Within the wine-competition community, however, a move is afoot to arrange classes of wines by appellation as well as by varietal or style. Murphy and other competition directors who are heading in this direction believe that results will be more meaningful to vintners and consumers alike if wines that emerge from a roughly similar climate and culture are compared side-by-side without intrusions by entries from far different winemaking environments. It's putting into practice the belief that a wine should say something of its "terroir," or place of origin. "We've made this change because we believe it is more fair to the wines, and our goal is to highlight the best wines being produced in each region," said Murphy at the outset.
Judges embraced the concept, but not without qualification. Some wondered whether knowing the place of origin for a class of wine might prejudice judges to instinctively look more favorably on varietals from regions with reputations for doing especially well by them (such as pinot noir and Russian River Valley) and less favorably on varietals from shakier terrain (chardonnay out of the Sierra foothills). Ultimately, a detailed analysis of the Dallas results may indicate whether that happened, but even then I suspect any differences will be slight and insignificant, given that seasoned judges are programmed to continually calibrate their perspective. Nevertheless, all we have to go on right now is speculation and anecdote.
Napa Valley means cabernet sauvignon, and we had plenty of them. Of the 210 wines we tasted, 90 were cabernet sauvignon. We gave gold medals to 14 of them, or 16 percent, which is somewhat high by customary wine-competition standards, though some Napa Valley partisans are likely to think that's shockingly low. Other members of the panel may disagree, but I think we went into the cabernet-sauvignon class thinking it would be more favorably impressive overall. Our gold-medal cabernets - as well as several silver-medal winners - generally were praised for the generosity of their fruit, their deft integration of oak, their firm spines, and their roundness and accessibility. Almost all the golds were by split votes; those on which the panel agreed most quickly and unanimously tended to share bright cherry flavors, a persistent finish and were more lithe than heavy. At the other extreme, 44 cabernet sauvignons got no medal at all. If I were a Napa Valley winemaker, this is the figure that would concern me most. Why such a disappointing showing by nearly half the field? Few of the wines were clearly flawed, but those that got spurned almost without exception were off balance - tannins were too showy, oak was too dominant, the heat of alcohol too searing. Where notes of eucalyptus and mint might appear, we found instead stalkiness.
The cabernets were mostly from the 2008 and 2009 vintages, 34 of the former, 27 of the latter. Six gold medals went to each, which suggests, in an entirely superficial way, that 2009 is the superior of the two years, though I hesitate to make that flat-out assessment, given the power and grace of so many Napa Valley cabernet sauvignons I previously tasted from 2008. To me, the biggest surprise of the class was that one gold medal went to a wine from 2010. This is really early for a Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon from that harvest to be entered in a competition. (When competition results are released publicly I will do a follow-up posting to identify award-winning players.)
|Bill Pfeiffer tracks another panel's ratings|
Aside from a "textbook" pinot grigio, a couple of vibrant sauvignon blancs, and a surprisingly strong class of chardonnay (22 entries, five gold medals, five silvers), the rest of the Napa Valley field was pretty much a letdown. Only four pinot noirs and two syrahs were entered, and none won a gold medal. Merlot was the most disappointing class. We tasted 24 and gave just one gold medal; 16 got nothing at all. All the metal the eight zinfandels could muster was two bronzes.
Bottom line: If I actually were to visit Napa Valley on a shopping expedition in the near future, I'd concentrate on Bordeaux-inspired blends and cabernet sauvignon, and leave the pinot noir and zinfandel for other regions.