Sun 24 Jan 2016
Or luscious wines, or wines that a certain writer calls “sexy” or “hedonistic,” or wines that base their raison d’etre on ripeness and juiciness, succulence and opulence. I think that these wines reflect the infantile nature of the American palate trained to sweetened iced tea and sugary sodas or, for the Baby Boomer generation, Kool-Aid and Tang. American wine consumers seem to want their taste buds coddled and cosseted by the saturated ripeness of long-hanging grapes plumped with sugar and by velvety textures that slide comfortingly through the mouth and down the throat.
As a culture, Americans typically desire immediate gratification, a tendency that’s probably our most consequential export to the rest of the world. With a sniff and a sip, the gorgeous wine gets right in there and provides quick fulfillment, a burst of pleasure. “Wow, that’s gorgeous!” What happens next, though? Such wines may be superficially attractive, even seductive, and I won’t deny that a wine with the capability to draw you in irresistibly isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In the end, however, the gorgeous wines don’t deliver the true promise that great wines hold: elegance and finesse married to power and dynamism; a structure that feels embedded in the grapes’ origin in the vineyard and the vineyard in a region; acidity that brings the necessary vitality to the wine’s essence and cuts a swath on the palate; the balance among fruit, tannin, acid, oak and minerality that soothes, stimulates and challenges the senses and the intellect.
Here’s an example of what I’m talking about. A couple of nights ago, to accompany meatloaf and roasted potatoes, I opened a bottle of the Matanzas Creek Jackson Park Vineyard Merlot 2012, Bennett Valley. (Matanzas Creek is owned by Jackson Family Wines.) Bennett Valley, approved as an AVA in 2003, largely at the instigation of Matanzas Creek Winery, lies almost entirely within the Sonoma Valley AVA and overlaps somewhat into Sonoma Coast and Sonoma Mountain AVAs. The vineyard stands at an average elevation of 600 feet. The wine is 98 percent merlot with one percent each cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc; it aged 20 months in French and American oak, the French being 23 percent new barrels. Winemaker was Marcia Monahan-Torres. Yes, that’s the wonky technical data that may bore you silly, but I love it.
The color is deep ruby-purple with a glowing magenta rim. The aromas launch from the glass in what’s initially a subdued skein of ripe and slightly macerated black and red currants and cherries with notes of raspberry and blueberry; a few minutes’ airing brings in hints of cloves and sandalwood and then a great bloom of violets and lilacs, backed by licorice and bitter chocolate, all in a lovely welter of sensual delight. Yeah, pretty damned gorgeous. Within this panoply of pleasure, however, lurks a deeper influence of graphite, something root-like, briery and brambly, with sage and a touch of rosemary, and deeper yet, a layer of lithic iodine and iron. The wine is shifting, you see, from gorgeous to profound, a transition that occurs on the palate, also, where the ripeness and allure of the spicy red and black fruit flavors are bolstered by bright and active acidity and given depth and dimension by dusty, woodsy tannins that partake of dried mushrooms and forest-floor and a burgeoning tide of granitic minerality. This is in no way, you see, a merely gorgeous wine. The Matanzas Creek Jackson Park Vineyard Merlot 2012 doesn’t sate your desire for wine or weary your palate by its opulence and velvety succulence. Instead, it leads you on from sip to sip, a wine to savor for the very savory qualities that more flamboyant wines lack. This should drink beautifully through 2020 to ’24. Alcohol content is 14.5 percent. Excellent. About $60.
Perhaps the virtues I extol demand too much of wine, which is, after all, only a beverage, an agricultural product, though I think that wine — including Champagne and the adjuncts Port and Cognac — possesses the capacity to be the most complex and satisfying result of agricultural endeavor. (I’ll hear arguments for Scotch, too.) Not that every wine ought to promote deep contemplation and examination; sometimes you just want a decent quaff to knock back with a burger or pizza. Still, I think we deserve wines that exhibit finer character and more essential structure than the prettiness and hyperbole of ripeness and plumpness allow.