Friday, January 5, 2007

Some basics

The idea of this web site came about as the result of my trying to help Susan J. spend the Christmas gift her husband Brice had so kindly given her. He gave her a gift certificate from a local Birmingham wine shop, but with the stipulation that before she use it she had to ask for my recommendation on what to buy. I was flattered, but from past experience I knew it was a big responsibility. I also knew there was a lot more involved in getting the most out of Brice's gift than simply going out and buying a bottle of wine. With that as background, here is what I wrote back to Susan.

"In response to your asking for recommendations, I’ll first say a few
general things about enjoying wine. I’d hate to see you have a bad
experience or waste your money, so I’ll share a little of what I’ve
learned over the years about how you can increase the pleasures you
find in a good bottle of red or white. If you already know this stuff,
please forgive me for repeating it.

The most critical factor when it comes to serving wine is temperature.
Most red wines are served too warm, while most white wines are served
too cold. Keep in mind that alcohol is a volatile substance. As the
temperature rises it gets more “active,” so to speak, and the flavors of
the wine begin to fragment. The result is disharmony, with one or more
aspects of the wine warring against each other. On the other hand, if the
wine is too cold its flavors are diminished because your taste buds are
not able to differentiate flavors very well under cold conditions.

The solution is to purchase a cheap kitchen thermometer similar to the
one in the attached picture. This one is made by Taylor, sells for about
$10.00, and can be found at Bed, Bath and Beyond or other household
supply stores.

As a general rule no red wine should be served above 68 degrees and no
white one below 40 degrees. The lighter the red wine, the cooler it
should be; so that with a Beaujolais, for example, the temperature
should be somewhere between 50 and 55 degrees, while a big Bordeaux
needs to be up between 65 to 68 degrees. Conversely, the more robust
the white wine the warmer it should be, so that a top Burgundy should
likewise be served between 50 and 55 degrees. Sparkling wines, like
champagne, are served at the coldest temperatures, i.e., down around 40
to 45 degrees, although some exceptional examples need to be up
around 50 degrees.

The best thing is to experiment. Chill a bottle of red wine down to 55
degrees and then sample it over a period of time as it warms up. Use
your thermometer to note the temperature at which you find it most
appealing. There is no absolutely “right” temperature for all people,
although I’m sure you’ll notice a big difference in the way the wine
tastes over a range of temperatures. Once you get the hang of it, you’ll
know how long to leave a bottle in the refrigerator or when to take it out
if it’s been in there for a long time.

At cooler temperatures a red wine will be more “close knit,” meaning it
will display a sold, smooth continuum of flavors. As it gets warmer it
will begin to “come apart,” with the flavor of the alcohol beginning to
dominate. When a wine tastes too much of alcohol it is said to be “hot,”
and this is viewed as a defect.

Do the same experiment with a white wine, chilling it down to 40 degrees. Notice how it “opens up” as it warms up, showing both more taste and smell. Again, when it gets too warm it will begin to show signs of disharmony. The goal is to find thetemperature where, for your taste buds, the wine presents itself at its best.

When it comes to wines with cute names I would exercise caution.
Some of them are enjoyable and offer good value, but in general I’ve
found there is a better price/quality ratio to be found in other
inexpensive wines that don’t resort to this kind of marketing gimmick.

Keep in mind we live in the “golden age of wine.” Never in history has
there been so much good wine available at such reasonable prices. It’s
because of this glut of wine that some producers feel they have to catch
the public’s attention with snappy (or sappy) names like Fat Bastard or
Drunk Frog. These wines being generally inexpensive, my best advice
is to give them a try and see if you like them; but don’t stop with them.

Which leads me to my next bit of advice: develop a good, on-going
relationship with a reputable wine merchant. Don’t be shy about telling
him or her how much you want to spend and what you like and dislike.
Over time the merchant will get to know your preferences and will be
able to recommend new things. If they’re a really good merchant, they
might from time to time recommend a more expensive wine in the hopes
of helping you broaden your tastes. Their goal will be to help you
develop your appreciation. All the good merchants I know love wine
with a passion and are not into it only for the money. They would rather sell you a $10 bottle you truly love than force something more expensive on you.

So when you visit a merchant give him or her your honest reactions to
the last bottle or bottles you drank. Use whatever words you're
comfortable with, but let the merchant know if the wine pleased you or
not, and why. If it was too sour, or tasted like turpentine, then say that.
If it smelled just like grapefruit (New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs smell
this way), and you liked that smell and taste, then say so. All this will
help the merchant find wines you enjoy.

Also very, very important: never forget that wine is meant to accompany
food, and what it is served with will have an enormous impact on the
way you perceive it. Aside from serving wine at the wrong temperature,
more wine is ruined by being married to the wrong dish than anything
else. Therefore, if you’re buying a bottle to go with a particular meal,
make sure to tell the wine merchant what you plan to serve. They will
then be able to suggest wines that will either enhance the dish by having
similar flavors, or else complement it by offering contrasting qualities,
as for example when sweet is used to set off sour. Matching food and
wine is not difficult; all it takes is some imagination, an experience of
how wines taste, and a little knowledge about why they taste as they do.

There are many good books that discuss wine in general and pairing it
with food in particular. The two I would most highly recommend are by
the same woman, Andrea Immer. The first is titled Great Wine Made
Simple
and the other is Great Tastes Made Simple. These two books
together will expose you to everything your really need to know about
wine. I predict they will also encourage you to taste lots and lots of
stuff. And the only way to learn about wine is to drink a lot of it. Is
that terrible, or what?

By the way, the most comprehensive book on wine, The Oxford
Companion to Wine
, was compiled and edited by Jancis Robinson. One
of the most legendary California wine makers is Helen Turley, while the
famous Bordeaux vineyard, Chateau Pichon-Longueville-Comtesse de
Lalande, is run by the highly energetic and accomplished Eliane de
Lencquesaing. All by way of saying that women more than hold their
own in the world of wine, whether it’s making it, marketing it, writing
about it, or just drinking it.

Finally a few words about storing your wine. You don’t need expensive
or special equipment or a cellar, but you do need to take a little care.
The big three enemies of wine are heat, light, and vibrations. When it
comes to temperature, the ideal storage temperature is 50 to 55 degrees,
or the proverbial “cool, dry place.” But more important than the number
of degrees is their consistency. You don’t want the wine heating up and
then cooling down over and over. The pushes air in and out around the
cork and leads to spoilage. So put the wine where the temperature will
remain relatively constant. Also put it where sunlight can not get to it.
Don’t put it on or in contact with something that vibrates, like the top of
the refrigerator, as vibrations can loosen the cork and allow air to get to
the wine, again spoiling it. Always store the bottles on their sides so the
wine can remain in contact with the cork and thereby keep it moist. If it
dries out it shrinks, and once again air can get to it.

There are other subjects we can discuss at another time if you want, like
the advantages of decanting, what kind of glasses enhance wine, which
cork screws work best, and how to preserve a wine if you don’t finish
the whole bottle (always a mistake in my opinion), but this will do for
now. I’ve run on a lot longer than I expected. I hope I haven’t bored
you too badly.

Now, and finally, my recommendations. You didn’t say how much
Brice gave you, or how many bottles you want to buy, or if you prefer
red or white, so I’ll give a range of possibilities and you can choose all
or none of them. My guess is you will find they run in price from $10
to $20 a bottle. I’ve listed the less expensive first.

White wines:

1. Ardeche Chardonnay by Louis LaTour

2. A Macon Village or Macon Lugny by Louis Jadot

3. A Pinot Blanc or Pinot Gris from the Alsace region of France. If you
can find one by the maker Zind-Humbrecht, get it. It’s the best from
Alsace, and wonderful. Hugel is also a good producer.

Red Wines:

1. Wines from the Languedoc region of France, preferably a Minervois
or Corbiere by any producer you can find.

2. A Cote-du-Rhone, especially that produced by Guigal

3. A Cote-du-Rhone from either Gigondas, Vacqueyras,
Cairanne, or Chusclan. These are rich, powerful, robust wines.

If you find and try any of these, Marlow and I look forward to hearing
how you enjoyed them, if you did in fact enjoy them. Don’t be afraid to
say you didn’t like them. It’s an obvious thing to say, but too many
folks forget that wine is at heart a matter of taste. Drink what you enjoy
and never get suckered into thinking you ought to like something
because of its famous name or hefty price. Over the years Marlow and I have
been greatly disappointed by many a $50, or even $100, bottle of wine,
while some of the most enjoyable have cost us well under $10. You’re
the expert when it comes to what you like. Never forget that."

1 comment:

susan johnston said...

Brice and I went to an Italian restaurant last night and had some EXCELLENT wine. It was La Grola, Veronese, 2001, Allegrini. It was a red, Italian wine that had a very mild taste. It was not acidic and went down smooth. It was expensive for us, but it was very good. Do you know this wine?