Post # 74 – Tasting Very Good and Very Bad Wines.

Wine bloggers just love writing positive reviews on great wines they have tasted, so much so that writers often forget how to deal with the bad wines. I have often found myself looking the other way when confronted by a bad wine. In fact, when attending wine shows where I will often taste in excess of 40 different wines, I will only write about the good wines, figuring that if you cannot say anything nice about a wine then maybe it is better to just say nothing at all. In this blog I am going to write about tasting very good and very bad wines, specifically one very good wine tasting experience with the Zind Humbrecht 1989 Gewurztraminer Heimbourg Vendange Tardive, and one very bad wine tasting experience with the 2016 Clos de los Sciete, Mendoza Argentina by Michel Rolland.

Initially I was inclined to not write about the Michel Rolland wine, but after giving the matter considerable thought, I decided to write up my tasting experience with the wine. I am doing so because I was so disappointed with what I got from this wine, especially when compared to how much praise this wine received from at least three major and highly respected wine critics. So I am left wondering if I was just unlucky and got a bad bottle, or maybe the entire shipment of this wine imported by the SAQ into Quebec was spoiled in transit, or if maybe the wine itself has just gone into a dormant period as a phase in its evolution and maturing process. So let’s deal with this bad tasting experience first.

The wine in question is the 2016 Clos de los Sciete from the Uco Valley in Mendoza Argentina, a red wine made by Michel Rolland, a well-known winemaker from Bordeaux. I bought this from the SAQ in Quebec, for $24.95, listed as product # 10394664. I bought it in mid-December last year, and had planned to open it over the Christmas holidays. The bottle had a sticker on it advertising a James Suckling rating of 94 points, so it looked very promising. I opened the bottle on March 10, 2020 to celebrate my birthday, and shared it with my wife.

I had done some homework on this wine before buying it. James Suckling had described the wine as tasting of blackberries, blueberries, crushed violets, hot stones and dried herbs. He went on to say: full bodied with structured tannins, great acidity with a medium chewy finish, exuding charm and finesse, drink 2022. He rated the wine at 94 points. Tim Aitkin rated the wine at 91 points, describing it as floral, perfumed and subtle, balanced and fresh, stylish with layered red fruits. Robert Parker rated the wine at 91 points also, describing it as: approachable, balanced and nicely crafted, fine grained chalky tannins, showing nuance and elegance.

Winemaker’s comments described the wine as follows: low temperature and high rainfall produced a wine with intense aromatic expression and tremendous freshness on the palate, aromas of blackberries, plums, and spicy floral notes. On the palate it is balanced and fresh with a pleasant acidity characteristic of the vintage, excellent aging capacity. 1% Cabernet Franc adds the spice to the palate.

I next went on and found 5 recent ratings on the wine from various people who had recently tried the wine (I find this an excellent way to find out what the average guy thinks about the wine, instead of relying only on what the critics think). All rated the wine at 89 points, somewhat lower than the critic scores. The tasting notes read as follows:

  • 03/03/20 – dark fruit and spices, blackberry, plum, tobacco, spice, smooth finish.
  • 02/19/20 – dark fruit, leather, pepper, depth, smooth texture.
  • 02/17/20 – medium legs, blackberry, raspberry, prune. On palate blackberry, cassis, prune, forest floor, oak, cinnamon, full bodied, long finish, low acidity.
  • 02/05/20 – blackcurrant jam nose, oak, spice. On palate blackcurrant, blackberry, black cherry, spice, and tannins. Decanted 3 hours and still tannic.

Overall, these tasting notes were quite consistent. The only item that gave me any concern at all was the last comment about the wine requiring 3 hours decanting and still being highly tannic. However, the three critics did not mention excess tannin, so I figured it should still be quite pleasant. The wine itself is a blend of 54% Malbec, 18% Merlot, 12% Cabernet Sauvignon, 12% Syrah, 3% Petit Verdot, and 1% Cabernet Franc.

Well what a shock when I tasted the wine on March 10th. The wine was only a medium red color in the glass, I had expected a deeper, thicker red/purple color consistent with a young red wine. There were no legs at all on the wine in the glass, instead the wine looked and behaved as very thin, showing no glycerin tears. On the nose I smelled almost nothing, just the faintest hint of very light fruit, which after 3 hours more decanting evolved into no fruit at all, just alcohol. On the palate there were hints of light fruit initially, which closed up completely after about 30 minutes, then just chalky tannins with zero aftertaste. It was like the wine had just fallen off the edge of a cliff. After one hour further decanting the wine showed even worse. With aggressive swirling in the decanter the wine opened up a little, then closed up again tighter than ever, eventually showing no fruit anywhere – not on the nose, nor the palate, nor any aftertaste. Even the chalky tannins died, no longer detectable after one hour in the decanter.

So my frustration was immense, this wine had been decanting for over 3 hours and was getting worse, not better. Furthermore, the wine was literally fighting back at me. Every time I would succeed just a little at getting the wine to open up, it would shut down again even tighter than before. With about half the bottle left, I recorked it and decided to let it sit until the next day.

24 hours later I uncorked the bottle again and decanted the wine again for another 3 hours. By now the wine had 7 hours of decanting, plus another 24 hours sitting in a half empty bottle. To my utter amazement the wine had not changed, there was still no nose at all, on the palate it was harsh and acidic, with no length and no aftertaste. So I let the wine decant another 3 hours, after which time I started getting some fruit expression on the palate, only to be beaten back by the acidity again. About an hour later more fruit was emerging, enough to get hints of blackberry, blueberry and cassis on the nose and palate, but still very weak. The texture of the wine itself also started to change and the wine was now tearing down the inside of the glass.

This was the most bizarre tasting experience I have ever had. The wine had over 10 hours decanting plus 24 hours more sitting in a half empty bottle before it showed anything remotely resembling any of the wonderful descriptions provided by the critics. If I were to rate this wine I would give it my lowest score, certainly no better than 80 points, and describe it as a wine to be avoided.

Was this maybe just a bad bottle? I hope so, but strangely enough I don’t think so. If it was just a bad bottle it would not have eventually begun to finally open up a little. Was it damaged in shipment from Argentina? Possibly, but in that case then the SAQ is selling a lot of other similarly damaged bottles from the same shipment, so buyer beware.

I have seen plenty of examples of Bordeaux wines made to be tannic as hell for years before they mature in the bottle sufficient that they open up and come alive. Decanting always removes that problem, which is why you often see critics recommending decanting young red wines for 3-4 hours before serving. The same applies for particularly tannic vintages, such as 1975 and 1986 in Bordeaux for example, where you are still well advised to decant the wine for 2-3 hours before serving. However, for the Clos de los Sciete to require 10 hours decanting and 24 more hours exposed to more oxygen in the half full bottle is just ridiculous.

I did a lot of research on Michel Rolland before writing this blog. Michel acts either as winemaker or consultant to many wineries, well over 100, in Bordeaux and other regions of France, as well as California, Chile and Argentina. Some well-known Chateaux in Bordeaux who Michel works with include: Angelus, Ausone, Beauregard, le Bon Pasteur, Certan de May, Clinet, Clos l’Eglise, la Dominique, l’Evangile, la Fleur de Gay, le Gay, Leoville Poyferré, Pape Clement, Pavie, Pontet Canet, Smith Haut Lafitte, and Troplong Mondot.

Michel is obviously a living legend and a master winemaker with an international reputation. In the 2004 film documentary named Mondovino, Michel is seen advising his clients to microoxygenate their wines in certain circumstances. Although he claims not to be a fan of microoxygenation, he admits it can help in special conditions, if the tannins are fierce or hard, where microoxygenation can make them softer and rounder. Microoxygenation is a process of adding controlled amounts of oxygen, usually by bubbling oxygen through the fermentation vat. Too much oxygen can spoil the wine. Michel has been quoted as saying that in certain countries with certain terroir, like Chile or Argentina, he may use it.

Well Michel, I am wondering what happened to your 2016 vintage of Clos de los Sciete? Judging from what I got in my bottle, you could have used some microoxygenation of the wine. It might have helped salvage something from my tasting experience, which was a total waste of my time and money. It was indeed my worst tasting experience ever, so that by itself makes it noteworthy, but for all the wrong reasons.

Now I want to comment on an absolutely fabulous tasting experience my wife and I shared on March 21st while isolated under coronavirus lockdown. The wine was the 1989 Zind Humbrecht Heimbourg Gewurztraminer Vendange Tardive.

I bought this wine in 1993 quite by accident. I had ordered and paid for a case of 1990 Chateau Montrose as a futures offering, and when the New York retailer got delivery, he was short several cases and offered me several Zind Humbrect Vendange Tardive wines from the 1989 and 1990 vintages as substitutes. These wines have been fantastic, and you will find that I have previously reviewed in Blog Post # 64, in January 2019, the 1990 Zind Humbrecht Gewurztraminer Goldert Vendange Tardive, where I rated the wine at 95 points. Also, in January 2018, in Blog Post # 55, I reviewed the 1990 Zind Humbrecht Herrenweg Turckheim Riesling Vendange Tardive, where I rated it at 93 points.

The cork was moist, came out easily, had tartrate crystals on the bottom and exuded this amazing fragrance of several different types of roses, and this was just the cork.

In the glass the wine was a golden yellow orange in color, showing large lazy tears of wine clinging to the inside of the glass. A gentle swirl of the glass led to this sensory overload of aromas, starting with the typical gewürztraminer aromas of lychee, apricot, peach, honey, wild flowers, and rose petals. The rose petals quickly took over, and we wondered what type of roses we were smelling. We could detect the Mr. Lincoln, Sugar Moon,  and Melody Parfumé for starters. You did not need to put your nose into the glass, the fragrance was clearly detectable from a distance of 4-6 inches from the glass, as if that fragrance was leaping out of the glass to grab your attention. Just an amazing experience. When you did put your nose to the glass and inhale, the rose sensations were intoxicating all by themselves. I have never smelled such strong and dominant floral fragrances.

On the palate this wine starts big, with the classic thick, rich, late harvest gewürztraminer grape showing plenty of peach, apricot, and lychee fruits. As soon as the rich fruit flavors have delighted your tastebuds, those primary fruit sensations begin to fade away ever so softly into spicy, tangy, citrus flavors, followed by the roses. The magic does not lie in the multiple taste sensations but in the finesse and the complexity with which all these sensations, tastes, and fragrances are all interwoven and reveal themselves to you one by one in such a natural sequence that the overall impression is one of awe and admiration for the winemaker.

There was no thick, cloying aftertaste to this wine as you so often see in rich Sauternes or Alsacian and German dessert wines. Instead, the spice, orange, citrus and honey lingering tastes gave way ever so gracefully to the roses again. The roses cleansed and refreshed the palate, leaving just parting scents of spice and cinnamon in the mouth and nasal cavity. One was left craving the next sip. A totally sensuous tasting experience.

We decided after several sips of wine that the roses tasted in the wine were, in order, the Mister Lincoln (with strong damask and fruit fragrances),

the Sugar Moon (melon scent evolving into citrus and old rose perfume),

leading finally to the Melody Parfumé (which injects a final sweet spice and clove aroma over the old rose scent, often marketed as the scent of seduction).

Just brilliant layering of tasting and sensory stimulants.

We drank most of the bottle, leaving enough for one glass the next day to test the wine’s staying power. The next day I tried the wine again and was delighted with the result. The perfume on the nose was not as strong, the palate had more citrus orange on it, and the aftertaste was a little shorter with less lingering. But make no mistake, this was still a very good glass of wine. It tasted like this wine had aged another 7 years overnight, which one would expect from the 24 hours of oxygen exposure. This tells me that the wine will hold onto its current level of maturity for another 10 years, and then commence drying out and aging gracefully for another 10 years. As long as the roses stick around in the aftertaste, this wine will age very nicely. In fact, when the sweetness on the palate begins to fade, if the roses stay strong and vibrant this wine may even taste better to those who prefer a dryer wine. I would rate this wine at 97 points now through to 2030, declining to 95 points from 2030 to 2040, yes it is that good.

Sadly, Domaine Zind-Humbrecht no longer produces the Heimbourg Gewurztraminer Vendange Tardive wine. 2012 was their last vintage of this wine, so be sure to search out this wine from the 2012 or an earlier vintage. The Gewurztraminer grapes in their Heimbourg vineyard were ravaged by a wood rot disease in 2012 and the vines needed significant replanting, so the owners decided to replant the whole vineyard with Riesling grapes instead. I am sure in another year or two you will see a Heimbourg Riesling Vendange Tardive wine produced, but I am not sure it will have the same structure to it or anywhere near the same bed of roses embedded in it.

When I searched online with to verify price and availability of this wine, only one location in Hong Kong is listed as still selling this wine, for about $200 CDN per bottle. I would suggest that interested buyers look to purchase this wine at auction, where you might get lucky and find it at $100 per bottle. Sellers will often just throw Alsace dessert wines into a mixed odd lot of 5-10 different white dessert wines for a token amount while they try to get top dollar for their red Bordeaux.

So there you have it from me, two recent examples of the best and worst wines I have tasted in a long time. One of the things I like the most about the wonderful world of wine tasting is that you can often learn so much from even the worst wine tasting experience. For instance, in tasting the 2016 Clos de los Sciete I learned the following:

  • You should not rely exclusively on critic scores and reviews in making your wine purchases, dig deeper, do more online research.
  • Sometimes you will get bad bottles, so keep your receipts, your retailer should replace it (sadly I did not keep mine).
  • Do not be guided too much by the winemaker’s or the wine critic’s reputation, focus on what is in the bottle and whether or not you like it.
  • Life is too short to drink bad wine, and
  • Wine critics need to dish out more bad wine reviews rather than just passing on them. How else will the elite winemakers of the world learn from our bad wine experiences. There was a problem either in this wine’s production or distribution, something that can be fixed, and should be if Michel is focused at all on customer satisfaction.