Ever notice how the same word spoken by different people can be either scary or appealing? Take "extraction." It's not something you welcome from the Sensodyne-fresh mouth of your dentist as she pokes inside your pie hole. Yet in the world of wine criticism it can mean gold. So it would appear from the writings of certain critics generally enamoured with rich reds pressed from exceedingly ripe fruit.
Most wine enthusiasts will by now have guessed that I'm about to cite the name of Robert Parker Jr., by far the most influential critic in his field. When the American trots out the term, it's almost always attached to a high-scoring wine. Here's his take on Château Bellevue Mondotte 2008, a Bordeaux red he rated 95 points out of 100: "… a backward, dense, purple-colored wine revealing a crushed rock-like liqueur along with highly extracted, massive flavours of black currants, sweet cherries, licorice and toast."
It would take little effort to come up with a few hundred more such references in his excellent Wine Advocate newsletter. It also would not take long to Google or Twitter-search the names of a few hundred sommeliers and wine bloggers appalled by Parker's apparent obsession with gooey, teeth-staining reds – the sorts of wines I must sample regularly and which have prompted my excellent dentist to recommend I make hygiene appointments every four months versus the standard six.
Extract in wine terms is essentially the concentration of grape solids and oak-barrel residue. Wine is mostly water and alcohol. The rest, which supplies our favourite beverage with appealing flavour, is what The Oxford Companion to Wine describes as dry extract, notably sugars, non-volatile acids, minerals, phenolics, glycerol, glycols, proteins, pectins and gums. The riper and more concentrated the fruit (and the more extract from barrel in the case of an oak-aged cuvée), the more intense and dense the wine.
But naysayers would justifiably ask: Isn't power often boring, at least after the first three sips? Think of those gym-bunny guys you see in bars who wear conspicuously tight shirts to exhibit their bulging guns. Fine for a one-night stand or a spirited Raptors post-game analysis, perhaps, but, ladies, don't bet heavily on a scintillating disquisition on moral ambiguity in Nabokov.
I usually find myself caught in the middle of the extract crossfire. Give me a highly extracted yet elegant wine from Bordeaux's humid climate and I am likely to love it. A syrupy-sweet, overripe red from a Parker-score-chasing producer in sunny California? Not so much. (And give me George Clooney over Vin Diesel any day.) I think extract is often achieved at the price of finesse. One merely need taste a pale-coloured, old-school Barolo from Italy, a delicate Volnay from Burgundy or a good xinomavro from Greece to catch my drift.
Here are a few pricey reds, recently released in Canada, that I think get Big Extract right – and a couple that cross the line into waffle-syrup territory (dentists, be warned).
Dominus 2011 (California)
SCORE: 96 PRICE: $176.95
Christian Moueix, who oversees production at Bordeaux's iconic Château Pétrus in Pomerol, among other properties, owns this Napa Valley estate. One can taste France in this sunny but tightly wound cabernet sauvignon-led red, as though Pomerol had taken a beach holiday in California. Deeply extracted yet tightly wound, it shows concentrated berries, minerals, iron and dusty earth as well as formidable chalky tannins to help it go the long haul in the cellar. Drink it after 2030 if you have patience and a good cellar (which those who can afford it probably do). $160 in B.C., various prices in Alta.
Dominus Napanook 2011 (California)
SCORE: 93 PRICE: $76.95
The baby brother to Dominus's more expensive red, Napanook joined the big leagues with this splendid 2011 vintage. Pure cassis leads the way, framed by gently dusty tannins and enlivened by graphite, earth and tobacco. Cellar it for at least two years or up to 10. $74 in B.C., $65.25 in Que.
Chakana Estate Red Blend 2012 (Argentina)
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $29.95
Robert Parker described this as a "killer red" that would fetch $150 to $200 were it from Napa or Bordeaux. So true. And even his powerful words can't slay the biases of rich collectors lacking confidence (or time) to shop sensibly like the rest of us. Rich, chunky and luscious, it manages to mix savoury mint and underbrush into its strawberry-cream core. Drink this malbec-led blend any time over the next 10 years.
Penfolds Bin 28 Kalimna Shiraz 2011 (Australia)
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $34.95
Dense would describe this wine, but it's marvellously structured, with succulent rounded fruit and satisfying mid-palate weight set against brilliant peppery spice and chalky-chewy tannins. Terrific now, it would pay dividends with up to 20 years in the cellar. Various prices in Alta., $40.99 in Sask., $39.99 in Man., $40.80 in N.S., $35.99 in Nfld.
Yalumba The Guardian Shiraz Viognier 2010 (Australia)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $21.95
Yalumba's 2010 Guardian displays concentration and full ripeness without skipping like a child into the candy store. There are hints of Rhône Valley syrah in this red, led by notes of licorice and black pepper, as well as a floral overtone and juicy tang. Drink it over the next five years. $22.90 in Que.
Pahlmeyer Red Wine 2012 (California)
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $162.95
This Parker darling gets points for that first impressive sip, but the syrupy cherry-cocoa flavour leaves me feeling like I've scarfed down a box of Pot of Gold chocolates – doused with 15.2-per-cent alcohol.
Freakshow Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 (California)
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $24.95
There's a circus muscleman on the label, which is apt not only because of the wine's name. This sappy red from the hot Lodi region sports a thick torso, but it also does a freakishly accurate impersonation of chocolate fondue. Available in Ontario, $25.99 (down from $27.99) in B.C. till March 31, various prices in Alta.
The Flavour Principle by Lucy Waverman and Beppi Crosariol recently took home top prize for best general English cookbook at the Taste Canada Food Writing Awards. Published by HarperCollins.