Oaky Nokey

Washington State first attracted attention in the wine world for making strikingly individual wines from the riesling grape. Twenty years later, riesling had been eclipsed by merlot—fruity, fragrant, eminently drinkable. Today the state's most critically acclaimed wines are made from the cabernet sauvignon grape, which produces the noblest if most austere of great red wines, the grand crus of Bordeaux. And by general agreement (and by price tags as well), the big cabernet-based reds of Walla Walla are the pick of the litter. And I can't drink the majority of them with anything approaching real pleasure. The reason is tannin: tannins inherent in the wines, plus tannins added by the barrels in which they're aged. The first kind get into wine when compounds called phenols in grape skins, seeds, or stems dissolve during fermentation. The second kind seep out of the oak wine barrels. Humans aren't set up to sense tannins directly: We feel their presence as a dry or raspy feeling on the tongue and a peppery sensation in our sinuses. Traditionally, big red wines are high in tannins (which are also the main source of color in wine). In the old days, high-end Bordeaux were often allowed to sleep in the bottle for a decade or more, their initial roughness mellowing as their tannins interacted, crystallized, and settled out of the wine. Wine collectors today—the kind who can easily afford red wines that retail when new at $75 and up—still frequently "lay down" such treasures to allow them to ripen. This wouldn't be a problem for anyone—such wines are often made in comparatively tiny quantities, which adds to their cachet with the collecting crowd—if hefty tannins hadn't become a kind of badge of honor in winemaking, a sign of character and craft. So more and more wine is being made in high-tannic style: not just cabernets but merlots and syrahs; not just wines destined to lie in a cellar for years but wines that are going to be drunk within a year or two, ready or not. And most are not. By the same token, less "extracted," less "structured" wines are made to seem a bit wussy. If they don't curl your tongue like a leaf shriveling in a fire, they can't be taken too seriously. It's almost as if making a wine that's designed to be poured, drunk, and enjoyed as soon as it hits the market is a kind of cop-out, as if challenging the capacity of tasters to sense past the up-front pucker is what real hairy-chested winemaking is all about. The psychosensory chemistry of tannins is still little understood, but some people are certainly more sensitive to them than others, just as they differ in responsiveness to sweet and sour. I suspect I'm one of the sensitives, and I have always envied those who can swish a tannin bomb in their mouths without grimacing. But I'm beginning to suspect I'm not as special in the tannin department as I'd feared. At a tasting of Walla Walla releases last week, I remarked to a professional taster that my palate was crying "uncle" before I was a quarter of the way round the room. "There's nothing wrong with your palate," he said. "I've given up with forming my judgment of red wines at big events like this. After a dozen, my tongue has turned into a piece of meat." rdowney@seattleweekly.com

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