I saw a tweet the other day in which a wine commentator decried what he said was the peppery taste in a syrah he was reviewing.
The comment was amusing and led me to conclude that the blanding of American wine was nearly complete.
Before setting off on this diatribe against mindless commentary, let me defend myself by saying that the old Latin phrase beginning "De gustibus" still holds true: About matters of taste there is no debate. You like sauerkraut, I don't, and neither one of us is "right."
Still, with wine as with a lot of other consumer goods, there is a standard of quality and then there is a lack of same.
Take for example automobile design. I doubt a single person on the planet would suggest that a Yugo looks better than a Mercedes.
Or music: the worst of Mozart versus the best of polka on an accordion.
With wine, a similar case can be made, and one of the classic cases of myopia, or a simple lack of knowledge, would be to suggest that syrah with a peppery aroma is a bad thing. Indeed, the peppery smell (called rotuntone) in a syrah is an aroma most commonly found in the grape. Having it means it is appropriate to the wine.
After tasting some 30 expensive ($40 and above) syrahs last week at a wine competition, two other judges on the panel and I concluded that U.S. winemakers are happiest when they can make massive wines with high alcohols and damn the torpedoes.
One of the judges with me on the panel was Richard Peterson, a longtime wine maker, and a man who knows about as much about wine, now and historically, as anyone. I asked him his opinion of the syrahs we had just tasted.
He just shook his head and said, "They don't taste very much like syrah, do they?" We gave very few of the wines medals. What they lacked, for the most part, was an aroma called varietal character.
This is the aroma most associated with each variety of grape we use to make wine. Sauvignon blanc, for instance, at its best smells a bit like new mown hay; zinfandel has a strawberry/raspberry/cherry aroma with a sort of spice note; gewurztraminer is like carnations, gardenias, and lichee nuts.
Some grapes (like chardonnay and pinot gris) are not blessed with assertive aromas. Some (like the native American Concord grape) are quite assertive, almost pungent. That Concord smell has become associated with jellies and jams.
Pepper is most commonly smelled in syrah, notably those grown in a cooler climate, and is especially prized in some areas of the world such as France's northern Rhone, Northern Victoria in Australia, and parts of New Zealand.
So although someone may dislike it, the characteristic is a genuine part of a fine syrah, just as a trace of dried herbs is an essential part of cabernet sauvignon and green tea and olives are elements in a fine merlot.
Will you find varietal character in most wines? No, not any more. In fact, my point above is the saddest part of the tale.
The Twitter disparagement of pepper in a syrah, mentioned above, is merely the latest attempt by some Americans to make less distinctive the character of our wine. The failure to understand varietal character has, in fact, infected even some of the most vocal and visible wine critics, some of whom demand richness and "concentration" and decry distinctiveness.