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Wine Advice that Nobody Asked For: The Right Stuff

Some time ago, in a pre-Covid world, I was traveling in Austria to see the vines and taste the wines. I was there with a group of buyers from restaurants and other wine shops along with the local importer and a few of their representatives. When we taste wine at the store, it’s a pretty small subset of decision makers, maybe two or three of us, so when you get to travel with a dozen different buyers whose stores have different needs and styles, it’s always interesting to see their approach.

We arrived at one of our destinations, a perfectly nice winery, helmed by some very attractive people. Upon entering their cellar there was so much new oak that the smell was immediately obvious, and one of the other buyers remarked, “Ah, the smell of success.” This gave me pause. Success smells like oak?

I kept that in mind as we toured the winery and tasted the wines. The owners were some of the most hospitable of the trip, and they made what might have been the best Gulasch, and were good enough to open some wine from the 1980’s for us to try.

But despite all of the positivity, I just was not that enamored with the wines. Perhaps because all of the reds, and a few of the whites smelled of nothing but “success,” lacking some of the brighter, fresher flavors that we had tasted at some of the other wineries on our trip. And anybody who has tasted wine with me may know that oak is not typically what I seek out in my wines.

They are a successful winery, their wines sell and are quite popular in some circles, but it makes me wonder if the enthusiasm for so much new oak limits their appeal or increases it. New oak, old oak, what is the right thing to do in winemaking? Of course you would think that visiting wineries, meeting winemakers, and coming to know their philosophies would answer this question. But when there’s a question of philosophy it tends to increase questions, not answers.

A trip to Bordeaux ten years ago (man, how time flies), really drove that point home for me. In addition to oak, or stainless steel, we visited about a half dozen wineries incorporating concrete vessels into the aging process. Through this process I saw concrete in the shape of cubes, trapezoids, cylinders, and eggs. Concrete eggs are gaining widespread prominence because, the theory goes, they are well suited to natural suspension and integration of the lees (the spent yeast cells that impart texture, structure and flavor to the finished wine).

And guess what? When pressed as to why that particular shape, each winemaker said that it was because it was the best shape for winemaking. I wish I could say that one winery had a superior wine to another on that trip to Bordeaux, but I can’t. They were just different – and very tasty in their own way.

So if you find a bottle of wine that you really love, or that you really hate, see if you can find out how it’s being made, because there is more technical information in winemaking available to the public than ever before. Check out a winery or importer’s website and you will find more tech details than you’ll probably want, or you may learn why a certain style of wine appeals to you.

Beware zealots and sophists who claim to know the true secrets to making the best wine, because in my experience there is no right way. Lots of bad ways, plenty of good ways, but no right way.

-Joe Buchter, Import Wine Buyer

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