About Me

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Steven Kolpan is Professor and Chair of Wine Studies at The Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, NY. Steven is co-author of Exploring Wine, which has sold more than 125,000 copies, and was nominated as Best Wine and Spirits Book by the James Beard Foundation. Steven is also co-author of WineWise, a consumer-friendly guide to the wines of the world, which won both the 2009 James Beard Foundation Award for Best Beverage Book and the 2009 Georges Duboeuf Award for Best Wine Book of the Year. He is also the author of A Sense of Place, a history of Napa Valley's Niebaum-Coppola / Rubicon Winery (foreword by Francis Ford Coppola) that received the prestigious Versailles Award for Best American Wine Book in 2000. He is a contributing editor and the wine columnist for The Valley Table and Salon.com. In 2007, Steven Kolpan was named Wine Educator of the Year by the European Wine Council. He has been a member of Slow Food International for 20 years. Steven Kolpan lives just outside of Woodstock, New York.

Tasting Great Wines: A New York Approach

What makes a wine “great”?

Traditionally, the great wines of the world have shared several things in common. First, if the wine is based on a single grape varietal, then a great wine must stand as a classic example of that grape type; “varietal character” is the baseline for a great wine. Cabernet Sauvignon, for example, should deliver vibrant aromas of black cherries, black currants, black plums, black olives, and eucalyptus or mint/menthol in a young wine. As the wine ages, the bouquet emerges, featuring hints of cedar and cigar box. Great Cabernet Sauvignon is a full-bodied, in-your-face red wine, with a high degree of tannin – that’s what creates astringency or even a bit of bitterness on your palate – as well as a high degree of acidity – that’s what makes your mouth water, and encourages you to have another bite of food, another sip of wine.

True varietal character is the easy part of defining a great wine, because a $9 Chardonnay can have as much varietal character as a $90 Chardonnay. So, varietal typicity is a given in considering the greatness of any wine. After making sure that the wine tastes like the grape, things get a bit more complex, a bit more difficult, a bit more illusive. The next question in judging the merits of a potentially great wine is “Does the wine exhibit a sense of place, what the French call terroir?” In other words, a Syrah from Paso Robles, in San Luis Obispo County, California may be a great red wine, but does it speak to the soil, climate, and other environmental imperatives that define the terroir of Paso Robles? And surely, that sense of place in the Paso Robles Syrah will be incredibly different from the terroir of an Old World Syrah, such as a great Hermitage from the northern Rhône Valley of France. Both wines will exhibit black fruits, with a good tannin/acid balance. The Paso Robles Syrah will likely be more fruit-forward, bordering on black fruit jam on the palate, while the Hermitage will offer more restrained fruit, earthy flavors, and a kick of cracked black pepper both in the nose and on the palate. Both wines are capable of greatness, because each speaks to its sense of place – each is a wine with an address.

Up until recently, “greatness” in wine has had everything to do with the history of the wine-growing region, so that the most obvious place to look for great Pinot Noir or Chardonnay has been Burgundy, France, which has grown these grapes almost exclusively for the last six hundred years. For Cabernet Sauvignon, it’s been Bordeaux (the Left Bank), and it’s also been Bordeaux for Merlot (the Right Bank). Germany is the classic home to Riesling, and benchmark Sauvignon Blanc has always been closely identified with the Loire Valley of France. In Italy, it’s Tuscany for Sangiovese and Piedmont for Nebbiolo. You get the picture. The classic wines of the world have long been identified with Europe, and it’s hard to argue with the quality of historic wines that are the product of hundreds of years of great passion, hard labor, and pitch-perfect terroir.

I have the greatest respect for the classic wines of the world, but I think it may be time to redefine the idea of what a great wine is. In the past 20 years or so, the world of wine has changed in fundamental ways, creating a seismic shift in the way wines are produced, where they’re produced, and how and by whom they’re consumed. Today, many wine lovers may look to the Napa Valley for great Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, Oregon for Pinot Noir, New Zealand for Sauvignon Blanc, Australia for Syrah (under the name Shiraz), the Finger Lakes of New York State for Riesling. At the same time, we still recognize Italy as the premier producer of great Sangiovese and Nebbiolo. The wine world has expanded, and especially in the United States, we have never had the opportunity to taste as many great wines as we do today, and these wines have many places of origin, many addresses.

My own feeling is this: when it comes to judging a great wine, there is only one arbiter of that greatness. It’s not Robert Parker, it’s not the Wine Spectator, it’s not the media, it’s not the “experts.” It is you. You know what you like, you know what you really like, and you know when you’ve tasted something so wonderful that words fail to describe the ineffable greatness of that moment, that wine. I’ve been at this a long time, and many more times than I can count, I have had the pleasure of sharing wine with folks who have little or no experience tasting wine, but when they taste a great wine, they know it. They may not know the winespeak to couch that greatness with jargon, but it is wonderful – and a relief - to listen to their honest appraisal of why they love the wine that just passed their lips.

Few wine professionals would think of the vineyards of New York State as a set of classic growing regions, and from an historical perspective they would be correct. But that’s as far as it goes. Recently, I’ve been tasting some extraordinary wines from New York, and I have found some great wines that have earned a place at the table with other great wines of the world. To be honest, I’ve also tasted quite a bit of just-average wines from New York State, but I’ve tasted more than my share of just-average wines from France, Italy, Spain, Germany, California, Oregon, New Zealand, Australia, India, China, and beyond. I have no burning desire to taste any of these wines again, but the point is that no matter where the wines come from I’m happy to kiss a lot of frogs knowing that eventually I will kiss a princess (or two, or three…).

Some of the Great Wines of New York State that I’ve had the pleasure to taste recently all have one thing in common. They are all estate bottled, meaning that the wines are produced only from grapes grown on the vineyards owned by the winery; no grapes are purchased. This is important when considering a great wine. While fine wines may be produced from purchased grapes, producing site-specific estate bottled wines speaks directly and eloquently to the issue of place, of address, of terroir. The combination of ripe, healthy grapes grown with care “on the estate” and the artistry of the winemaker make for singular wines that could not be produced anywhere else by anyone else. Notice also that these are handcrafted, small-production wines, all of them fewer than 1,000 cases, most of them six hundred hundred cases or less. By way of comparison, large producers such as Gallo, Fetzer, or Chateau Ste. Michelle each produce several million cases of wine each year.

Cabernet Franc, “Block Three East,” Millbrook Vineyards and Winery, Hudson River Region 2005 / $35. / 177 cases made

A magnificent red wine made by John Graziano. A blend of 95% Cabernet Franc and 5% Merlot, the Block 3 East spent 13 months in small oak barrels. Produced from a small parcel within a small vineyard, the wine is intensely aromatic, even in its youth, with black fruits: plum, currant, blackberry and olive on the nose and the palate. Produced from fruit grown in the cool Hudson Valley, the acidity of the wine is refreshing, while the relatively soft tannins are bracing and balanced. A singular wine of great complexity, and an extraordinary achievement. While this wine can easily age seven to ten years, it is enjoyable with food right now. A great partner for braised short ribs, rack of lamb, game, roasted poultry, powerful pastas, and hard cheeses. Without a doubt, the best Hudson Valley wine I’ve ever tasted, and one of the best wines – from anywhere – I’ve tasted over the last year.

Merlot, “Estate Selection,” Lenz Winery, North Fork of Long Island 2001 / $25. / 950 cases made

Made by Eric Fry, this wine is unique; a New World Merlot that tastes distinctively Old World. On the nose, take the pleasure of mature black fruits – cherry, plum, and raspberry – swirling in a nexus of earth, cigar box, and pinecones. The wine is unfined and unfiltered, so as not to strip one iota of character from its flavor. Unlike the unctuous California-style Merlots that I don’t really enjoy very much, this wine reminds me of Pomerol in the Bordeaux region (it may be a cliché, but it fits this wine. In a blind tasting I sampled the 2001 Lenz Old Vines Merlot [$55] vs. the 2001 Château Petrus [$1,200]. I scored it a tie and I was not alone in my assessment. With ten wine professionals tasting, one point divided the two wines. This wine has already aged for eight years and although it is drinking beautifully now, it will improve for at least another five years. An excellent wine to pair with grilled or roasted red meats, feathered game, roasted vegetables, and hard cheeses.

Gamay Noir, Whitecliff Vineyard, Hudson River Region 2007 / $16.95 / 600 cases made
Made by Michael Magliore in Gardiner, New York. Michael and Yancey Magliore first planted vineyards in 1979, and since the 1980s, Whitecliff has produced some of the best wines in the Hudson Valley. The Gamay Noir is no exception. Gamay is the red grape of the Beaujolais region in southern Burgundy, but Whitecliff’s Gamay really doesn’t taste like Beaujolais. Crisp, clean, red-fruit driven, balanced, with a light-to-medium body and a very long finish, the wine is reminiscent of a lighter Pinot Noir, and pleasantly so. I have tasted cool-climate Gamay from Canada and was never impressed, but the Magliores have nailed it, producing a wine with a truly unique style. This is what I call a “crossover” wine – great with grilled fish, vegetable dishes, white meats, leaner red meats, a burger, a picnic. In warm weather, you can even chill this wine a bit to bring out its freshness, its exuberance. An unusual and highly successful wine.

Tocai Friulano, Channing Daughters Winery, Hamptons, Long Island 2007 / $24 / 408 cases made

Made by Christopher Tracy. This is the most important white grape of the Friuli region of Italy, where it is now known simply as “Friulano.” The Channing Daughters version is bone dry, medium-bodied, with cleansing acidity. The nose is redolent of almonds, spices, flowers, and citrus, especially grapefruit. The citrus/grapefruit theme is carried over to the taste, creating an extraordinarily refreshing wine. 59% of the wine was fermented in stainless steel, and 41% of the wine spent about three months in barrels, and then all of the wine was transferred to a large stainless steel tank, where it spent another three months. The result is an incredibly fresh, clean, food-friendly wine, for which the classic match would be prosciutto e melone, but it would also be wonderful with a myriad of fish dishes, including pasta with clams or seafood risotto. I would love to try this wine with oysters on the half shell with just a squeeze of fresh grapefruit juice. Channing Daughters is the only producer of Tocai Friulano on the East End of Long Island (Millbrook is the only producer in the Hudson Valley, and that wine is quite good, too).