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On Tasting
Winemaking and the French Touch
Friday, 9th June, 2006  - David Farmer

The French Touch?

A recent article in the Economist, May, 2006, about the wines of Washington State contained the following passage:

"He allows the young wine to breathe in its glass for a few moments, and then there is a taste. Both the cabernet and Frederick are immediately dense and complex, layered with flavours and aromas as diverse as rose petals, tobacco leaves, pastry frosting and vanilla. Yet they are also elegant; unlike California's wines, they do not overwhelm. Mr Laville smiles. "We try to put the French touch in our wine", he says, "but not too much! Because we make wine for the American market."

Apart from the first few lines going dangerously close to belonging in Private Eye's 'pseuds corner' the passage contains two other curious notions. The wines of Washington are elegant whereas the wines of California overwhelm. Let us skip debating whether California can make elegant wines as obviously it does. What is meant by elegant we should also leave to another day but surely that is going to be in the eye of the beholder?

What is worth pondering is the suggestion that elegant wines are better than wines that overwhelm and that a French touch helps to make them that way. Why this is suggested I have no idea though it is a proposition that is commonly put. Surely you drink what you feel like and many is the day that I like a big full style.

As for the French touch it is hard to know what it means although it is common to hear from French winemakers who seem to believe they have an unnatural gift that cannot be explained. I wonder where this touch was in the heat wave Bordeaux years of 2003 and 2005 that made huge reds. The role of a winemaker is pretty simple; make the best wine possible from the grapes that the vineyard produces. This French winemaker is telling us that he does not do that and has altered the wine to what he thinks the American market likes. He further suggests that it is not really the wine he would like to make.

Perhaps the journalist and the French winemaker are not up to date with the latest news about overwhelming wines.

A rerun in May, 2006 of the 1976 tasting that had Californian wines being tasted against French wines was won again by the Californians. The result suggests that those elegant wines may need to be powered up a bit.

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