5.03.2011

Wine column no. 4: Why oh why?

If a flat tire makes you late for the presentation that could have earned you a promotion, it's safe to say that you may be having a bad day.

But for wine, the factors leading to a bad review aren't always as obvious. Did that wine purveyor keep the wine he or she sells near a heater? Did something go wrong with the cork in the bottle itself, making the wine take on a rotting odor? Or is it just that this wine needs more time to mature, so that it can become the best that it hopes to be?
The truth is that there's a lot about drinking wine that's essentially a gamble, and we'll be the first to admit that much of it is a subjective experience. Add food to the equation, and the results can be even more complex.
So what are some reasons that bottles of the same vintage, from the same vineyard, can turn out to be so drastically different?
According to Wine Spectator, storage matters, since heat does nothing for wine. But bottles lying in the same cellar can also mature differently. Sometimes, the cork "may respond to identical climate conditions in non-identical ways."
There's also such thing as lot variation even among identical wines. This means that grapes may be picked and fermented by lot, or selected batches, depending on when they ripen or what part of the vineyard they come from. And if you have part of a vineyard that gets more sun, or that gets more cool air, this type of lot variation can make a real difference.
Also, some lots may be separated during the barrel-aging process, the magazine said, before they are consolidated in large tanks. Another factor is what part of the barrel the wine is taken from: Whether it's the top or the bottom of the same barrel, it could make a difference.
And that's just talking about what the wine goes through before it makes it to the liquor store. Wine also evolves the longer it's been stored, and then once it's opened, it can transform the more it's been exposed to air. Temperature has a hand in wine's flavors and textures, too.
So here are two wines that we felt changed in some way, either through their reactions to food, time, or just our own preferences. The third wine is an example of a bottle that we think may need a bit more time in the cellar.

2008 Steele Shooting Star Blue Franc
This walked the line. It was strong enough to root itself in earth, yet also sensitive enough to absorb the scents of its own blackberry shadows. Meaning, this 2008 Shooting Star Blue Franc recommended by Tim at Winetree may have cloaked itself in dry austerity, but it had an alter ego that alerted us to the disguise. Ever felt the grip of a warm handshake, only to be rebuffed by a cold smile? That's what this fruity Blaufrankisch was like. And there's nothing wrong with that: Some wines, like people, take some time to really get to know.
Luckily, we happened to be the fortunate ones. I had opened this on a Friday, when at first, the nose was aromatic red fruit but the flavor was bland. There was also a lot of sediment. So I corked it, and the next day, we poured another glass with pasta and venison tomato sauce. Unusually for a second-night bottle, this Washingtonian developed a second wind, bringing flavor into the mix. It was as if it had been testing us, so that we were the bottled, and it was the one preparing its review. I'm not sure that we passed. But with its reddish fruits, underlined by a coarse, rugged edge of texture, it certainly did. Which means: If there's another $10-$19.99 wine we'd like to try, it'd be this one. 13.5 percent alcohol.

2006 Beringer Knights Valley Cabernet Sauvignon
If ever a wine could introduce itself with warmth, and then exit with quiet restraint, it would be this Cabernet Sauvignon, which I'm sure we bought at Schnucks some long time ago. Greg grilled up pork loins, steamed asparagus, and prepared couscous as the night teemed with rain drops all around us. Yet for an evening flush with storms, we sat unaffected. That's because we were in our dining room, swapping stories and laughs, until this fruity and earthy 2006 finished itself in its own version of a gentle bow. Meanwhile, there we were to wonder how it had managed to end so smoothly and unobtrusively. Because here's the truth: We'd had this wine before, and it wasn't good. If we remember right, that particular 2006 was sour and bland, and it was only because we had stored this wine in a relative's cellar that we even decided to try it again. So there was the time in the bottle factor, yes. But another reason for the change was that it had spent some time exposed to air and the food we had it with. This particular Californian started off with a strong band of red fruit and was followed by the flavor of a long stretch of earth. Over the course of the evening, though, the two seemed to realize they could work together, and by night's end, they had blended quite well. $20-$29.99. 14.3 percent alcohol.

2008 Kokomo Cuvee
Some wines are like calligraphy. They know when to pulse, when to thin, when to burst with color and when to fade into the background. Other wines pound the page, an ogre's version of delicacy. This 2008 Kokomo Cuvee from Sonoma Coast, Calif., is somewhere in between the two. It's not that it's a bad wine; it's just very uneven. For all its red fruit, it's also got an edgy astringency ... kind of like an angry smile. I don't know if it needs to hide out for a while in a dark cellar to temper its mood, or if it's already reached the height of its maturity. Time will tell, we guess. Winetree. $20-$29.99.

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