Dan Berger On Wine: It’s all up to the devil in the details | Dan Berger

“Was it aged in oak barrels?” I asked after sniffing the Chardonnay. The man responsible for it shook his head and said, “No, it was made in stainless steel vats. He has never seen an oak tree.

It was 1981. I had been writing about wine for a few years at that time and this wine looked like it had been in oak. I was wrong, said winery president John Fetzer.

The wine, Fetzer’s Sundial Chardonnay, was one of the country’s most popular everyday table wines at the time, and I was confused by the aroma. I said it was well made and excellent value, as it was one of the cheapest chardonnays on the market at the time.

So what explains my guess that it was oak?

John then revealed what was going on. He said his winemakers bought grapes from Monterey County that they knew had mild sunburn.

“Sometimes a little sunburn smells like barrel-aged wine,” he said. So was my upbringing in this extremely complicated drink launched with a reality that much of what we see, read, hear or perceive is not what it seems.

People also read…

Even some supposedly authoritative authors have written things that are wrong. I have read or skimmed through dozens of wine books over the past five decades and the more I learn about wine the more I realize how little I and some wine writers know. I revel in all the new things I learn about it almost daily, even though most of it never gets printed.

It also amuses me when I read “facts” that are actually lies. Or maybe the writer just wasn’t aware of the details. It all depends on the research skills of the writer.

Much of what I glean is technical – so abstruse that it is of no use to most wine buyers. Yet it is the fabric of today’s viticulture in the world.

In a recent column here, I used the phrase “and other lies” in reference to some of the “innocent” lies going on in this industry – such as “reserve wines”. Most of this self-promotion is harmless, but some of it seems harmful to me.

Here are some stories that come to mind:

• A popular blended red wine is a hit with a lot of people. I recently learned that it contains a significant amount of a legal but pernicious color additive that also alters the aroma and taste of a red wine. I tested this wine. It looked less like wine and more like alcoholic Kool-Aid. A retail salesperson, hearing that I was a wine writer, asked me why I didn’t like this wine. I didn’t have an hour to explain myself.

• I tasted a $90 Napa Cabernet months ago and found it incredibly sweet, almost as if sugar had been added. Of course, added sugar is illegal – although that wouldn’t stop some people. The US government doesn’t really care about such a violation of the rules and it has no way to test it. A month later, I spoke about it to a winegrower friend. He said it’s possible the winemaker who made the pricey Cab added a product containing gum arabic, a legal additive that can make a wine sweet. (So ​​wine is better with milk chocolate?)

• A cheap Merlot turned out to be loaded with “oak” flavors; if grapes had been used to do so, they were not obvious. But what I smelled was not oak barrels. Some people use oak chips for flavoring. But in this wine I was pretty sure it was “flavored” with liquid oak extract. It smelled artificial.

• A well-known wine critic has claimed for decades that the smaller the tonnage of grapes in a vineyard, the better the quality of the wine. If that were true, the best wine would come from a vineyard that didn’t produce any fruit! Decades ago, I asked Dr. Richard Smart, one of the world’s foremost vine scientists, if great wine required small tonnages. He said that the best wines come from balanced vines and that small tonnages are absolutely no guarantee of quality. Smart added that many vineyards in Napa Valley produce far too little fruit to make very good wine. Sometimes a little more fruit is better, he says.

• During the great replanting of California’s North Coast vineyards 30 years ago, a large majority of grape growers adopted a trellising system called Vertical Shoot Positioning (VSP). Many said they read that Dr. Smart recommended it. Years later, I asked Dr. Smart if VSP was a versatile trellis solution for the entire North Shore. He replied no, that multiple trellising systems are appropriate depending on multiple factors, and that each site requires a unique system. One system is not suitable for all cases.

• For decades I’ve heard people say that dry farming (no irrigation at all) was the best way to make good wine, that if you irrigated your vines the resulting wine would be terrible. Such a claim cannot be true, and a few weeks ago I tasted a superb red from Sierra foothills winemaker Jeff Runquist (Petit Verdot 2019, $27). I asked him how it was done. He said he discovered a hot-climate vineyard (the San Joaquin Valley!) that had been poorly cultivated. He asked the winemaker to irrigate the vines well for weeks before the harvest. The result is a prime example of why each vineyard should be grown individually to achieve the best result.

• I tasted an attractive Chardonnay from winemaker Nick Goldschmidt last week that had a rich mid-palate presence so I asked how he did it. Nick, one of the world’s top winemakers, said he didn’t use standard texture-enhancing tactics, but simply added extra lees to the wine, giving it more richness. and body. Such tactics must be employed knowingly to avoid problems. But Nick is a perfectionist and this wine clearly speaks to his Russian River Valley heritage.

2019 Goldschmidt Chardonnay Singing Tree, Russian River Valley ($19) – This mesmerizing wine has an appealing aroma of lemon curd with a bit of tropical fruit, but its biggest feature is a rich mid-palate. Its creaminess is balanced by a superb acidity, making it both a terrace dish and a seafood side dish.

Dan Berger lives in Sonoma County, California, where he publishes Vintage Experiences, a subscription-only wine newsletter. Write to him at [email protected] He is also co-host of California Wine Country with Steve Jaxon on KSRO Radio, 1350 AM.

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