Hand or Land?

WineSmallBigSometimes there is nothing better than a big wine, a wine with loads of tannin, loud fruit right up front, and the heat of high alcohol. After a meal, in the dead of winter, when everyone is in for the night, that big, loud, hot wine is a meal in itself. Like a brash guest at a party, it won’t be particularly interesting or intriguing. There will be nothing subtle about it. But sometimes that lack of subtlety can be oddly satisfying. Sometimes we want a wine that doesn’t make us think or work too hard to enjoy it.

Sometimes there is nothing better than a delicate wine, a wine with soft tannins, gentle fruit that whispers quietly mid-palate, and the tang of cold-climate acidity. With a complex meal, this wine comes to life playfully weaving itself into the flavors and textures of the meal. Like the quiet guest at the party who speaks so softly, you can’t quite make out what she’s saying. But the more you catch, the more you want to hear. Sometimes you want a wine with enough complexity that it takes some time to get to know it.

In his book, Essential Wines and Wineries of the Pacific Northwest, Cole Danehower uses the term ‘hand over land’ to describe the first style of wine which he calls ‘plush.’ It is a wine that is made by man, where harvest is delayed for higher alcohol, maceration is prolonged for greater tannins, and more new oak is used for more flavor. The second style is what Danehower describes as ‘poised.’ This is the ‘terroir’ wine, wine that is made by the land. No winemakers here, only grape growers.

The author goes on to point out that one is not better than the other. He is writing specifically about Willamette Pinot Noir when he says, ‘Between poised and plush, neither is considered better than the other; they are both viable and popular wine styles.’

In a recent article about heat in wine, The Rising Tide; Alcohol in Wine Creeps up the Glass, Natalie MacLean writes that too high an alcohol content in a wine can overwhelm the other elements and ruin the wine experience. Her article points out that high alcohol is more likely to occur in new world wines where vineyard temperatures are higher. With global warming we’re likely to see more heat in our wines. Though early harvesting can reduce the alcohol levels.

MacLean does defend higher alcohol levels as an appropriate stylistic choice for many wines, such as Amarone and Chateauneuf du Pape. Certainly grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel have the tannic structure to hold higher alcohol levels. But how big should these wines be?

Simon Burton wrote about this style dichotomy in his article, Marques de Casa Concha; ‘I want to make wines I enjoy. I don’t want to make wines for a market.‘ Through his interview with Marcelo Papa, winemaker for Marques de Casa Concha, it’s clear that this big style in wine, a style that has been trendy for the past several decades in part because, as MacLean points out, we moved from high alcohol cocktails to high alcohol wines, may be on the wane. According to Burton’s article, ‘“super premium” is wine code for “red wine made using very ripe grapes and lots of new oak”, and increasingly winemakers – including, now, Papa – are backing away from that kind of thing.’

It seems somehow inappropriate to talk about trends in wine. Unlike in fashion, where trends turn every six to eight weeks, wine trends might take decades to wax and wane. Yet, the wine world does seem to be moving from big wines to cerebral wines, from brash to subtle, from plush to poised. Big wines will always have a place, certainly at my table, but there’s something more interesting about a refined wine. The harder we work to understand it, the more it gives us to think about.

This entry was posted in wine.

15 comments on “Hand or Land?

  1. talkavino says:

    Well, with all due respect to the quoted writers (especially McLean), the keyword is “balance”. When I drink Carlisle Zin at 16.4% ABV, I don’t think about alcohol – I think about hedonistic pleasure which every sip brings, impeccably balanced. Same goes for the wines of Field Recordings, often indicating 15% ABV and more, but silky smooth at the same time. And then I had many Amarone, which carry 15% ABV, which so unbalanced and so hot that you can’t even finish a glass. To me, the wine is not about ABV – it is all about the balance.

  2. foxress says:

    Balance is always key. If the tannins and acidity are big enough, the wine can have high alcohol and still be balanced. But among well-made, balanced wines there seems to be a move away from big toward nuanced.

  3. This is one of those times I wish we could go out for a glass- a bottle of wine, Linda. I LOVE this topic- I can get a little over the top in my passion and selling wine taught me how to express my preferences without dissing big, plush wines… TOO much … 🙂 Yet, I too adore Amarone, CdP, etc.- as you and talkavino state, it’s all in the balance.

    But the phrase “hand over land” says it all to me. I will always believe that good wine is made in the vineyard, not in the winery, and manufactured wines send me over the edge.

    I’ve just returned from 3 weeks in France- Dordogne and Sancerre- and my palate is singing!

    • foxress says:

      Julie, we should meet up in Oregon next Spring and do some wine tasting. We can taste the plush and the poised, and debate them, while we toast the publication of your novel.

      I absolutely understand the respect that the poised wines get. But, I often find myself in the position of defending the plush wines…it’s like weighing the merits of the three stooges against the wit of Oscar Wilde. I laugh louder at Curly, but the words of Oscar really stick with me.

      I hope to get glimpses of your trip in upcoming posts. If it made your palate sing, I know it was inspiring!

      Thank you, as always for your thoughtful and insightful comments.

  4. I agree with comments; it is all about balance.

  5. Ken is definitely in favor of the plush (but then, that should be no surprise to anyone who knows him). I, however, have always preferred the subtler experience. It’s not that I don’t like the big wines, I do. And when Ken chooses them (he has a knack for choosing the best of anything), I always enjoy them. But whenever I happen upon a really well-made, less alcohol, quieter wine, I fall in love with wine all over again. Because Ken really doesn’t enjoy those, I rarely open one.

    Let’s share a poised wine when we meet, someday.

  6. aFrankAngle says:

    All wines have a place, but all wines don’t have a place at every table. Whether it be the occasion, the meal, the mood, the time of day, and countless other items, the right wine makes a difference … so cheers to the place where simple, subtle complexity rules.

  7. […] or as eloquently summed up in From Vino Verde to Barolo with Love’s recent blog posting, Hand or Land? In this thought provoking article Foxress explores different perspectives on wine making by wine […]

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