how sweet it isn't

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

A couple of fascinating wines showed up last week. Winegrower Dan Lee, who makes wines for Morgan Winery in Salinas, sent along a pair of his own, very limited Lee Family Farm releases. Both were sourced from Silvaspoons Vineyard (Alta Mesa, Lodi AVA) fruit. There was a very nice, fruity, Beaujo-like Rio Tinto blend, made entirely with Portuguese grapes. And an even better (to my taste) 2009 Verdelho.

I’ve had very few New World verdelhos, mostly from Australia, and often blended. This California version was a revelation. Of course, almost any reviewer who tastes thousands of wines annually will be more inclined to take notice of a rare varietal from an unknown producer. But that’s just the starting gate. This wine impressed all the way to the finish line.

Verdelho is an Old World varietal, planted primarily in Portugal and on the island of Madeira, where it goes to make... Madeira! But presented here as a dry, pure varietal, it shows quite a different face. Dan Lee writes that “Ron Silva’s verdelho was the first clone brought to California. The cuttings were taken near his grandfather’s home in the Azores.”

I found 21 reviews on 10 different vintages and versions of Silvaspoon verdelhos listed on CellarTracker. [Tried to post a link but CT won't allow.] The oldest wines are from the 2005 vintage, presumably the first crop taken. Twisted Oak, Barreto Cellars, Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard and Alta Mesa Cellars all make or have made Silvaspoon verdelhos, along with Lee Family, who made their first in 2007. I can’t speak to the quality of any others, but this Lee Family 2009 is absolutely enticing. Spicy, forward, with pungent herb and sea breeze aromas, its vibrant and fleshy core conjures up citrus, pineapple and stone fruits. It was aged for three months in neutral French oak, and has a suggested retail of $15.

It also got me thinking about sweet versus dry white wines. Another very experienced taster, with more Lee Family experience than I have, found this same wine too sweet. I couldn’t detect any sweetness in it at all, even after I allowed it to warm to room temperature. I still couldn’t find any residual sugar after it had been open for a full day, and I sat down to drink the rest of the bottle with a grilled chicken breast salad. So I wrote Dan Lee and asked what (if any) residual sugar might be in the wine.

“The lab number,” he replied, “was 0.4 grams/liter which is below human threshold of taste. But sometimes a wine with a lot of fruit character may taste sweet. Trick of the tongue.”

Absolutely true. This trick of the tongue can lead to a lot of confusion. Many – perhaps most – consumers will insist that they prefer “dry” white wines. Yet those same consumers will often purchase wines with residual sugar. Perhaps they have had truly dry wines that were so fruit-full that they actually tasted sweet? Bone dry wines, such as Australian rieslings, are rarely what people are looking for when they say they want a dry white wine.

Whatever you choose to call it, this Lee Family verdelho is a delight, and a great wine for chilling and swilling on the deck or patio this summer. Here’s a link to order:

Lee Family Verdelho


Arthur said...

I have had the Barreto Cellars Vedelho (from Silva's vines) of a few years back and wrote about it. I suppose the style of the producer (among other things) is responsible for a somewhat different experience I had. That notwithstanding, Michael Barreto does an excellent job with Iberian varieties.

To your ponderin about sweetness:
Another thing that I think can trick our brains is the malolactic fermentation. Coupled with higher alcohol (and possibly some sugars from the oak - though your sample was done in neutral oak which presumably does not impart any sweetness), this can make a wine seem sweeter.

Which makes me wonder is there are people who have greater sensitivity to sweetness than the published research would indicate (and that, in turn, suggests if that research should be revisited and replicated).

As to the phenomenon of people "talking dry and drinking sweet": I can think of two reasons why it may happen:

1. habituation (for lack of a better term) - the foods and beverages on which one is raised and eats regularly, "calibrate" one's reference point

2. senescence - as we get older, we loose some sensory acuity (some do so faster and others) and as far as gustation goes, sweetness perception is the first to go

El Jefe said...

Michael does indeed do very well with the Iberians! I believe Bray also uses Ron Silva's Verdelho. It gets around. ;)

If you are interested in a chance to try many of these wines from these wineries, mark your calendar to be at Fort Mason in San Francisco on June 5th for the 3rd annual Grand Wine Tasting of the Tempranillo Advocates Producers and Amigos Society (TAPAS). The name is a bit of a misnomer since TAPAS' goal is to promote North American wines made from all native Iberian varieties. Hope you can join us!

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