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A Great Wine?
By Paul Lukacs
Nov 6, 2018
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I was fortunate enough recently to sample a new super-premium wine from Spain’s Ribera del Duero.  It’s called Pinea, the vintage is 2014, and it retails for $150.  I venture to say that any red wine lover will consider it delicious.  Packed full of sweet, succulent red and black fruit flavors enhanced by echoes of creamy chocolate and vanilla (from expensive French oak aging), with enough tannin for structure but not so much as to get in the way of drinking pleasure, it exhibits plenty of class and sophistication.  I rated it at 94 points.  And yet . . . I came away from the experience with the nagging suspicion that something was missing.  I couldn’t tell if that something was in the wine or in me, and my musings here are the result of my pondering just that.

Pinea is made with 100% Tempranillo.  The estate vineyards lie in the northwestern part of Ribera, where the soils are primarily chalky sand with some limestone, allowing a vine’s roots to extend deep below the vineyard surface in search of nutrients.  The vines average over thirty years of age, and no irrigation is used.  The grapes are harvested, sorted, and destemmed by hand.  Fermentation is spontaneous, not induced, and the wine is matured in fine-grained, medium-toasted French oak barrels for a full thirty months.  Clearly, no one is sparing either expense or effort, the goal of the estate’s founders being to produce a “great wine . . . one of the best in the world.”

The man responsible for the production of Pinea is Isaac Fernandez, one of contemporary Spain’s brightest winemaking stars.  The nephew of Mariano García Fernandez, the longtime winemaker and oenologist at Vega Sicilia, Ribera’s most renowned property, Isaac has spent more than twenty-five years in the area.  He has had his hand in many different ventures (including a series of “selection” wines under his own name), but always credits his uncle as his inspirational mentor.  “The family winemaking tradition is very important,” he has said.  “As a winemaker, I was born rich.”

Pinea certainly tastes and smells rich--excitingly, enticingly so.  It does not, however, taste much like other famed Ribera del Duero wines--traditional Vega Sicilia, for example, or the more modern Pingus (neither of which I must confess that I have tasted all that often), or the initially Bordeaux-inspired Tinto Pesquera (which I know well.)  In fact, it does not taste especially Spanish.  Fruit-driven, it offers nary a hint of anything earthy or meaty that might disrupt its sensuous sweetness.  Pinea instead is a stellar example of what is sometimes called “the international style.”  The question that keeps nagging at me is whether a wine made in that style, no matter how delicious, can be considered one of the world’s best.

I do not mean to suggest that I think greatness in wine is inevitably linked to place.  Places, no matter whether as small as a single vineyard or as large as an appellation, are geographical entities, not objects of taste.  Still, I keep wondering--to be acclaimed as great, shouldn’t a wine taste “of” something more than itself?

These days, the other commonly cited object for that preposition is the grape variety.  A great wine made with Chardonnay, for example, may taste Burgundian, meaning not that it tastes of French stone or earth but that it tastes akin to other great white Burgundies.  Or it may taste “of” the grape, meaning that it shares a certain basic flavor profile with other great wines made with that variety, no matter their origin.  In either case, the wine in question resembles other wines, and it does so in positive ways.    

What is Tempranillo’s basic flavor profile?  Jancis Robinson, who surely knows more about these matters than I, describes it as essentially savory rather than sweet.  “The characteristic smell,” she writes, “has hints of leather . . ..  There is something sappy, fresh and vegetal about it, but also something definitively masculine, the sort of smells you would expect to find in a stereotypical gentleman's dressing room -- which is, I suppose, where the leather comes in.”

This description emphatically does not apply to Pinea.  Its flavors are more sweet than savory.  While fresh-tasting, it exhibits nothing remotely vegetal.  And while its secondary aromas and flavors do seem strong, they more closely resemble chocolate or coffee than leather.  Tasting it will not remind you of other Tempranillo-based wines, no matter where in Spain (or elsewhere) they come from.

This wine, then, tastes of nothing so much as itself.  So, another part of me wonders, isn’t that good enough?  As I said at the start, Pinea is unquestionably delicious.  What more should anyone desire from a glass of wine?  Not only does it have no evident flaws, it integrates its disparate elements (the plethora of different aromas and flavors as well as the fruit and wood, acidity and tannin) seamlessly.

So maybe all this is more about me as a taster than about the wine.  Is my desire for some family resemblance between great wines, a resemblance bespeaking varietal or regional identity, just a sign of snobbish erudition?  In wanting such, am I doing anything more than elevating wine, which when all is said and done provides but momentary pleasure, to an aesthetic status that only a self-important few believe it merits?

What got me thinking about all this wasn’t just Pinea but instead the style it represents.  This style makes no reference to place or grape--that is, to a wine’s origin.  Its aim is nothing more or less than sensory pleasure—the pleasure found in the moment the wine is consumed.  And this style can be found ever more frequently throughout the winemaking world.  From Chilean winemakers trying to tame the herbaceous quality of their wines, to Tuscan vintners attempting to make their reds taste richer and riper, to Californians who want their Pinot Noirs to taste sweet, the international style has become just that--a true global phenomenon.

Considered historically, the gains clearly outweigh any losses.  No longer can typicity be used as an excuse for off-tasting wine.  No longer can flawed wine be excused with claims of “it’s supposed to taste like this.”  Still, the nagging voice persists.  If one wine tastes much the same as another, regardless of regional or varietal connections, what will make either of them great?   Maybe it’s just personal, subjective opinion, but in our era of gustatory as well as political globalization, I suspect I’m not alone in hoping for something more.