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Berger: What do we mean by 'best wine'?


I recently tried the finest young red wine I have ever tasted. I will chat about that in due course. But first ...

When a wine is listed as the best of its type, most wine lovers pay attention.

So what can you take away from seeing a listing of 12 different wines from different producers, different soils, and different wine-making regimes when each is rated to be identical to the other and perfect?

Perhaps that wasn't intended when well-known wine critic Robert Parker blessed 12 different Napa Valley wines with his highest accolade. He gave each of the 12 wines scores of 100 points.

Maybe the wines differ from one another. If so, is there a single specific thread that links them? (The key word here is "specific.") Not that I can tell. Hyperbole was extreme about each of the 12, and I'm sure Parker found something that linked the wines.

What was lost in all the news stories and hoopla surrounding this proclamation was the simple fact that scores are not facts. They are opinions and are based on no particular parameters other than Parker's say-so.

I'm not suggesting that the 100-point wines aren't any good. What I am saying is that if all such wines were tasted double-blind and held to a set of rigid quality parameters, I suspect a handful of wines that scored 99, or 98, or even 90 might have fared as well the 100s.

And what would those rigid quality parameters consist of? Well, for one thing, they would include the varietal being placed under the microscope. Isn't varietal character an elemental part of wine evaluation?

What score is appropriate for an impressive cabernet sauvignon if it smells and tastes more like a zinfandel?

So let's return to the finest young wine I ever tasted. I had it twice — once double-blind as a member of the judging panel for the Six Nations Wine Challenge in Sydney, and a month later at the producer's modest tasting room in the Martinborough district at the southern end of New Zealand's north island.

It was a cold-climate syrah. And it was utterly fantastic, nearly unbelievable, because it delivered a classic look at the varietal, conforming perfectly to the textbook aroma and taste of cool-climate syrah. And it helps define Martinborough.

The wine is from the tiny Kusuda Winery, the project of a passionate and extremely skilled winemaker by the name of Hiroyuku Kusuda, who eschewed a lucrative career in Japanese banking to pursue perfection in wine. He succeeded.

Not so incidentally, I'm not the only one who thinks Kusuda's syrah is astounding. The wine was the hands-down winner of the syrah class at the Six Nations Wine Challenge last August in Australia, then at the end of the judging it won the whole shootin' match, being voted the Best of Show winner. And it scored high on all six judges' scoresheets.

New Zealand wine columnist Bob Campbell has raved about the wine for years. I agree with him.

New Zealand's red wines have been exploding in quality for the last decade, and now with the country's pinot noirs in great demand worldwide, its cool-climate syrahs are getting a more careful look - especially from southern hemisphere writers. Most northern hemisphere writers haven't even heard of New Zealand syrah. But the category is exciting.

Still, it rings few bells with those who are impressed mainly by a red wine's concentration. It was that very trait that gave the 12 Napa wines their perfect ratings, not adherence to a varietal or regional style.

So, yes, Parker is right — for him and all the Parkerites. And I am right for anyone who likes structure, balance, and a distinctiveness that, for me, trumps power every day of the year.

Oh, one more thing. The Kusuda syrah is almost always sold out as soon as Hiroyuki releases it. As are his pinot noirs and rieslings. But many other New Zealand red wines are available, and a load of them are sensational.

What scores do they get? I don't care and neither should you.

<b>Wine of the Week:</b> 2011 Francis Coppola Claret, California, Diamond Collection ($18) — This swashbuckler cabernet sauvignon blend is nicely varietal with herbs and cherries crossing swords for the lead role, and a bit player being the rough tannins that should smooth out by the second reel.

<i>Dan Berger lives in Sonoma County, where he publishes "Vintage Experiences," a weekly wine newsletter. Write to him at winenut@gmail.com.</i>