A genuinely fun thing that can happen at a professional wine competition is discovering your assigned table of four judges will be evaluating the wines you like best—ones you actually like to drink.
In my case, that’s sparkling and champagnes in whites, pinot noir in the reds.
In California some months back, I was very happy to get assigned to judge both my favorites! Other panels weren’t so lucky. I heard one judge moan about facing a day filled with overly woody oak-driven chardonnays; another complained about a raft of merlots.
My panel seemed blessed by the wine gods—or so we thought.
The sparkling rounds went along fine. There’s nothing nicer than starting the day with 30-plus glasses of bubbles.
Then came the pinot noirs. And what a botched bunch of wines! Almost nothing even closely resembled the lighter, midrange pinot noirs I had been buying right off local store shelves for years.
We had about 50 of these to slug through, one “flight” after another, 10 to 12 glasses at a time, each tasted “blind” with a numbered tag on the stem.
So what went wrong with these pinot noirs?
One judge, a well-known winemaker who had worked in the corporate wine world, had a pretty good idea: With one or two exceptions, these pinot noirs had been made by committee, not as the winemakers may have really wanted them to be.
She noted the color. Almost all of them were unnaturally deep and dense reddish-purple compared to how pinot noir should look. When pressed, it’s light pink-ish at most, and as it ages a year or two the desirable color becomes a translucent, brick-colored red, she said.
She also pointed out that fresh-pressed pinot noir often needs to be given additional color, which is done by leaving the freshly pressed wine juice soaking with the purple skins to leach. But even with that process, pinot noir is rarely this deep.
Next, she noticed the flavors. Several were oddly off and out of kilter, which she said indicated that they may not have been 100 percent pinot noir. Maybe, she suggested, the deeper colored grape syrah had been added to bulk up the overall volume.
You can do that legally, she pointed out, and still call the wine “pinot noir,” provided you don’t add more than 20 percent to the total volume.
Considering that pinot noir is by far the most popular red these days and fetches on average far more than a comparable cabernet sauvignon or merlot, a 20 percent increase in volume of a pinot noir is pretty substantial.
All in all, the winemaker surmised, these pinot noirs appeared to have been made to maximize volume and thus profit—without much regard to the nuances and flavors natural to pinot noir.
Such manipulations, while legal, are often particularly found in less expensive wines made by marketing teams that have final say over winemakers, particularly at some fairly sizable wineries.
But do they provide consumers with a distinctly good wine that really reflects what pinot noir can and should be? That’s where we all lose out.