Thursday, March 24, 2011

Can a teenager help create great wine in Napa?

When I told Jean Hoefliger, winemaker at Napa Valley's Alpha Omega winery, that my attempt at blending wines produced olfactory manure piles, he sympathetically invited me to a personal blending lesson. "It's not rocket science," he reassured.
So on the appointed day, there we were with 4 bottles of 2009 Napa wine and 6 empty glasses each neatly arranged in front of us. Jean introduced the wines in terms even I understood: Merlot the sensual female, Cabernet Franc the energetic teenager, Cabernet Sauvignon usually the big masculine macho guy, and Petite Verdot the mysterious extra mask. When tasted, each of the components provided some interest, but none really shined.

That's exactly why Jean blends.
(Pretend you're a Frenchman when pronouncing his name.)

But what percentages to blend? OK. My guess: 20% of the female (I like women), 25% of the teenager, 50% macho Cabernet Sauvignon–which wasn't really super manly in 2009 and 5% Petite Verdot.

We tasted my blend. Wow. My nose got a pleasant workout trying to identify all the aromas, much more complex and interesting than any of the individual components. But my poor palate felt like it was going over a Himalaya-sized washboard, not exactly a scenic drive through Napa Valley. And the tannins grabbed my tongue like a Sumo wrestler coated with sharp needles and he wouldn't let go on the finish.

Jean explained that the aromas would change over time, but not the complexity. So we want to maintain those. Let's cut back on the teenager and increase Mr. Cab Sauvignon. But won't Mr. Sauvignon's famous stinging tannins just increase that Sumo-sized tannic grip? No. Jean explained that adding tannin to tannin softens them. I confessed skepticism. But I did know that after being stung with nettle, stinging oneself again in the exact same spot actually pulls out the itch-causing toxins. Could the same be true for tannins?

But I took the professional winemaker at his word about
tannin in tannin. So my reconfigured formula was 15% female, 15% CF teenager, 65% Mr. CS big guy and 5% mysterious PV mask. Jean was right. The Sumo tannic needles had lost their stinging grip. And my little taste buds were no longer bumping over a 28,000 foot washboard.

I had to admit, it was a better effort. But the finish was still too short for a great wine.

I suggested some 5% changes, then felt like an ax man. The pro agreed to changes, but used a much gentler touch. He cuts the feminine Ms M by 3% to 11%, increases the teenager by 2% to 17%, keeps Mr. Macho at 65% and increases mysterious PV by 2% to a total of 7%.

We taste.

Wow. How did he do that with those tiny 2 and 3% changes? The rainbow of aromas were still there, the palate had an interesting journey and the finish was extended without stumbling off a tannic cliff.

My come-aways from Jean's patient teaching:
1) Clearly identify each individual in the line up at the beginning. Characteristics change from year to year.
2) To mellow tannins, add tannin. (Can two wrongs make a right?)
3) Experience counts. Jean knew that the aromas would change characteristics but not necessarily in number.
4) I can trust my own nose and palate.

Thank you, Jean for the lesson. But you don't have to worry about competition from me.

No comments: