Hold the ole: Wines of Spain often show signs of grape abuse @

VINTAGE POINT

April 11, 1993|By MICHAEL DRESSER

It was a mistake, perhaps, to conduct a tasting of Spanish red wines during the days immediately after a meeting with Olivier Humbrecht.

Mr. Humbrecht is the winemaker at Zind-Humbrecht, the premier estate in Alsace and possibly the greatest white-wine producer in the world.

During a visit to Baltimore last month, he presented an array of wines that boggled the mind -- muscats, rieslings, gewurztraminers, pinots gris and blanc. And whether they came from the great 1990 Alsace vintage or the difficult 1991 vintage, Zind-Humbrecht's wines were electrifying.

Unfortunately, the greatness of the Zind-Humbrecht wines played havoc with the premise for this article: that Spanish red wines offer an array of fine values. After sampling 16 Spanish reds over the course of the next week, my enthusiasm for the topic wilted in the face of a succession of wines that tasted more of forest than of fruit.

It is truly unfair to hold any of the world's wines -- especially reds -- up to comparison with the Zind-Humbrecht marvels.

But I couldn't help myself. Mr. Humbrecht's words and wines were still vivid in my memory as I tasted such travesties as the 1985 Faustino I Rioja Gran Reserva, a $20 red wine that had been killed by excessive oak and manipulation.

The contrast between the hands-off, nonintrusive style of the Zind-Humbrecht wines and the prevailing ethos of the Spanish winemakers was stark.

Some of the Spanish wines were excellent, but all too often the wine told a tale of grape abuse in a darkened cellar where somebody beat it half to death with oaken staves.

Spain is not alone in producing wines that taste too much of wood, but the obsession seems especially strong in that country. Many of its winemakers seem to have lost sight of a central truth: Grapes make wine.

That's it, grapes. Not American oak or French oak or Slovenian oak. Not technological wizardry. Not some special strain of yeast. Grapes -- made in vineyards by the earth, the sun and the rain.

It all seems so simple, but at any time you will find 90 percent of the world's wine industry acting as if humans make wine through a kind of biological alchemy.

The best winemakers, people such as Mr. Humbrecht, know differently.

They know our role is to make the vineyard -- to recognize the best ground, marry it to the best vines and then tend them so that healthy, ripe grapes can make healthy, ripe wines.

Minimal role

And they know that once the grapes are harvested, our role is to help them become the wine they want to be, seasoned gently by yeast and sometimes wood. Then, unless the wine sends chemical signals that amount to a cry for help, the proper human role is minimal.

Mr. Humbrecht, the 30-ish winemaker for Zind-Humbrecht in Alsace, said he spends 70 percent to 80 percent of his time in the vineyard. As for the rest, he said, "I spend more time cleaning the cellar than actually working with the wine."

The tastings also brought back fresh memories of a visit to Baltimore by Michel Chapoutier, the brilliant young winemaker whose fanatical concern for quality has restored the reputation of his ancient family winery to pre-eminence in the Rhone Valley.

When he recently gave a tasting for a group of Baltimore-area wine lovers, he spoke little about wine making techniques. Rather, he spent a half-hour preaching the gospel of proper soil management.

"When you read an article on wine, you read all about the winemaker and not the vine grower," he complained, launching into a lecture on the glories of low grape yields.

There is no doubt that Spain possesses some wonderful vineyards and a climate that is hospitable to red wine grapes. Its leading native varietals, tempranillo and garnacha, are capable of wonders in the right hands.

But it's also clear that many Spanish winemakers are spending too much time in dark cellars and too little in the bright light of the vineyards.

How else do you explain the 1988 Conde de Valdemar ($8.25) and 1986 Conde de Valdemar Reserva ($13) from Rioja? The cheaper 1988 wine, bursting with fruit and herb flavors, is exceptional -- a superb value by any standard. But the older, more expensive wine is woody and dried out, shot at an age when a fine Rioja should be only approaching its prime.

Not classics

The vintages were not classics, but neither were they disasters. Primarily, it seems the difference was human. The 1988 seemed relatively unmanipulated; the 1986 had the winemaker's fingerprints all over it.

And then there's the 1988 Lorinon Rioja ($11). The watery fruit flavors and skinny structure suggest either a light vintage or excessive crop yields. What does the winemaker do? He zaps it with a full dose of sweet American oak, which is all you end up tasting. It's the same story with the 1989 Faustino VIII Rioja ($10.79).

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