Thursday, June 05, 2014

In Praise of Funky Wine

or, 7 ways to keep squirrels from drinking your wine

Sacramento, California – I am sequestered these past two days with 70+ wine experts for the annual California State Fair Wine Competition. My Italian connection has given me wines from California made with Pinot Grigio, Sangiovese, Barbera, along with Zinfandel, red Italian-esque blends (SuperTuscans), Carignan and white Rhone varietal blends.

A couple of things right up front. While I learned to drink wine growing up in California, my palate has migrated towards Italian (and European) wines. That said, I am not against California wines. Far from it. But I believe I do pass wine through the filters of my preconceptions (as we all do, all of us, except maybe Dan Berger).

It is notable to taste with California winemakers, young and seasoned, and compare the route our palates have taken. I can still feel what it is like to be a classic California wine. What I am not sure about is if I should reward a wine made from indigenous Italian grapes (Sangiovese, Barbera, etc.) for tasting more like they come from Italy (my default position) or if the new world expression should take precedence. Ultimately I have decided, in the short-term, to take the wine on as is and first make sure it tastes delicious to me. And then we go from there.

But that isn’t where I want to go on this post. What is intriguing me in these days is my threshold for the funkier aspects of what come out in winemaking, both in America and Europe. Which is almost 180° from the last post I wrote about Merlot in Tuscany. Humans, we are a complicated lot.

Brettanomyces is like garlic to me. A little goes a long way. Too much and it becomes like truffle oil, which for me is the kiss of death. I have found though, that a little of the controlled funk of brett is something I like. I know this makes some of my California winemaker friends cringe (UC Davis was not my alma mater; I didn’t go to those classes). It’s a little like appreciating the music of Harry Partch – not for everybody – but those who like it, love it.

Volatile Acidity (or VA) – When I taste wine with a searing acidity that harbors on going over into the land of vinegar, I get excited. Again, a little goes a long way, like cadmium yellow. Some of my favorite wines from Southern Italy, like the Nero d’Avola from La Lumia and the Primitivo di Manduria from Savese, they have a finely allocated dose of VA. And it integrates into the other flavors of the wine so that it doesn’t stand out, but it amplifies the cherry flavors inherent in both wines (to me). Again, while my winemaker friends in California recoil, I lean in. I like my funky wine flavors.

Flavors from oak- Today I tasted cinnamon, cloves, eucalyptus, tea, cola and smoke in some of the wines. My winemaker friends tell me these are byproducts of barrels and the places from where they come. What I found was, that while these flavors (not all of them together and not a lot of any one of them) don’t make a wine more authentic (or classic) sometimes they do make a wine more interesting and even delicious. In small doses. Think salt. Salt can amplify the flavor of a tomato. Too much salt burns the flavors (and the tongue).

One thing I cannot abide is detecting sulfur – it makes me sneeze uncontrollably – and TCA -cork taint. These two elements, when I can detect them, are total buzz-kill for me. And there are people who are more sensitive than me. In a group setting, when anyone notes either, I acquiesce on the spot. I don’t want anyone around me in pain. And there is usually another bottle of wine around to open. So, let’s move ‘em on and get on the good foot.

I am an enigma to myself. I like smooth rich red wines from the Maremma. And I like older style of Sangiovese from the heart of Chianti Classico. It’s as if there are two (only?) people steering my palate around the cellars of Europe and the New World. But I’m OK with it. Because what I am looking for is delicious, whether they be polished like Michelangelo’s marble sculptures or funky ass wines that strike a chord in me. It’s a dichotomy – but it’s also a part of me – and it’s something I can live with, effortlessly.

written and photographed by Alfonso Cevola limited rights reserved On the Wine Trail in Italy
wine blog +  Italian wine blog + Italy W
Real Time Analytics