Wines I Hate

I am on record saying that I like all kinds of wine. I enjoy bodaciously bodied, pugnaciously pungent reds from sun-baked places like Priorat. I equally enjoy water white–feather light Vinho Verde, crisp as the Queen’s Linen. Like Captain Hammer, I like the weird stuff, like Blanc de Morgex–planted in the very shadow of the Matterhorn; and Manzanilla Sherry, which is so austere it will peel the enamel off your teeth and so weird that most of it’s most prized flavors are counted in the ‘faults’ section of your flavor chart. I like everything that tastes good and is well made; I like everything that is distinctive and intellectually stimulating. Even Trebbiano.

I could simply say I hate all wines that don’t achieve these standards and leave it at that, but that would be stupid. In order to honestly hate something–rather than merely dislike something because it’s cool to do so–there has to be something actually wrong with it. While the wide and wild world of wine leaves surprisingly few lines uncrossed–Sauternes is made from rotten grapes, for christssake, and that’s not even that nerdy–but there are a few things I consider unequivocally unacceptable.

Too Much Alcohol is a problem. Rajat Paar[1]will tell you much more about this, because it will be written on Rajat Paar’s tombstone “THOU SHALT NOT MAKE PINOT NOIR WITH 14% ALCOHOL”. While I admit to having enjoyed some Pinot Noir at 14.3 or so, I’ve enjoyed the less alcoholic Pinot Noirs more, and whatever wine I’m drinking, from Alsace or Adelaide, there’s nothing that puts me off faster than that sharp sting of excess alcohol. Note that I didn’t nominate a particular percentage. I enjoy my 20% fortified wines as much as any other chap; I drink my whiskey neat, for heaven’s sake, but if I’m looking at two Sierra Foothill Zinfandels, and one of them is 14.7, while the other comes in at 15.8 or something even more outrageous, I’ll take the less alcoholic bottle home. All else being equal, the lower alcohol level suggests a more attentive winemaker.[2] I keep in mind that higher alcohol levels tend to drive sales and prices up,[3] so the less alcoholic wine is therefore likely to be the less aggressively marketed wine, made by a winery more interested in quality than naked sales.

Too Little Acidity is another problem. I like acidity in my wine. I suppose there are some cynically produced, underripe Sauvignon Blancs and bargain-bin Pinot Grigios out there with neon green acidity and little else, but for me, it’s generally better to have more than less. Big jammy reds can be undeniably delicious, but without the acidity to offer counterpoint to all those Phat Phenols, these tend to be one-note wines that disappear from my memory almost as quickly as from my palate. For example: Grenache, a low acid red grape–think Cotes du Rhone or Chateauneuf du Pape–is undrinkable without at least a light current of fresh acidity; with it, the grape becomes one of the friendliest, pleasantest, and dependably delicious varieties available. White wines with too little acidity are usually just disgusting. Riesling would be water without it, drinking Viognier and Chardonnay with too little tartaric acid[4] is like drinking a glass of melted butter. Which is horrifying. I find inoffensively flat wines flatly offensive. Acidity is the active agency in the wine’s flavor and texture. Too much and the wine will be loud and abrasive, but I’m kind of cool with that; at least compared to wine with too little, which is simply a waste of glass.

Wines that Lack Aroma do not impress me. This is largely a problem for over-oaked or immature red wines. While this is one problem that usually has a solution–let the wine sit for a few years–it’s not a comprehensive solution, and wines that reek of cedar and smoke and vanilla and sawdust without showing even one lonely blackberry in the forest suggest two things. First, lack of balance; Second; aggressive marketing, for just as alcohol is a quick and dirty way to drive price, so is using ever more and newer oak. If the wine is powerful enough to stand up to two years in new French oak, the fruit will shine through even in the beginning. If it doesn’t, it’s cause for concern.[5]

Banana Wines. This is at least partly because I don’t like bananas all that much, but when I talk about Banana wine, I’m condemning ultra-clean, ultra-modern, ultra-cool-fermentation. At temperatures so mild yeast can barely get their drank on, the aroma compound Amyl-Acetate is produced. In the 1980s, when wine regions all over the world were turning their back on traditional practices in favor of Ultra-Modern techniques, white wines ended up in temperature controlled fermentation tanks, which were turned down as far as possible. This was the moment when places like Rueda in Spain and Friuli in Italy went from making flat and oxidized white wines that all tasted terrible to producing fresh and crisp white wines that all tasted exactly the same. While this was undeniably an improvement, the twenty years since have seen right-thinking wineries put their new toys in context. Refrigeration is clearly beneficial, but just as too much salt ruins the guacamole, too much refrigeration will strip away the flavors that make wine interesting. The surest sign that you’re missing something is when that strong whiff of banana jumps out at you.

Essentially, I want balanced wines. I especially enjoy creatively balanced wines–like Hunter Valley Semillon from Australia. If wine doesn’t have balance, or I feel like the winemaker is covering over the grapes with all the cosmetics available in a modern winery, I’m probably going to hate it. Especially if it’s Trebbiano.

[1] Famous sommelier, in so far as sommeliers can be called famous. Interesting guy with interesting opinions.

[2] There’s some nuance I’m papering over here. Cold climate regions–where grapes struggle to ripen at all–rarely get too alcoholic, and indeed, it was in cool-ish regions like Bordeaux where the importance of having enough alcohol became linked to our perceptions of quality in the first place, as the alcohol content was the easiest way to tell that the winery had kept yield low enough to make quality wine. While it would be easy to simply flip the rule around and look for the higher alcohol wines from cold places, I’m not convinced that’s totally true, and legal requirements in Europe have caked this cool-climate end of the debate with so much red tape that my opinion doesn’t really matter.

[3] Because old opinions die hard.

[4] Which often comes with too much lactic acid, for those who care about the chemistry.

[5] Notable exception: Barolo. In this case, some suggestion of tar should substitute for fruit. Barolo is weird.

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