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BERGER: Appreciation of past wines

Published: Wednesday, January 2, 2013 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 1, 2013 at 11:34 a.m.

Decades ago, the charming British wine expert Harry Waugh, former director of the famed Chateau Latour French wine estate, was asked, “When was the last time you mistook a Bordeaux for a Burgundy?”

Replied the inimitable Waugh, with a trace of self-deprecatory humor, “Not since lunch.”

Waugh was proud of the response. I met the man several times and he reveled in the fact that, even then in the 1960s when most wines were distinctively more different from one another than they subsequently became, it was only human nature to be fallible.

And part of this was the fault not of the taster, but of the wine.

Think of the Waugh remark carefully: It says much for pinning the blame not on the potential identifier, but on the producer — which says more about the wine than it does about Waugh.

I suspect that what Waugh really was saying was that when a great taster mistakes a Bordeaux for a Burgundy, it really means that the wine in question is a horrid example of what it is supposed to be!

An example: Waugh and dozens of other great tasters of the 1960s knew that a St. Julien differed from a St. Estèphe in distinctive ways (aromas, textures, tannin levels), and that it wasn't terribly difficult to guess that a wine was from one of the Bordeaux districts as long as it was true to type.

If a St. Estèphe tasted like a St. Julien, it was a bad St. Estèphe! And vice versa.

Today the world has changed. In the eyes of some wine evaluators, a St. Estèphe that smells and tastes like a St. Estèphe is a poor wine because it is not plump, ripe, generous, soft and delicious.

The numerical rating concept that's been with us since the 1980s is a linear scale. It was created to compare wines to one another, but has left us with nowhere to place the great wines of the past that diverge from the obvious, simplistic and tasty.

Indeed, a distinctive character no longer is a plus for many wines; it's a minus. Look at Sancerre, Chinon, traditionally made Chianti, and other wines that once were at their best when they had high acidity. Many have been compromised to appeal to the scorers who desire an easy-to-drink style of wine. And those that adhere to the traditional style are often demeaned by those who don't understand them.

For reasons such as this, we now see a lot of syrah that lacks any regional character, many cabernets that do not smell or taste like cabernet, and chardonnays that have become a parody of what it once was.

The times they have a-changed. Purists with good memories write me they are sad that so many wines have been commoditized. Yet some wines are unchanged. And so we have our wine of the week.

Wine of the Week: 2010 Les Freres Couillaud Chateau de la Ragoutiere Muscadet Sevre et Maine, Sur Lie ($15) — Here is a dry white wine that will appeal to purists: minerally to the point of austerity, but the flavors are classic western Loire Valley with citrus and bay leaf notes, and a crisp finish that will enhance simple seafood dishes. Not really for sipping alone, but some older purists love to challenge their palate with the wine's acidity!

Dan Berger lives in Sonoma County, where he publishes “Vintage Experiences,” a weekly wine newsletter. Write to him at winenut@gmail.com.

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