Flavor Of Grapes Is Ground In

Posted: June 14, 2000

At its simplest, wine-making is just the business of crushing grapes and letting the yeast from the grape skin ferment the juice.

Fermentation turns the sugar in the grape into alcohol and produces a bunch of other flavors at the same time. Sometimes the wine tastes just like the kind of grape juice it was made from. Sometimes it tastes more complicated - other flavors are induced when the newly created alcohol comes into contact with the grape's natural flavors.

But where do the flavors of the grape come from? One obvious source is the grape variety. In the same way that a Macintosh apple has a taste that's different from a Delicious, cabernet sauvignon grapes taste different from merlot. There is a second and more mysterious source of grape flavor: the ground in which the grapes were planted. This is one of the reasons why a merlot-based wine from Argentina tastes different than a merlot from France.

The French, of course, have a word for the effect of the earth on the wine. They call it terroir (tare-WAHR). Some winemakers think that when they make a wine, what they're doing is bringing out the characteristics of the earth. For these guys, wine is a success when it expresses terroir, but not all terroirs are agreeable.

So if you grew grapes in Fairmount Park, should the wine taste like deer droppings and empty beer cans? Would wine from Long Beach Island smell like sunscreen and money?

Suppose the terroir is weird. How do you know you have a good wine if it's a strange wine?

They say that a good taster learns, a great taster unlearns. Here are some locally available eccentricities:

Dreyfus, Ashby & Co. Oregon Pinot Noir Reserve, '96 ($21 wholesale): In spite of the fact that it sounds like it was made by a law firm, this wine deliberately flouts the most hidebound convention of all: It's a red wine that exhibits the flavors of a white. There is a pronounced citrusy tang followed by the hint of some tropical fruit. The flavor fades quickly, followed by a long, almost piquant finish. The weirdness is not unpleasant - take a bottle on a picnic along with some fresh tuna salad.

Madiran "Heart of Darkness" '97 ($9): The label is by Ralph Steadman, the "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" guy: violent, splashy color tightly controlled. It would be nice to say that the wine has the same character, but it doesn't. The body is a little too thin to support the flavor, which has a meaty, spicy quality. Not exactly like beef jerky in a bottle, but almost. This was a weird wine before dinner, but added a lot when the steak was served.

Charbono California "La Farfalla" '98 ($9): For those of you who thought Charbono was the skinny lady who was married to Sonny, this wine will be a surprise. Intended to mimic the style of an Italian wine, it has the fruit in the bouquet and the snappy acidity, but lacks an expansive flavor.

There's a suggestion of smokiness too, that made it beautiful with a roast tomato fresh from the grill. This one may be worth watching for a vintage or two.