recently, greatness in wine has had everything to do with the history of the wine-growing region, so that the most obvious place to look for great Pinot Noir or Chardonnay has been Burgundy, France, which has grown these grapes almost exclusively for the last 600 years. For Cabernet Sauvignon, it’s been Bordeaux (the Left Bank), and it’s also been Bordeaux for Merlot (the Right Bank).
Germany is the classic home to Riesling, and benchmark Sauvignon Blanc always has been closely identified with the Loire Valley of France. In Italy, it’s Tuscany for Sangiovese, and Piedmont for Nebbiolo.
I have the greatest respect for the classic wines of the world, but I think it may be time to redefine the idea of what a great wine is.
In the past 20 years or so, the world of wine has expanded and changed in fundamental ways, creating a seismic shift in the way wines are produced, where they’re produced, and how and by whom they’re consumed. Especially in the United States, we have never before had the opportunity to taste as many great wines as we do today, and these wines have many places of origin, many addresses. Today, many wine lovers look to the Napa Valley for great Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, Oregon for Pinot Noir, New Zealand for Sauvignon Blanc, Australia for Syrah (under the name Shiraz) and the Finger Lakes of New York State for Riesling. At the same time, we still recognize Italy as the premier producer of great Sangiovese and Nebbiolo.
My own feeling is this: When it comes to judging a great wine, there is only one arbiter of that greatness. It’s not Robert Parker, it’s not the Wine Spectator, it’s not the media, it’s not the “experts.”
It is you.
You know what you like, you know what you really like, and you know when you’ve tasted something so wonderful that words fail to describe the ineffable greatness of that moment, that wine.
I’ve been at this a long time, and many more times than I can count I have had the pleasure of sharing wine with folks who have little or no experience tasting wine, but when they taste a great wine, they know it. They may not know the winespeak to couch that greatness with jargon, but it is wonderful—and a relief—to listen to their honest appraisal of why they love the wine that just passed their lips.
Few wine professionals would think of the vineyards of New York State as a set of classic growing regions, and from an historical perspective they would be correct. Recently, though, I’ve been tasting some extraordinary wines from New York, and I have found some great wines that have earned a place at the table with other great wines of the world. (To be honest, I’ve also tasted quite a bit of just-average wines from New York State, but I’ve tasted more than my share of just-average wines from France, Italy, Spain, Germany, California, Oregon, New Zealand, Australia, India, China and beyond, as well.)
The point is, no matter where the wines come from I’m happy to kiss a lot of frogs knowing that eventually I will kiss a princess, or two, or three . . .
Some of the great wines of New York State that I’ve had the pleasure to taste recently have one thing in common: They are all “estate bottled,” meaning that the wines are produced only from grapes grown on the vineyards owned by the winery—no grapes are purchased from other vineyards. This is important when considering a great wine. While fine wines may be produced from purchased grapes, producing site-specific estate bottled wines speaks directly and eloquently to the issue of terroir.
The combination of ripe, healthy grapes grown with care “on the estate,” along with the artistry of the winemaker, make for singular wines that could not be produced anywhere else by anyone else. These are handcrafted, small-production wines, all of them fewer than 1,000 cases, most of them limited to fewer than 600 cases. By way of comparison, large producers, such as Gallo, Fetzer, or Chateau Ste. Michelle, each produce several million cases of wine each year.
A magnificent red wine made by John Graziano, Millbrook Vineyards and Winery’s Block 3 East 2005 Cabernet Franc is a singular wine of great complexity, and an extraordinary achievement. A blend of 95 percent Cabernet Franc and 5 percent Merlot, the Block 3 East spent 13 months in small oak barrels. Only 177 cases were produced from fruit grown on a small parcel within a small vineyard in the Hudson Valley. The wine is intensely aromatic, even in its youth, with black fruits (plum, currant, blackberry and olive) on the nose and the palate. The acidity of the wine is refreshing, while the relatively soft tannins are bracing and balanced. While this wine ($35) can easily age seven to ten years, it is enjoyable with food right now—a great partner for braised short ribs, rack of lamb, game, roasted poultry, powerful pastas and hard cheeses. Without a doubt, the best Hudson Valley wine I’ve ever tasted, and one of the best wines—from anywhere—I’ve tasted over the last year.
From the North Fork of Long Island comes a unique New World Merlot that tastes distinctively Old World. On the nose, the Estate Selection 2001 Merlot from Lenz Winery ($25) brings the pleasure of mature black fruits—cherry, plum, and raspberry—swirling in a nexus of earth, cigar box and pine cones. The 950 cases of this wine, made by Eric Fry, are unfined and unfiltered, so as not to strip one iota of character from its flavor. Unlike the unctuous California-style Merlots that I don’t enjoy very much, this wine reminds me of Pomerol in the Bordeaux region. In a blind tasting, I sampled the 2001 Lenz Old Vines Merlot ($55) vs. the 2001 Chateau Petrus ($1,200). I scored it a tie and I was not alone in my assessment: With ten wine professionals tasting, only one point divided the two wines. This wine has already aged for eight years and, although it is drinking beautifully now, it will improve for at least another five years. It’s an excellent wine to pair with grilled or roasted red meats, feathered game, roasted vegetables and hard cheeses.
Michael Migliore and Yancey Stanforth-Migliore first planted vineyards in Gardiner, just under the Shawangunk Ridge, in 1979, and since the 1980s, Whitecliff has produced some of the best wines in the Hudson Valley. Their 2007 Gamay Noir ($16.95) is no exception. Gamay is the red grape of the Beaujolais region in southern Burgundy, but Whitecliff’s Gamay really doesn’t taste like Beaujolais. Crisp, clean, red-fruit driven, balanced, with a light-to-medium body and a very long finish, the wine is reminiscent of a lighter Pinot Noir, and pleasantly so. I have tasted cool-climate Gamay from Canada and was never impressed, but the Migliores have nailed it, producing a wine with a truly unique style. This is what I call a “crossover” wine—great with grilled fish, vegetable dishes, white meats, leaner red meats, a burger, a picnic. In warm weather, you can even chill this wine a bit to bring out its freshness, its exuberance. Six hundred cases of this unusual and highly successful wine were produced.
The most important white grape of the Friuli region of Italy is now known simply as “Friulano.” The Channing Daughters Winery’s version, a 2007 Tocai Friulano ($24), is bone dry, medium-bodied, with cleansing acidity. The nose of this Long Island wine is redolent of almonds, spices, flowers and citrus, especially grapefruit; the citrus theme is carried over to the taste, creating an extraordinarily refreshing wine. Made by Christopher Tracy, 59 percent of the wine was fermented in stainless steel, and 41 percent of the wine spent about three months in barrels; then all of the wine was transferred to a large stainless steel tank, where it spent another three months. The result was 408 cases of an incredibly fresh, clean, food-friendly wine, for which the classic match would be prosciutto e melons, but it would also be wonderful with a myriad of fish dishes, including pasta with clams or seafood risotto. I would love to try this wine with oysters on the half shell with just a squeeze of fresh grapefruit juice. Channing Daughters is the only producer of Tocai Friulano on the East End of Long Island. (Millbrook is the only producer in the Hudson Valley—and that wine is quite good, too).