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Columns – Paul Lukacs

The Folly of Winespeak
Paul Lukacs
Sep 5, 2017

What's the deal with the way critics talk about wine? Otherwise sensible people become astonishingly fanciful when it comes to describing how wines taste. This is certainly true of me and my WRO colleagues, as well as scores of other writers, bloggers and commentators. In our attempt to make sense of what we taste, we employ extravagant imagery, referring to all sorts of fruits, vegetables, herbs and spices, as well as even more exotic ingredients including graphite, pipe tobacco, bacon fat, and horse manure, none of which are actually in any wine that anyone would want to drink.

Natural Wine: Really?
Paul Lukacs
Jul 18, 2017

There has been a lot of talk lately about 'natural wine.' What does that term mean? There's no official definition, but the following statement on the wine list at Dame, a restaurant in Portland, Oregon that features only natural wines, is as good a description as any I've seen. 'Every wine on this list,' it says, 'is grown organically or biodynamically, free of any chemicals in the vineyard . . . [it] is made without any additives except sulfur, which is naturally occurring in grapes . . . [it] is fermented with its own living, wild yeast . . . [and it] is made in small, or very small, amounts. It's difficult to find fault with any of that.' Well, actually it's not difficult at all.

Southern Burgundy: Where Chardonnay Doesn't Taste Like Chardonnay
Paul Lukacs
Jun 6, 2017

With Chardonnay, internationalization brings positive benefits but also frequent disappointments. Is there anywhere in the world where vintners make wines with this grape that taste different and hence exciting and distinctive? The answer may surprise you, for it's right next door to the Côte d'Or. This is southern Burgundy, the Côte Chalonnaise and the Mâconnais, regions known not long ago for simple, somewhat rustic wines that no one thought were in the same class as the great growths to the north. Seemingly in a blink of a proverbial eye, all that has changed. Southern Burgundy today is full of energy and excitement. It's where you can find some of the most exciting Chardonnays anywhere, all at fairly reasonable prices.

Don't Pity Poor Pinot Blanc
Paul Lukacs
May 2, 2017

Poor Pinot Blanc. It belongs to a very famous wine family, but its sibling, the rich, noble Pinot Noir, gets most of the acclaim these days. Lush, lavish Gris has plenty of admirers too. Pinot Meunier may not make the society pages all that often, but it comes from Champagne, and consequently lives a luxurious life. Meanwhile, Blanc gets overlooked, if not forgotten altogether. Yet, just as Cinderella entranced her Prince at the ball, Pinot Blanc shines when given the opportunity to perform at the dinner table. A remarkably versatile white wine, it has the uncanny ability to pair well with a wide variety of foods. When you try a first-class rendition, odds are that you'll end up admiring, not pitying it.

Where the Values Are
Paul Lukacs
Mar 14, 2017

Along with my friend and Wine Review Online colleague, Michael Franz, I recently finished tasting some 2,400 wines in my capacity as a wine consultant for the Washington, D.C. based Clyde's restaurant group. Michael and I have been doing this for 17 years now (though we didn't taste as many wines in the early days), and nothing that I do gives me a clearer sense of the marketplace. What regions and varieties are outperforming others? Which are underperforming? Which producers have become complacent? Which have raised their game? And for the purpose of this column, what are the best values?

Forget Natural Wine
Paul Lukacs
Jan 31, 2017

Wine certainly is natural. That is, it doesn't need human intervention to exist. When the skins of ripe grapes (or for that matter, most non-citrus fruits) split open, yeasts in the air begin to convert the sugar in those grapes into alcohol and carbon dioxide. The juice then becomes wine. No one, however, drinks this wine. Instead, we drink wine that has been manipulated by human beings. We drink artifacts, products that have been crafted, meaning that they are in important ways artificial.

Vintage Champagne for the Holidays
Paul Lukacs
Dec 13, 2016

Celebrations call for Champagne. For centuries, this one wine has launched ships, enlivened parties, heralded peace treaties and sporting championships, shared special, romantic moments, and more. Champagne literally bubbles forth with festivity. For millions of people, it merits a splurge, particularly during the holidays. More bottles are sold this month than at any other time, with some retailers reporting that December sales surpass those made all the rest of the year. Oddly enough, this also is when stores offer deep discounts. It's when savvy consumers stock up.

Ports in Chilly Storms
Paul Lukacs
Nov 1, 2016

Port is the ideal cold weather wine. With the forecast here on the east coast calling for the first frost of the season this weekend, it's time to stock up. A glass of port can prove wonderfully warm and soothing. It will comfort body as well as soul, especially on those cold dark nights when, in the poet's words, 'winds roar hollowly, the owl hoots from the elder . . . [and] your heart cries to the loving-cup.'

The Myth of Aging
Paul Lukacs
Sep 20, 2016

Is aging potential a necessary aspect of a great wine? Not a good or pleasurable wine, but a truly great one? Certainly many wine professionals think so. I've asked this question of a number of them, including some fellow WRO columnists, and the overwhelming response has been that a wine's ability to improve in the bottle over time is part of what distinguishes it as great. No matter how one cares to measure what greatness means (with numerical points, for example, or hard-earned dollars) they contend that aging potential is a necessary component of vinous greatness. Well, I think they're wrong, and in fact are perpetuating a dangerous myth.

Thinking Taste
Paul Lukacs
Aug 9, 2016

I have a neighbor who will drink only red wine. White wines don't give him headaches or cause him digestive problems. He just doesn't like them. Or as he said to me once, 'they're not my taste.' I've been thinking about taste a lot lately--what we like and why. It's a tricky subject, with a long history of debate and disagreement. It's also a subject that won't go away. That's because we're constantly expressing our tastes through our judgments. And we judge all the time, with everything from the mundane to the profound. Coke or Pepsi, the Beatles or the Stones, Star Wars or Star Trek, Manet or Monet, even Clinton or Trump--which you choose, even if you refuse to choose, reflects who you are. That is, it reflects your taste. But where does your taste come from?

The Distinctive Dry Wines of Roussillon
Paul Lukacs
Jun 28, 2016

Roussillon is not Languedoc. The two regions are often bundled together-by tourist guides let alone wine writers-but they have very different cultures and histories, and produce very different wines. Languedoc is a horizontal rectangle on the map, and its wines are influenced by the two dominant wine cultures on its sides-the Rhône to the east and Bordeaux to the west. By contrast, Roussillon is more of a vertical amphitheater, and produces wines that owe little allegiance to anyplace else. Many of them are relatively new arrivals in the global marketplace, but the best taste deliciously distinctive.

Revisiting the Paris Tasting
Paul Lukacs
May 3, 2016

It was forty years ago this month that a group of French wine experts misidentified a set of California Cabernets and Chardonnays in a blind tasting as being from Bordeaux and Burgundy, and so ended up with collective egg on their faces. At the time, hardly anyone paid much attention. Since then, however, the event has become famous. Widely referred to today as 'The Judgment of Paris,' it has been the subject of both a book and a feature film, with both another movie and (believe it or not) a musical play now in the works. In France, it has been largely forgotten. But in the United States, it is repeatedly hailed as a Trump-ian triumph of 'America first.' Given this month's anniversary, the fanfare has become especially loud recently. Lost among the hubbub, however, is the story of what really happened--and what it both meant then and means today.

Wine's Homogenization: A Brief History
Paul Lukacs
Mar 22, 2016

Wine today is radically different from wine in the past. Not just the distant past, the wines that the Greeks or Romans or even Shakespeare's Falstaff drank, but also the relatively recent past--wines that were drunk, cellared, and admired well into the middle of the 20th Century. Many commentators have identified the influence of science and technology in vineyards and wineries as the chief catalyst of change. Equally significant, though, are shifts in consumption--who drinks wine, and when and why they do so. Put simply, we, the consumers of the new millennium, have changed wine in fundamental ways.

California Shame
Paul Lukacs
Feb 9, 2016

California can produce some of the finest wines in the world, but, sadly, fewer and fewer wines being made today achieve that goal. This is especially true when it comes to value. In fact, most Golden State wines priced under $20 a bottle taste woefully disappointing. Given the high quality of many imported wines in this price category, coupled with the evident potential of the state's vineyards, the perplexing question is…why?

Where the Values Are
Paul Lukacs
Dec 29, 2015

Value in wine is a two-headed coin. One is economic, the other aesthetic. Each depicts something different, and each sometimes seems to be at odds with the other. Economic value is set by the marketplace. A wine is worth whatever people will pay for it, as the example of first growth Bordeaux amply illustrates these days. By contrast, aesthetic value is determined by taste--individual taste to be sure, but more to the point, collective taste, what wine drinkers as a whole understand defines quality.

Globalization and 'Terroir'
Paul Lukacs
Nov 10, 2015

For wine lovers, the most important aspect of globalization is not really economic or political. The market is awash in wine, including a great deal of very good wine, and while only the so-called one percent may be able to afford to buy Château Margaux, the rest of us have more choices from more places available to us than ever before. No, the more significant aspect is cultural--specifically, what a number of scholars have described as the worldwide homogenization of culture. Such homogenization is what the advocates of 'terroir' as wine's most distinctive feature or calling card are reacting against. They contend that a good wine should taste of its origin, meaning the place where the grapes were grown.

The Question of Quality: Idealists Versus Realists
Paul Lukacs
Sep 22, 2015

The difference between an idealist and a realist is neatly illustrated by the celebrated tiff between Robert Parker Jr. and Jancis Robinson back in 2005. These two well-known critics squared off over the quality of the 2003 Château Pavie from St.-Emilion in Bordeaux. For Parker, this wine was 'off-the-chart . . . a brilliant effort,' and merited a score of 96 points. It 'traverses the palate with extraordinary richness,' he wrote. 'The finish is tannic, but the wine's low acidity and higher than normal alcohol (13.5 percent) suggests that it will be approachable in 4-5 years.' Those were precisely the qualities to which Robinson objected. "Completely unappetizing overripe aromas,' she wrote: '[It tastes] porty sweet. Oh REALLY! Port is best from the Douro, not St.-Emilion.'

An Italian Snapshot
Paul Lukacs
Jul 28, 2015

VinoVip is an annual celebration of Italian wine hosted by the influential Italian wine magazine, Civiltá del bere. Held in the picturesque mountain resort of Cortina, surrounded by the majestic peaks and crags of the Dolomite Alps, it involves three days of tastings, seminars, talks, panels, and--did I mention--more tastings. This year's event, held a few weeks ago, featured fifty-five top producers, each of which showcased an array of different wines, providing the outside visitor with a snapshot of the contemporary Italian wine scene. Here is what the picture revealed--at least to me.

Thirty Years Old But Not Grown Up
Paul Lukacs
Jun 2, 2015

A drive lasting more than two hours in southern France last month took me across three administrative départements, the Gard, Hérault and Aude. The shimmering Mediterranean was occasionally visible to the left; hills and outcroppings from the ancient Massif Central rose and fell on my right, and for most of the 120-mile trip I saw vines growing on both sides of the superhighway. All were part of one wine region, and when delineated as such, one overarching appellation--the Languedoc. There were so many vines in so many different places that anyone would have to wonder what might connect them. The answer, I have since discovered, is nothing except for reams of bureaucratic forms and paper.

Post-Tax-Day Wines
Paul Lukacs
Apr 14, 2015

'Be thankful I don't take it all,' the late George Harrison sang sarcastically in the Beatles' 1969 hit, Taxman. Though few of us feel thankful this time of year, wine lovers can take comfort in the fact that high quality need not carry a high price tag. No matter how much the taxman takes on April 15th, you should still be able to drink good wine. An extensive series of recent tastings with wines priced at or below $15 a bottle leads me to suggest that you look outside the United States when searching for after tax bargains this year. Production costs tend to be high on the American west coast, so wines of quality made there don't come cheap. And while some superb wines are being made east of the Rockies, quantities are limited and prices tend to exceed the $15 threshold. By contrast, the improved exchange rate between the dollar and the Euro means that more delicious bargains are coming from Europe than was true even a couple of years ago.

Pinot Blanc Can Be a Star
Paul Lukacs
Feb 24, 2015

It must be hard being Pinot Blanc. You come from a noble family, one of the most renowned in the world of wine, but you are regularly belittled as being dull and bland. Your big brother, Pinot Noir, is an international celebrity with legions of frenzied fans. But You? Sure, you're widely planted, but you're hardly ever the star. Instead, you usually end up playing a supporting role--to Riesling in Germany and Alsace, to Chardonnay in Burgundy (where you're such an outcast that you have to operate in disguise), and to your sister, Pinot Grigio, in Italy. As the British wine writer Oz Clarke quips, Pinot Blanc has a 'perennial personality problem.'

New Year's Wine Resolutions
Paul Lukacs
Dec 23, 2014

When it comes to saving money or loosing weight, New Year's resolutions can be a burden. That's why most get abandoned well before Groundhog Day. But when it comes to wine, resolutions are easy. After all, they're designed to enhance your pleasure, not tighten your belt. Here, then, are ten New Year's wine resolutions, suggestions of ways to make buying and drinking the world's most enjoyable beverage even more enjoyable in 2015.

Our Varietal Obsession
Paul Lukacs
Oct 28, 2014

Wine drinkers have become obsessed with grape varieties. Most consumers identify and ultimately select wines primarily on the basis of varietal identity. And while the world is awash in literally thousands of different varieties, only a small handful produce consistently first-rate wines in an array of different locales. Sometimes irresponsibly derided as 'international,' these are the world's top varieties, the grapes that make a disproportionately large number of the world's finest wines. Perhaps surprisingly, the preoccupation with grape varieties is a relatively recent phenomenon. Before the 1960s, even the most devoted connoisseurs paid little attention to the type of grapes that went into the wines they loved.

America's Pinot Passion
Paul Lukacs
Sep 2, 2014

American Pinot Noir is hot. Bottles fly off store shelves, and restaurateurs can't keep the more popular labels in stock. To meet the demand, wineries are releasing new vintages ever earlier, often well before they're truly ready to drink, and charging ever-higher prices. No matter. The country's Pinot passion shows no signs of abating. Since few consumers cared all that much about domestic Pinot Noir until recently, America's current obsession with this particular varietal raises a number of questions. Most important, are the wines worth it? Is their quality high enough to justify the hype? But also, what does all the frenzy suggest about America as a wine culture? How and why did we become so Pinot crazed?

A Vacation Case
Paul Lukacs
Jul 15, 2014

Take the wine with you. Put a case in with the backpacks, boogie boards and fishing rods when you pack up the car for your beach or mountain vacation this summer. Not only will the selection likely prove better (and the prices lower) than at stores where you're going, but why waste valuable vacation time shopping? The only problem with taking wine on vacation (besides finding room for it in the trunk) is that you won't know exactly what foods the specific bottles you select will be accompanying. Versatility thus has to be an important factor when filling your case.

New and Old in California
Paul Lukacs
May 13, 2014

There has been a lot of talk lately about a new style of California wine--one allegedly marked as much by restraint as by exuberance, with nuanced subtlety valued over simplistic flamboyance. Winemakers are said to be ready to scale back alcohol levels as well as the overt flavor of charred oak, and to abandon the sugary sweetness that comes from excessive ripeness. They supposedly want to be less intrusive, and so to allow both the grape and the site where it is grown to express themselves in the wine. It all sounds great. The only problem is that very few contemporary California wines provide evidence that any of this is actually happening.

Marvelous Muscat from Alsace
Paul Lukacs
Mar 18, 2014

Imagine a wine that smells sweet but tastes dry. That paradoxical combination would make it seem simultaneously sumptuous and stimulating, rich but also refreshing. Now imagine its succulent aromas echoing rose petals, orange blossoms and honey, and then its flavors turning taut, marked by a citrus tang and an invigorating crispness. Such a wine, delicious anytime, would almost demand to be enjoyed in spring. Its personality would echo the season's--warm and cool, sweet and dry, all at once.

The Problem with 'Physiological Ripeness'
Paul Lukacs
Jan 7, 2014

Winemakers who obsess over 'physiological ripeness' are deathly afraid of anything that even hints at tartness. They don't want the grapes they use to have green seeds, so their wines usually convey nary of hint of anything vegetal. They also don't want the grapes to have firm skins, so their red wines often lack a tannic backbone. And because they want the pulp of the grapes to be soft and pliable, their wines too often end up seeming jammy and unbalanced.

Eighty Years and Counting
Paul Lukacs
Nov 26, 2013

Next month marks the eightieth anniversary of what back then was simply termed 'repeal,' the passage of the Twenty-first amendment to the United States Constitution and the end of National Prohibition. Eighty years is a long time, but American wine lovers today still live in Prohibition's shadow. What we buy and drink, and how we drink it, are still very much part of the so-called Noble Experiment's legacy.

Warm Ports for Cold Weather Storms
Paul Lukacs
Oct 22, 2013

True port comes from grapes grown in the Douro River valley in northern Portugal. Both the name and the style of wine are imitated elsewhere, but just as New World sparkling wine, no matter how tasty, is not real Champagne, other wines are not real ports. The Portuguese began fortifying Douro red wine in the eighteenth century for export to England. British drinkers, prevented by war and politics from buying their beloved French claret, found dry Douro wine coarse, but they liked the new sweet version. They have been buying it ever since, and English more than Portuguese taste continues to dominate the port trade. As with other types of wine, English taste tends to value age--which in this case means vintage port. Although a mere two percent or so of total production, this is the Douro's most famous wine. Rough when young, vintage port acquires subtlety and sophistication with time spent in bottle. Its tannins soften, and its flavors evolve over time, allowing a wine that starts life brawny and one-dimensional to become smooth and complex.

New Mediterranean Wines for Fall
Paul Lukacs
Sep 3, 2013

One of the most significant development in grape growing and winemaking over the past twenty-five years has been the emergence of compelling, distinctive-tasting white wines--often made with fairly obscure grape varieties--from places heretofore thought too warm for successful white wine production. These wines hail from many places in both the northern and southern hemispheres, but many of the most exciting come from the Mediterranean rim. With summer now bidding its annual farewell, this is a wonderful time of year to try some of them.

A Toast to a Master
Paul Lukacs
Jul 30, 2013

Here's a toast to Cyrus Redding, one of the most important figures in the 8,000-year history of wine. Wait, you've never heard of him? Don't be embarrassed, as few people have anymore. Although he may have faded out of our collective cultural memory, contemporary wine lovers owe him a tremendous debt.

A Napa Icon, or Merely a Flash of Fashion?
Paul Lukacs
May 7, 2013

One hears talk these days about California wines becoming more restrained, but while a stylistic shift can be discerned in some whites, particularly some top Chardonnays, the pendulum has barely swung when it comes to reds. Whether made with Cabernet Sauvignon or Pinot Noir, Merlot, Syrah, or Zinfandel, the overwhelming majority of California reds remain overtly fruit-forward, with sweet rather than savory primary flavors, secondary ones that come mainly from barrel aging, high levels of alcohol, dark colors, and soft, almost scarce tannins. They taste showy and extravagant -- in a word, flamboyant.

Affordable Wine Neighborhoods
Paul Lukacs
Mar 12, 2013

With wine as with real estate, value is determined in large measure by location. Much as when buying a house, what you end up paying for a bottle has an awful lot to do with where the grapes were grown. Some of this is simple economics. Land prices in the world's most famous wine regions--Burgundy's Côte d'Or, for example, or the Napa Valley--are very high. To pay the mortgage, vintners have to charge top dollar for their wares. But not all high quality grape-growing regions are all that famous. Just as every city or town has a neighborhood or two in which the houses cost less but are intrinsically just as attractive as those in fancier districts, the world of fine wine has regions that produce extremely high quality wines for more affordable prices.

Savoring Wine's Present
Paul Lukacs
Feb 19, 2013

Only in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries did vintners begin to fashion wines that resembled, if only faintly, the wines made now. This was also the age that began to value taste conceived of not simply as physical sensation but also as aesthetic discernment. People aspired to cultivate and then display taste, and knowing something about win--how to choose the 'right' wine in the 'right' circumstance--became a de rigueur mark of refinement and discrimination.

Priorat's Place in Wine's New World
Paul Lukacs
Jun 16, 2009

As Hugh Johnson counsels in his A Life Uncorked, 'the way to explore any wine is to make comparisons.' I definitely took that advice to heart last month when I traveled to northeastern Spain and the Catalonian region of Priorat to explore the wines being made there. Virtual unknowns twenty years ago, those wines have become connoisseurs' darlings, prized (and priced) today alongside top-flight European reds from not only Rioja and Ribera, but also Bordeaux and Burgundy, Piedmont, Tuscany and the Rhône. To understand why, I wanted to see the vineyards, visit the cellars, and of course taste as many of the wines as possible--always keeping in the back of my mind the characteristics that have made the world's other celebrated reds so special.