There are wines of the sun, wines of the soil, and wines of the test tube. I enjoy the first, love the second, and try to avoid the third.
It’s not that simple, of course. Wine never is, or we wouldn’t ask wine writers to ‘splain everything to us. The best wines combine sun (fruit) and soil (minerality) in an alchemy that defies description, try as we might to pin it down to a laundry list of gobs of this and that.
Sometimes, wines surprise us. I was surprised a couple times this weekend. I tasted a Torbreck Woodcutter’s Semillon 2010 from Australia’s Barossa Valley (that’s pronounced SEM-a-lawn to you antipodean luddites) that I expected to be rich but also racy, yet definitely on the sun/fruit side. Instead it seemed soft at first, its golden color suggesting oxidation and premature age. Yet its softness – which I initially took for a lack of acidity – turned into an advantage. As the wine warmed up about 20 minutes after I snatched it from the fridge and twisted open its screwcap, I could taste a hint of lime zest. What seemed (when too cold) a flaccid, low-acid wine was now limpid with citrus and quince. Will it age well for decades, as some Aussie semillons are known to do? I wouldn’t bet on it. But I enjoyed this bottle. A lot.
My second surprise was the Domaine des Roches Neuves 2010 Saumur Champigny from vintner Thierry Germain in the Loire Valley of France. I expected this Cabernet Franc to show “Grandpop’s Attic” flavors of leather books and old tobacco smoke, but instead it was fruit-forward, with red cherry and black currant flavors. I take this fruitiness as a factor of the 2010 vintage, which was unusually warm and ripe across France. This vintage gave a wine of the sun, not the usual soil-driven style I’ve come to expect from Loire reds. No worries – the wine was delicious, even if not as comprehensive or complex as one might expect from the Loire.
I don’t regard opacity as a virtue with wine. It’s a characteristic, but it does not indicate quality per se, nor does transparency indicate an inferior wine. But when I poured the inky black Spellbound Petite Sirah 2010 California, I was not surprised that I couldn’t see the bottom of the glass – Petite Sirah does that, even without manipulations to increase extract and color. And on first taste I thought, okay, here’s another plodding California PS, sort of like the Redskins offense tonight after their stellar first quarter. (Yes, this was my consolation wine.) But like the Torbreck it opened up, showing the typical black cherry and mulled wine flavors of PS – yet without the usual burning alcohol sensation so common to California Petite Sirah. There’s citrus, cinnamon and clove – oh wait, I already mentioned mulled wine – with an inky, velvety texture that is quite appealing. This is definitely a wine of the sun, speaking more to a style perhaps than a soil signature. But it is noteworthy for its alcohol – a modest 13.5% on the label, where PS can easily attain 16%. This is not underripe at all, but a reminder to other California winemakers (and consumers) of what California can accomplish on the modest end of the spectrum.
Wines of the sun, wines of the soil – both delicious and sometimes deceptive.