A Compelling Case
To love wine is to love life. I assume someone – some ancient Epicurean – scrawled that phrase in red wine on a tablecloth or inscribed it on a now-faded amphora. But if his identity is lost to time, I will happily take credit for it. Wine’s pleasures are especially endearing to the antiquarian who marvels at containing art and history in a bottle. It has consecrated our culture from Odysseus toasting Achilles to Keith Richards toasting the salt of the earth. So what could I, mere enthusiast, add to a field so thoroughly cultivated by more experienced hands? Well, I’d like to make a case for my humble contribution. Quite literally a case. Let me put together a case of wine for you that just might prove the equivalent of the music mix made long ago by a friend that yielded a favorite band. Six reds, six whites – each with their own compelling story. I’ll try to keep my own stories from overflowing, for when wine geeks get going, they can ramble like the Garonne.
- Dolcetto d’Alba – When I’m handed the wine list and one person has ordered the pasta, one the fish and one the steak, I often scan the list for a Dolcetto d’Alba. This light to medium-bodied red from Piedmont seems to mix with any company and makes an especially happy accompaniment to pasta. Its clarity sets a cohesive tone, like a concert C. The other nice thing about it is that it provides an affordable glimpse into the quality of some of the great winemakers of Piedmont, whose Barolos can command hundreds of dollars. It’s like purchasing a Degas print…maybe not as acclaimed as his pastels but still capturing the artist’s genius. For example, the Dolcettos of Bruno Giacosa, Aldo Conterno and Mascarello can be sampled for around $20 a bottle. If these wines appeal, give Barbera d’Alba a try…but be warned, it’s a slippery slope to the wines of Barbaresco and Barolo!
- Nero d’Avolo – It seems every time I turn around there’s another interesting wine-producing region of Italy garnering praise. Having started up north in Piedmont, I’ll leave you to explore the middle and pick up again at the bottom in Sicily. Nero d’Avolo is perhaps my favorite “new” discovery. It’s a good “if you like Syrah” kind of wine with a deep, Godfather intensity. It is often among the least expensive wines on the wine list. The one that really won me over was Cos Scyri, a bit more expensive than most but still a good value for its quality. Another impressive example I recently tried was Maharis by Fuedo Maccari. If you find Nero d’Avolo appeals, I’d suggest exploring other wines of Sicily. Nerello is not easy to find but these wines from Mt. Etna (listed also as Etna Rosso) are akin to Nero but a little earthier. Grillo makes a pleasing, aromatic white.
- Godello – The wines of Spain hold a special place in my heart (and liver). The white wine made from Godello in northwestern Spain is relatively new to the U.S. wine market, following happily in the trail blazed by Albarino. The Godellos I’ve sampled have been full-bodied and I think would appeal to the Chardonnay drinker who wants something a little more adventurous. It seems everyone to whom I’ve introduced it has been intrigued. Avanthia and Almalarga make respectable Godellos but since they are not exactly to be found everywhere, take a chance on whatever one you can find. If you like Godello, consider trying a white Rioja from a good procuder, like Castillo y Gay or Murrieta.
- Sancerre Rouge – the white wines of Sancerre are as likeable as they are familiar. So much so that contemplating a red Sancerre can be as cognitively dissonant as watching Robin Williams play a villain. But the reds of Sancerre, made from pinot noir, are far from villainous. Indeed, their delicacy sometimes makes me think that I am drinking wine from a time machine, from that pre-steroid era before point ratings pumped up pinot noirs into fence-swingers. I imagine, perhaps romantically, that this is even what some of the great pinot noirs of Burgundy tasted like centuries ago. They are graceful and cool wines. Maison Vacheron makes a particularly nice example. If this gentler style of pinot appeals, seek out some other cooler climate pinots, like the equally hard-to-find pinots of Alsace. If you still prefer your Loires white, venture afield from Sancerre and sample the perfumed wines of Jasnieres.
- Bordeaux Blanc – Having just foisted upon you a red from a famously white-wine region, I’ll turn and present a white from the world’s most famous red-wine region. For me, the white wines of Bordeaux epitomize class. They somehow balance austerity and dash. Maybe it’s that flash of Semillon peeking out like a handkerchief from a charcoal suit. The presence of white Bordeaux on a wine list usually bodes well in my experience. I can only hazard a guess as to why it’s not more popular in the U.S. Perhaps the reds suck up all the oxygen. In any event, a great white Bordeaux is something to be experienced. Leaving aside the exceptional but cost-prohibitive whites of Haut Brion and Pape Clement, there are many worthy selections. I am partial to Smith Haut Lafitte and La Louvriere. The whites of Carbonnieux seem the most readily available and, though decent, would not be my first recommendation for the uninitiated. If you want to explore other under-appreciated wines of Bordeaux, I’d suggest the reds of Moulis, wedged just north of Margaux. Chasse-Spleen is perhaps the best-known wine of Moulis but a particular shout-out goes to old trusty Chateaux Poujeaux.
- Cabernet Franc – Poor Cabernet Franc. It’s like the attractive sibling of supermodels. When seen together with her sisters Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, nobody pays her any mind. Nobody realizes how much she has to contribute but take her out on her own and you will see that in addition to being attractive in her own right, she’s extremely charming and sensible to boot. Perhaps the reason for her plight is that she can misbehave at times. All grapes are capable of unpleasantness but, to paraphrase Tolstoy, when Cabernet Franc is bad it is bad in its own inimitable and particularly egregious way. “Vegetal” is the usual epithet for a bad Cab Franc. Still, it’s worth the effort finding a good example. I’m also a supporter because I think it is a promising grape for east coast cultivation, as my local Block Five Cabernet Franc from Millbrook Vineyards remarkably demonstrates. The most abundant source for Cab Franc, however, is in the Loire Valley, particularly Saumur and Chinon. Reputable houses include Germain and Joguet. Even if Cab Franc is not your cup of wine, it will be instructive to appreciate its contribution to some of the great wines of Bordeaux, like Ausone and Cheval Blanc, which are often composed of at least 50% Cab Franc. If Cab Franc does appeal, I would consider following-up with a red from Brouilly, which when slightly chilled, is an ideal red for a summer barbecue.
- Priorato – Anyone who has travelled to a wine destination knows the nostalgic attachment that binds those wines to the memory. It is an argument for a notion of cerebral terroir: a specific place in the brain reserved for wines of a specific place. The association is all the stronger when that wine region is difficult to get to. The dusty and windy red roads that led up to the then sleepy village of Priorato in northeastern Spain have just such associations for me. And they really do seem to reflect the rugged land from which they emerged. I normally eschew wines described as “massive” (even though that is generally meant as a compliment) but concede there is a time and place – usually by a fireside – for expansive red wines. And for me, Priorats fill that niche with gusto. These are black-tooth wines. When they strike the right balance between darkness and light, they are profound as a painting by Zurburan. Clos Mogador is my preferred Priorat, though I confess it has as more to do with that fateful trip than to any broadly considered conclusion. Others that impress without being overwrought are Clos Erasmus and Miserere. If Priorat impresses you, try the equally brooding wines of Bandol.
- Gruner Veltliner – Gruner Veltliner is another wine greatly enhanced by a visit to its native soil along Wachau in Austria. Standing high up upon the castle ruins in Durnstein and gazing down on the shimmering vineyards that rise precipitously up from the riverbanks, it is hard not to be carried off by a gale of romanticism. When I visited back in the early 1990’s, Gruner Veltiner was an unfamiliar entity, having not really reached our shores in any quantity. Now, happily, these zesty whites are not so hard to find but I suspect they still remain terra incognita for most. The name doesn’t help. Indeed, Smaragd, the designation of quality that you should seek, sounds more like a condemnation than mark of honor. But Gruner is a very likeable wine. They have a little zip that is balanced, particularly in the Smaragds, by sufficient weightiness. It’s a singer with a good range. There are many dependable labels to choose from, including Nigl, Hirtsberger, Pichler and Knoll (this last one being excellent but noteworthy for its particularly unattractive label). If you like this type of wine, try an Alsatian Riesling like those of Domaine Weinbach.
- Palo Cortado – I figured if I started the list off with a sherry, you’d think I was a hopeless fuddy-duddy and wouldn’t continue on so I’ve buried this one further down. Please, bear with me! I’ll wager this is not a sherry you’ve tried and, if it is, that you’re smiling with the smugness of a member of a select club. This is the rarest type of sherry; actually the product of a happy fermentation accident. The result is a wine that is somewhere between an Amontillado and an Oloroso. It’s hard to describe it but for me it has a ghostly quality…as if reminiscent of flavors past. Lustau and Byass are the two I’ve most commonly found in stores when there is one to be found. And here’s a pitch (in vain, I fear) for good old Fino, the dry and cutting sherry that makes a great aperitif.
- Condrieu – There’s nothing quite like viognier from Condrieu. Other regions produce likeable viogniers but there’s still nothing quite like those of the Northern Rhone. If you’ve read through the above, you’ll see I generally avoid specific descriptors like “leather” or “currants” but I have to employ one here, for Condrieu always reminds me of apricots. It’s an unctuous and decorous wine and thus, like a trained Shakespearean stage actor, can seem a bit much at first blush, but once one habituates to the content, it’s hard not to be impressed. Guigal’s is the easiest to find and, to my taste, still one of the best though Vernay also makes some excellent examples. If you like a bold and perfumed wine like this, try an Alsatian Muscat like those of Boxler.
- Gigondas – With the possible exception of Chateuneuf de Pape, the subregions of the Rhone can be as inscrutable as the various –stans of the Middle East. I was tempted to make my Rhone selection a red from Vacqueyras because they are particularly underappreciated but must concede that the wines of Gigondas are a little more even in quality. Both are often described as rustic but to my mind that is a reputation that has clung to them long beyond the reality deserves. Rustic in a country gentleman kind of way, perhaps. The reds of Gigondas are predominantly Grenache, blended with the usual coterie of Rhone characters. Favorites include Raspail-Ay, St. Cosme and Tardieu Laurent. If these hearty wines appeal, try a Vacqueyras or a neighboring, softer Beaume-de-Venise.
- Pineau des Charentes – This is a dessert wine that can appeal to both the cognac or scotch drinker and the port or sauterne drinker. It is an artisanal liqueur made from cognac and fermented must matured in cask together. The result is a caramel colored (and flavored) drink that, at 18% alcohol, is neither too light nor too ponderous a digestif. Chilled, it is an excellent end to a meal and, come to think of it, for this assembled case.
Wait. Is that it? Have I filled my allotted dozen? But what about the whites of St. Veran? And not a single American or South African offering? What have I done! Ah well, if there is a single soul out there that discovers a new wine on account of the above, I will content myself that the exercise was not a wholly self-serving indulgence. If so, a toast with a glass of any of the above will be my happy reward. You can let me know when you’re ready for case number two…
The vintage or the vineyard?
It is almost axiomatic that in a given decade there will be three vintages of the decade and one vintage of the century. The others are usually described as classic or sleeper vintages (it reminds me of when Manhattan apartments are marketed as “charming”…we all know that really means “freakin’ small!”). It raises the question of how much the vintage really matters. Given the choice, should one buy from a great producer or a great vintage? It’s true enough that the rising tide lifts all boats and it’s worth exploring unchartered waters in a banner year but for me, the answer is easily buy for the producer. Let me make the case by analogy. Say you like rock and roll and you are told you will have to choose either a random song from 1968 or a Beatles song from any year. OK, there were some epic albums made in 1968…Beggar’s Banquet, Electric Lady Land, the White Album, Astral Weeks…and on and on. But there were serious bombs too (“Honey I Miss You” anyone?). Probably in aggregate more bad than good music was made even in that great year for rock. If, on the other hand, you went with the Beatles, sure, you could get a dud but chances are you’d come off with something worthwhile. With wine, too, when choosing between a great year and a great producer, I say go with the banner producer. I’d wager if you bought the entry level “Bourgogne Rouge” from Sylvain Cathiard (one of Burgundy’s great producers) from a middling vintage, it would surpass many a competitor’s offerings from a better vintage. There are many producers, both large and small, that make a consistent product in all but the worst of years and many have the integrity (and ability) to severely limit production in those years. So the next time a “vintage of the century” comes along, don’t worry if you miss out. There will be great wine to be had in the off years…and another vintage of the century in a couple year’s time.
On Wine Ratings
Picture yourself seated at an outdoor café in a good frame of mind on a pleasant, sunny day. Your assignment is to observe the next 50 people that walk by and rate them from 1 to 100 on how much you think you would like them. I know it seems unseemly to rate people, but humor me. Use whatever criteria work for you…the face, the dress, the comportment. OK, you’ve done it. Now return to the same café…say….one month later. Imagine we can find those same 50 people and have them walk by again in a random order. Let’s say it’s a cloudy day and you have a slight headache. No matter, rate away. Same people, same criteria. Of course, it will be hard to keep some straight – some that were scraggly have shaved, some that were dressed for work are now coming from the gym – but do your best. For some it’s easy, you remember being particularly attracted to one, another reminded you of an old friend, but most were that hard-to-recall middle and yielded no immediate clue. Now let’s bring out the old list and compare. Hmm…they’re not quite the same. Well, let’s limit ourselves to the ones you ranked over 90 on both occasions. Surely, those are people you’d like. Alright, let’s imagine that there are 8 people you ranked over 90 twice. So we’ll now invite those 8 people to join you for dinner. Now you’ve got some real data to work with…points of interest, personality, table manners. What do you think is likelihood that the one you initially rated highest is the one you end up wanting to invite back to dinner?
You get the point. And yet, with wine ratings, we are continuously seduced into believing and buying on little better than such fleeting presentiments. I would contend that rating wines on a 100 point scale is at best intellectually dishonest. Wines, like enzymes, will work completely differently at a difference of two degrees. And people, like people, will taste things differently based on their mood, their perception of what they’re drinking, their company, etc. Of course, “experienced” tasters bring to bear their knowledge – but so too their biases. I don’t revile the Robert Parker’s of the world for their efforts. It is not their fault if others follow them blindly. And yet I emphatically reject the notion that wines can be fairly judged in such a pseudoscientific manner.
I believe it was the wine merchant Kermit Lynch who wrote that wine should be appreciated more as a film than as a snapshot. I couldn’t agree more. To try and understand a wine in one taste is as illuminating as the typical reply to “hi, how are you?” But what is one to do? With so many wines out there, one needs some system, some guidance. Are their alternatives that are amply concise and no less subject to spurious results? The nearest proximity, to my mind, is the approach taken by the wine magazine Decanter and, similarly, by Eric Asimov at the New York Times. In both, experienced panelists discuss a number of related wines and then classify them from 1 to 4 stars, along with comments and disputations. Such an approach allows some degree of latitude and at least reflects an aggregate estimation of quality. But I submit that the most irrefutable judgment remains one’s own.
So how do I, in the absence of a coterie of enthusiasts, assess wine? I drink it. OK, to be a little more expansive, I drink it in. I care about it and so put some effort into the process even before the bottle is opened, the way one might look over the liner notes and think about past recordings before listening to a new album (I realize I’m dating myself with references to liner notes). My general approach is to read up a bit on a wine (or a region) and then open it up and study it over the course of a meal. If I’m sufficiently intrigued by a wine, I’ll purchase a second bottle and try to sharpen my focus by pairing it with a different bottle that somehow juxtaposes it. For this round, I’ll usually blind taste just to inure myself from prejudice, particularly if the prices of the two are widely divergent (as an interesting scientific aside, see H Plassman et al’s article on how the price of a wine influences our brain’s perception of pleasure in Proceeds of the National Academy of Science, 2008). If I’m captivated by a bottle of Chateaux X, I’ll try to match it with either another bottle of X from a different vintage or perhaps a bottle of Y from a neighboring property. If I can gather a couple friends, perhaps we’ll sample all three together – but I seldom venture beyond three, feeling that, as with other things, more than three simply becomes too complicated. If a wine still impresses, I’ll spring for a third bottle and set it down for a future encounter. I long ceased rating wines because it’s not clear to me what exactly I would be rating them against. I used to make copious notes but, sadly, I too often found them to be rubbish on later reflection. I thought maybe it was a reflection of my own lack of perspicuity so I copied down a lengthy wine description from a respected critic and bought the described wine along with two other similar bottles. I opened them with a friend to see if we could match the quote with the wine. Neither of us were sure which wine was being described as they all sort of tasted like the flowery description. So I just content myself with a lasting impression. It’s the way you know you like a friend or a painting. If that’s not sufficiently scientific, well so be it. I say there’s no more satisfying conclusion than “that’s a damn good wine.”
“A damn good wine”
Have you ever come upon a much-ballyhooed masterpiece and thought “What? This is it? This is what all the fuss is about?” So too with “benchmark wines.” Some of the world’s “great” wines, wonderful as they may be, have left me scratching my head. Maybe it was the bottle, maybe it was me. But there are other great wines that have made me pause and think, “Yeah, I get it.” I am hesitant to recommend expensive wines, partly because one can drink exceptional wines for $20 and partly because some might buy them at my suggestion and experience that “What?” sentiment. But, hell, it’s just my opinion. What follows is not meant to be a list of the “greatest wines of all time” but an assortment of extraordinary wines that I think merit the splurge – even if only once. The only limitations I’ve put on myself is that (1) they must be under $200 (this is already egregiously high but at least below the stratosphere commanded by many cult wines) and (2) they need to be findable, since it’s exceedingly annoying to be recommended something unobtainable. These are for the most part, famous wines and have had their praises extolled by more capable critics. In any event, they speak for themselves and so I will endeavor to limit my prose to idiosyncratic associations that hopefully transmit my particular admiration for them:
- Sassicaia –This monumental red wine from Bolgheri had me at bon giorno. It is a Kiton suit, extremely finely crafted but not ostentatious.
- Roumier, Clos de la Bussiere – This is the Burgundy that made me understand what all the fuss over Burgundy was about. Although expensive by most metrics, it’s a downright bargain for an epic Burgundy and I try to buy a bottle every vintage.
- H. Boillot, Clos de la Mouchere – While we’re still on Burgundy, I need to praise the chardonnays of Boillot. They are as graceful and concise as an Ingres portrait. Tastefully rich.
- Felsina, Chianti Rancia Riserva – I suppose my loyalty to the wines of Felsina reflects my early exposure to them. It was like the first time you heard a favorite song through high quality speakers. I had no idea there was so much in a great Chianti until I had tried this.
- Gruaud Larose – In the hierarchy of Bordeaux, Gruaud Larose seldom figures prominently. Sure, it gets respect but it’s not seen as especially glamorous. All the better for us mere mortals. For nearly twenty years, it’s been my Cal Ripken Jr, dependently showing up and delivering a solid performance year in and year out.
- Pape Clement Blanc – For my money, the whites of Pape Clement are at least as impressive of those of the mighty Haut Brion (see, I’m trying to save you money). I realize this is about as non-wine-speak a description as you can get, but I can only say these whites are just beautiful and age like Catherine Deneuve.
- Weinbach, Cuvee Catherine Riesling – I grew up, eonologically speaking at least, in Alsace and maintain a loyalty to the distinctive wines of the region, most especially Riesling. A great Riesling is like a limestone townhouse: somewhat reserved but thoroughly elegant. There are many reliable producers; Zind Humbrecht, Boxler, Hugel and Trimbach are all venerable and reliable. What I like about the wines of Domaine Weinbach in particular, though, is that they never seem over the top. Alas, it’s as close as I get to a well-proportioned townhouse.
- Cervaro della Sala – This chardonnay/grechetto thoroughbred is easily overlooked given the impressive stables at the mighty house of Antinori but is graceful to behold in its stride, muscular but controlled.
- Beaucastel, Chateauneuf des Papes – I feel somehow guilty naming such a universally acclaimed wine but these are (in keeping with the Papal theme) the Julius II of wines, commanding awe and tasting like a transition from Gothic to Renaissance.
- Ridge, Montebello – I admire virtually all Ridge’s offerings for their consistency and bravado but none more than their flagship cabernet. This is a gentle giant. It reminds me a little of, well, perhaps Phillipe de Montebello…mellifluous and steeped in tradition.
If you’re so inclined, email me a wine on the top of your “damn good” list.