March 03, 2009

Thackrey Video and Austrian Riesling

I was happy to stumble upon this multi-part video of California winemaker Sean Thackrey over on the Chowhound site. Thanks for the link Wine Berserkers. Very interesting stuff, from a complex but still down to earth guy.

I've written before about the online Thackrey library where Sean hosts lots of historical texts on winemaking. Unfortunately, I can't read many of them. Nevertheless, I love the contents and the inspiration to even put something like this together.

On the videos, Thackrey takes on a bit of a controversial point. Where most down to earth types in wine seem to downplay the role of the winemaker in making great wine, Thackrey sees the obvious importance of the winemaker. He gets it that even great grapes won't make great wine without a winemaker making many difficult decisions. That's not vanity. To me it's just a fact.

However, I disagree with him on wine descriptors, and feel his own example shows how useful they can be. Sean, like many people in wine, says that descriptors just don't make sense to most people, so they're not useful. Then he gives the example of smelling fresh roasted cacao beans and finding the exact scent he's long noticed in his syrah but never been able to describe. Before he smelled them, the descriptor was have been meaningless to him. Since most of us, including me, can't say we've smelled that particular smell, surely the term is meaningless to us.

Or is it? For someone so attached to old books and inspired by their ability to communicate nearly ancient thoughts to us moderns, I would think Sean see the ability of language to educate us over time. That descriptor inspires me to learn that smell. More importantly, even if I don't have that experience any time soon, I've seen many times how descriptors become meaningful to me even years after first seeing them. I'd argue they were always meaningful. I just took time internalizing that meaning for myself.

This isn't to say I love wine notes full of laundry lists of descriptors. Rather, specific, even esoteric smells, can be incredibly important to communicate in a wine note when they convey something essential about the wine. You can tell in the video that those cacao beans are exactly what Sean senses in his own wine. How's that not meaningful?

Finally, I liked the view of an ETS lab report of the chemistry of one of Sean's syrah musts (I'm assuming it's syrah). Brix over 30, ph near 4.0, and lots of potassium that suggests the ph will shift ever higher after what malic acid is in the juice has fermented into lactic acid. Does Sean acidify?

Now a tasting note, full of meaningless descriptors. Tonight, with a simple pasta dish with asparagus, riccota salada, roasted pine nuts, and some black olives, an Austrian riesling. Specifically the 2004 Hofer Riesling Kabinett. Many people in the US know Winegut Hofer for its inexpensive 1L gruner veltliner with a crown cap, but this riesling is a big step up. Fragrant, green papaya aroma, pure with lots of minerality. It's dry and clean with ripe green apple fruit, lively acidity but nice richness, finishing long, spicy and crisp. It's delicious with dinner.

This isn't sweet kabinett that the Germans sometimes frustrate me with. Instead, it's pure Austrian white wine, dry and bracing but still substantial. I had a bottle of this last year that didn't seem so good. Tonight, this is excellent.

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