The Sommelier: Your Sherpa of Value

Ask your local sommelier for a wine recommendation and you’re likely to get a suggestion for some obscure, enamel stripping high acid low alcohol wine from France or a place you haven’t heard of, right? At least, that’s what wine critics at big name wine publications would have you believe.

It’s not like there isn’t truth to that stereotype. A good sommelier won’t do those things. However, an average or below average sommelier will perpetuate the stereotype and get you to drink something they like to drink along those lines—not that you’d like it. The good somms, especially Master Sommeliers have evolved and will steer you to a wine you will like without making you feel silly. If you want Silver Oak with your halibut and that makes you happy, so be it.

There’s friction between the sommelier community and major wine publications (and their reviewers). On one side, the sommelier is perceived as a snooty know-it-all who turns their nose up at any wine over 14% alcohol made with new oak. On the other side, the wine critic representing a pay-to-play business who’s lifeblood is advertising dollars from major wine conglomerates who just happen to end up gracing a majority of the Top 100 list each year. Coincidence?

Knowing who to trust for wine recommendations isn’t hard. Not one other person can possibly know what you as an individual likes to drink. The best wine for you is the wine you like.

Let’s look at the motivation behind wine publication recommendations. First, it’s important to note wine publications are a business motivated by the almighty dollar. Wine critics cover a region regurgitating the same content (worded differently) over and over in an effort to fill pages of a magazine that’s 50% advertising. “Chewy dense tannins and refined oak”… Sound familiar? The wine critic is not trained to follow any industry standard nor do they have any accreditation—it’s just their opinion. Anyone can give an expensive wine a high rating, especially if the producer is an advertiser. Expensive wines aren’t hard to figure out—someone at your table is bound to like it.

The sommelier is motivated by….well, now let’s look at that. It’s not money. Sommeliers are motivated by something entirely different. The sommelier fights for artists. Small, independent producers with no advertising dollars who happen to make great wines need a champion, and that champion works the floor at finer restaurants. 

The sommelier is more of a filter of typicity. Each grape is supposed to taste like something specific. Merlot has a benchmark. Chardonnay has a benchmark. Riesling has a benchmark. When a winemaker hits the bullseye of what the grape is supposed to be, from the place its grown it gets closer to the center of that grape’s typicity. Often times those producers are relatively unknown from places you wouldn’t think to look. And yes, sometimes the best examples of typicity are lower alcohol wines with less oak. Not always, but often.

Anyone can oak the crap out of a wine and get points. Too much oak usually means higher prices and higher scores. But not necessarily recommendations from sommeliers as the wine loses its typicity. Take the 2009 Chateau Monbousquet from the right bank in Bordeaux for example. Robert Parker gave the wine 95 points. But smell the wine and it neither smells like Merlot, nor does it smell like the place its grown . It smells like a lot of crazy wine making techniques. Some wine lovers and collectors like that, which is fine. But the typicity of the grape is way off.

 

At the end of the day, sommeliers are value shoppers. They’re constantly trying to find the best examples of typicity for each grape at the best possible price, no matter the region. You might get some unexpected recommendations from regions you didn’t expect, such as Domaine Skouras Megas Oenos from Greece ($25 retail) or Graci Etna Rosso ($26 retail). If you like Cabernet based wines from Bordeaux, you might like the Skouras. If you like Pinot Noir, you might like the Etna Rosso.

Aside from typicity, the sommelier is also looking for structure. If you were to make a movie, you’d have a “good guy” and a “bad guy”. The tension between good and bad creates drama. All the supporting cast adds to the story and makes the drama more intriguing. A wine has tension between sugar and acid. They are the main building blocks to the story. Drama between the two makes the wine interesting. All all the additional flavors serve as a  supporting cast. 

Wines with impeccable balance between sugar and acid are wines you’d probably hear as a suggestion from your sommelier. It’s like a friend recommending a good movie. A sommelier is likely to recommend “Forrest Gump” to you while a wine publication is motivated to recommend “Transformers” to you.

If you cross paths with a sommelier who isn’t listening to you and just wants to recommend a wine they like, they’re doing it wrong. Call them out on it. If they listen to you and your likes, then steer you to something they think you’ll like based on what you described, you probably have a good sherpa of value.

5 Days in Tuscany: The Misadventures of the Chianti Classico Kid

chianti classico The first cigarette I ever had I smoked behind Grandpa's barn. It made me dizzy, and I coughed a lot. "Don't worry, that always happens with the first one," said Grandpa. "Try another one." And you know, he was right.  -Jack Handey

It’s funny the things you remember from childhood. I don’t remember the first tooth I lost, or the first time I was able to ride a bike without falling over. But some some odd reason I remember the first bottle of wine I ever laid eyes on. It was one of those bowling pin shaped bottles of Chianti wrapped in a wicker basket. Maybe it was the texture of the exterior or the round squatty shape. Over the years I would see that bottle over and over, often times with a candle crammed into the top of it with layers of candle wax dripping down the side.

A bottle of Chianti isn’t particularly the best bottle to remember, but it was somewhat iconic. Many of us grow up associating the word, “Chianti” with that bottle.

Here’s a pop quiz—what bottle comes to mind when I saw the words, “Chianti Classico”? Therein lies the fork in the proverbial road of cross slicing (aka that immediate image that pops into your mind as an association to a word). My hope with this article is after you finish reading it (or get distracted by Facebook) is to get you to picture something other than a wicker-laden glass candle holder when you hear the words, “Chianti Classico”.

somm

Being a sommelier is a daily reward of a lifestyle that most people plan as vacations. When the folks at the Chianti Classico Consorzio asked if I’d like to come visit with a small group I first did what most Italian men do. I shook my head and said, “no” with my bottom lip sticking out and arms crossed. “No” again just for good measure. “No” with a little extra ‘hhhh’ on the end.

They weren’t phased, but before they could hang up and said, “okay” because I think that’s how you’re supposed to negotiate in Italy. I’m studying to take the Advanced Sommelier exam, which means I need to taste lots of wine and understand why it is what it is in the glass. Color, aromas, structure all point to the unique conditions where the grapes grow. Any time I can be immersed in a region like Chianti Classico it only helps in my studies.

On a map, Chianti and Chianti Classico can best be described as a donut and donut hole where Chianti Classico is the donut hole in the middle. It represents a place that’s supposed to be better than regular ol’ Chianti with slightly different laws that allow for a bit higher alcohol and a bit more oak aging.

There’s an important thing that happened recently for Chianti Classico wines. The Chianti Classico 2000 study was a major initiative that the entire region took part in in an effort to match the best Sangiovese vines to the best growing conditions. You see, the region is old. I mean really old. Grand Duke Cosimo III de’ Medici carved out the subzone in 1716, but the region didn’t get its DOCG status until 1984. Over time, the hillsides were planted with hundreds of different Sangiovese clones—not necessarily matching the right clone to the right site. Many of those clones were inferior and things were just a mess. So the Consorzio got together in 2000 narrowed down the number of clones to a dozen or so, and they found the most ideal places to plant each clone to bring out the best of Sangiovese.

Thirteen years later we’re starting to see a dramatic increase in quality in Chianti Classico wines as a result of that major Chanti 2000 effort. In fact, there’s a brand new category of Chianti Classico wine being introduced in 2013 called Gran Selezione with new oak aging laws (at least 30 months in oak) and a new level of quality.

Chianti Classico

To understand the different levels of Sangiovese quality, we can break it down into categories. First, all of these wines come from the Tuscany region. Second, it's good to know Chianti and Chianti Classico are regulated by the DOCG laws (ie..aging, grapes allowed, minimum alcohol etc..). Third, it's useful to know wineries who don't want to adhere to the DOCG laws can put themselves into the IGT category which gives much more freedom to use whatever grapes they want, which is why "Super Tuscans" are bigger and bolder. They tend to use higher amounts of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah in their wines that DOCG laws forbid. The DOCG laws are there to basically guarantee a certain level of quality in the wines based on alcohol level, oakiness and purity of the region. Each additional tick of alcohol or aging makes the wine "bigger" and arguably "better".

Chianti DOCG requirements

Must be 70-100% Sangiovese Minimum alcohol level must be 11.5% Wines may not be released until March 1 of the year following harvest (not very much barrel time)

Chianti Riserva DOCG requirements

Must be 70-100% Sangiovese Minimum alcohol level must be 12% Wines must age 2 years starting January 1 of the year following harvest (to add more oak and body)

Chianti Classico DOCG requirements

Must be 80-100% Sangiovese (other grapes are often Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot) Minimum alcohol level must be 12% Wines may not be released until October 1 of the year following harvest

Chianti Classico Riserva DOCG requirements

Must be 80-100% Sangiovese (other grapes are often Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot) Minimum alcohol level must be 12.5% Wines must age 24 months starting January 1 of the year following harvest w/ 3 of those months in bottle

Chianti Classico Gran Selezione DOCG requirements (based on Chianti Classico 2000 study)

Must be 80-100% Sangiovese (other grapes are often Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot) Minimum alcohol level must be 12.5% Wines must age 30 months starting January 1 of the year following harvest w/ 3 months in bottle Wines must also be estate grown fruit.

Brunello di Montalcino DOCG Requirements 

Just to confuse consumers more there's another region in Tuscany that makes Sangiovese. Brunello di Montalcino (and Rosso Montalcino) may have the perception of being "better" but that's only because the word, "Chianti" isn't in its name. On the quality scale above it's on par with Chianti Classico. Is Brunello really better? If it is, only by a slim margin. It might be a little bit bigger or a little bit more, but it's definitely more expensive and usually not ready to drink when young unlike Chianti Classico. Must be 100% Sangiovese Minimum alcohol level must be 12.5% Wines must age 2 years in oak plus 4 months in bottle

During my 5 days in the region, there was a blind tasting featuring 5 Brunello di Montalcino wines vs. 5 Chianti Classico wines from the same vintages. Winemakers from both regions and attendees weren't able to differentiate which was which. My point—Chianti Classic is a good option because it's accessible sooner and it's usually more affordable.

Part 2 of the 5 Days in Tuscany story features the wine and food of the region...