At a lunch last week hosted by Cooking by the Book , I was reminded why I like Chilean wine so much. Or at least I was reminded that I like Chilean wine so much. And I was also reminded that wine and food “matching” (as wine writer Randy Caparoso likes to say instead of “pairing”) really can make a fun meal even more fun, interesting and delicious with just a little thought and effort.
Our host at at “Cooking’s” loft space in Lower Manhattan was Ruth Van Waerebeek, born in the medieval city of Ghent and originally known for her cookbook “Everybody Eats Well in Belgium.” Maybe, but Ruth has made her reputation with wine people in another place, 73oo miles to the southwest, in Chile where she’s the consulting chef and culinary advisor to the Concha y Toro wine group, the largest producer in the country. (I wrote about Concha here.) Ruth also runs a “Gastronomical Hotel,” Mapuyampay, a couple hours south of Santiago, where you can stay, take some cooking lessons, drink some wine, and generally just indulge yourself. I’m thinking about it.
Here’s the lineup of the food courses, and wine matchings from Concha y Toro:
The “Reception” wine was Casillero del Diablo Coastal White Blend 2011, 65% Chardonnay and the rest Moscato. This was actually my favorite wine of the day—a refreshing, easy drinking wine with a flavor of white melon, peaches, and honey and a slight hint of sweetness.
The first course was Cucumber rolls with Salmon Ceviche. It was served with Gran Reserva Serie Riberas, (Riverbank Series) Sauvignon Blanc 2012, a classic SB with that green pepper aroma, initial rush of bracing acidity and grapefruit flavor. The Ceviche was delicious, and wine was a nice complement, especially because it wasn’t overpowering as I find some from the South Pacific can be. Don’t get me wrong, those wines can be very refreshing and they have their place, but they’re very tough on food.
The third course was Parmesan Cheese Budini with litchis and a small herb salad. Frankly, before it was served I had no idea what a budini is, a very thick pudding, made with a starch. The accompanying wine was Marques de Casa Concha Chardonnay, a remarkably good wine that resembled a white Burgundy I had recently, and now can’t remember which. A great value at $23.
Course four was a Gorgonzola, walnut and pear tart, very flaky and rich. It was served with an equally rich Casillero del Diablo Reserva Privada 2009, a blend of mostly Cabernet Sauvignon wtih about 15% Syrah. The Syrah really adds fruit and aroma to this very well-balanced and full-bodied wine. It’s only about $15 retail. Get some.
The final course was grilled lamb brochettes with merquen adobo and Chilean-style mint salsa served on a bed of quinoa. Once again I had to look something(s) up—merquen—which is seasoning of ground smoked chilies with salt, ground coriander and cumin, and quinoa, a seed native to Chile that resembles a whole grain and is boiled and served like rice. The lamb was served with Marques de Casa Concha Cabernet Sauvignon 2011. I much preferred the other red to this one, which was a well-made, balanced Cab with no distinguishing characteristics.
All in all, a pretty outstanding match of wine and food, and a trip to Chile in downtown New York City.
Most Champagnes are made from among just three grapes-Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier. Some are made from just one of each. (There may be Champagnes made from just Pinot Meunier but I don’t know of any; many Champagnes are a mixture of juice from two or three.)
However, it’s a little-known fact that there are actually 7 grapes permitted in Champagne: the three above, as well as Pinot Gris (sometimes called Fromenteau), Pinot Blanc, Petit Meslier, and Arbane. And there are a few-very few-Champagne makers who actually do use these grapes, but their bottles are mostly sold on the French domestic market as far as I can tell.
Blanc de Blancs is white Champagne made from 100% Chardonnay. Blancs de Noirs is white Champagne made from Pinot Noir or rarely Pinot Meunier grapes, or often both. There’s little or no color from those red grapes, though, because the juice is gently pressed and then fermented with no skin contact. Sometimes you’ll see a slight hint of gray or pink in these wines.
You’ve probably never heard these words, unless, perhaps, you live in New York’s Hudson River Valley and you get out a bit. And if you want to expand your tastes and wine experience a bit, here’s a primer to get you started.
Seyval Blanc is a French-American hybrid that’s a little reminiscent of Sauvignon Blanc, and can produce outstanding, crisp dry white wines as well as slightly sweet ones. When mixed with Chardonnay, as they do very well at Baldwin Vineyards with their Mist de Greco, or Clinton Vineyards where they do a 100% Seyval, it’s a nice change from the whites you probably drink frequently.
Baco Noir is another hybrid, this time a red, that produces a foxy, smoky varietal a bit like Charbono, another grape you may not know. Benmarl in upstate NY makes a great Baco as does Canada’s Henry of Pelham Family Estate, shown here.
Norton, which was introduced to the US in the 1830s by one Dr. Daniel N. Norton of Richmond, Virginia, is sometimes called “America’s True Grape.” They make very nice wine from Norton in New York, Virginia (Chrysalis Vineyards), Illinois, and especially in Missouri where it’s the popular state grape. Bet you didn’t even know that Missouri had a state grape! Try the Stone Hill Winery for this one, too.
And I’ll throw in a couple from across the pond, too.
Savagnin is a European white grape that can make an aromatic, sherry-like wine and is widely grown in the Jura region and often bottled as Vin Jaune or “yellow wine.” The nutty taste is unmistakable and makes a great aperitif before dinner in place of cocktails. Look for the place name of Arbois where it’s sometimes mixed with Chardonnay and gets a little closer to table wine.
Picpoul Blanc (Picpoul de Pinet) is a white grape and one of the few grown in France whose wine is named for itself rather than the place where it’s grown. Its name means “lip stinger” and it really is, with crisp citrus and floral flavors that go great with seafood.
So – expand your horizons and try some of these. Happy 2013!
This Chianti, mostly from the Sangiovese grape, is a classified wine, and the DOCG means Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita. That ought to mean something but it doesn’t mean all that much. Still, this is a very nice bottle of wine, especially for 11 bucks, which is about what you’ll pay of for it in most wine stores, though you can find it in places for as little as $9. A great value either way.
A nice ruby red color, this is a medium-bodied, easy-drinking wine that won’t bowl you over. But it’s got some tannin for structure, a little leathery, and fresh black cherry and plum flavors. What I noticed above everything else is that it’s nicely acidic and keeps your palate refreshed. It’s a great pairing for light Italian food.
The painting on the label, by the way, is Lady with an Ermine by Leonardo da Vinci. Why she’d want to hold a weasel, I have no idea.
But Mencia is a grape you’ve probably never tasted and maybe never even heard of. This 100% Mencia is from the large Castilla y Leon region, but you can find other excellent ones from the Bierzo, Ribeira Sacra and Valdeorras Denominación de Origen appellations.
Aroma of violets and flavors of black cherry and black raspberry; a little smoky and peppery, fresh, bright and crisp, with a long finish. There’s tannin there, but this is a fruit wine with just enough oak influence.
Although the Mencia grape is native to Spain, and Mencia wines have been around a long time, because they’re almost unknown in the U.S. I think they’re somewhat of a “discovery” to American wine drinkers. But I also think Mencia is going to become the next great Spanish wine, so get out a little ahead of the pack and try some. This one’s about $14-17 and I’ve seen it on sale for $10-12. Really great stuff.
Champagne isn’t only for New Year’s Eve, weddings of people you love and funerals of people you didn’t. Here’s a quote from Lily Bollinger of the famous producer family of the same name, which perfectly captures all the reasons you should drink it:
My view? Champagne can be great stuff for a Tuesday night when you’re feeling a little down, or just because, well, it’s Tuesday night!
To help you appreciate Champagne I could write a few pages on how it’s made, about its different styles and relative levels of sweetness, and how some brands are known for toast, others for spice, some for body and richness, and others for a kind of steely austerity. I’ll do that in the future, but for now here’s a quick explanation of what’s in that bottle, and a short glossary that will help you makes sense of what’s on your wine retailer’s shelf.
Most Champagnes are made from three grapes-Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier. Some are made from just one of each (there may be Champagnes made from just Pinot Meunier but I don’t know of any; many Champagnes are a mixture of juice from two or three. See the glossary below.) However, it’s a little-known fact that there are actually 7 grapes permitted in Champagne: the three above, as well as Pinot Gris (sometimes called Fromenteau), Pinot Blanc, Petit Meslier, and Arbane. And there are a few Champagne makers who actually do use these grapes, but their bottles are mostly sold on the French domestic market as far as I can tell.
Why the Bubbles?
Let’s take a “white” Champagne made from 100% Chardonnay. It starts out as ordinary “still” wine – the juice is squeezed from grapes and placed in a big vat, some yeast is added, and the yeast turns the grape sugars to alcohol – oh, and creates some carbon dioxide, which is ultimately allowed to escape. That’s called the base wine. If we bottle that up at the end of this process, we have…just plain Chardonnay.
But we don’t. Instead, we fill the bottles with that wine, but leave a little space in the neck. Then we add a little solution of sweet, unfermented grape juice and a tiny bit more yeast. The yeast goes to town on the sugar once again, but this time the bottle is capped, so the Carbon Dioxide can’t escape. Those bottles sit around for awhile, and instead of being bored or watching Oprah, the yeast is busy interacting with the wine and making it more complex and interesting.
When the winemaker says it’s time, the yeast is collected in the neck of the bottle and shot out, leaving crystal clear wine with all that carbon dioxide dissolved into it. The wine is now really, really, bone dry, so to take the edge off, a little more of that sweet grape juice is added back, and then it’s corked and that little wire cage is added to keep the good stuff secure inside. Now it’s your daughter’s first birthday, and while she’s busy covering herself with cream frosting, you pop that cork and this lovely wine comes forth, with all those pent-up bubbles now freed in your glass.
What could be nicer?
Here’s your glossary. Have a great Autumn, and I really hope you’ll include some Champagne or other sparkling wines in it! If you’re looking for a California wine, look no further than Schramsberg, in my view the best of some very good American sparkling wines.
Blanc de Blancs is white Champagne made from 100% Chardonnay.
Blancs de Noirs is white Champagne made from Pinot Noir and sometime Pinot Meunier grapes. There’s little or no color from those red grapes, though, because the juice is gently pressed and then fermented with no skin contact. Sometimes you’ll see a slight hint of gray or pink in these wines.
Champagne Effect is the heady, romantic feel you get when drinking this great stuff, and there’s a very scientific, non-romantic reason for it.
Sparkling Wine is wine typically made in the style of Champagne, but not from grapes grown there. Some producers such as California’s Korbel refer to their wine as Champagne but it can’t be, by definition. And recent agreements that the US is part of will make it illegal for US producers to call their wine Champagne in the future. So, for example, the house of Moet & Chandon produces Champagne in France, but its US operation produces “California Sparkling Wine” in Napa under the label Chandon.
Vintage Champagne means that the wine was made from grapes from one or more vineyards but from a single year’s harvest. Vintage Champagnes don’t happen every year, but only in years when the winemakers think the crop is excellent, and then the vintage is formally “declared.”
I do believe this: France, and specifically Bourgogne, what we in the great USA call Burgundy, is where the world’s best Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays are grown. And I say “grown” because Burgundy is all about the vineyard rather than the chateau or winery.
Not to say that there aren’t some excellent Pinots and Chardonnays from other places – old world and new, oaked and unoaked, cool climate and hot climate, austere and crisp. Of course, there are also sweet, caramel-y, and in my view pretty much undrinkable wines from those places, too. Think Yellowtail, or, actually, don’t.
Seriously, I’ve tasted Pinots from New Zealand and Oregon that rival the best from Burgundy, and recently I had a Chardonnay from Italy that I might have sworn was a Premier Cru from France. But for a whole bunch of reasons, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay just seem to grow better in Burgundy than just about anywhere else on earth. Incidentally, several other grapes are at home in Burgundy including Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Aligote—a totally under-appreciated white grape that has some similarities to Chardonnay—and last but not least, Gamay, the great grape of Beaujolais.
Now you could spend a lifetime learning about all the vineyards in Burgundy. You could memorize all 33 Grands Crus and win a wine-trivia contest, and you could read the 821 pages of Clive Coates’s The Wines of Burgundy and learn far more than you wanted to know about this almost perfect wine-growing place. I’m about a third of the way through it and frankly it’s more like a career than a book. But maybe you just want to know a little bit.
A Reign of Terroir
What you might find more interesting if you care about any of this, beyond just how good these wines taste, is the idea of terroir. This is the somewhat mystical concept which holds that the wine is a result of the soil, subsoil, temperature, rainfall, elevation, drainage, sun exposure and hours of sunlight, density and orientation of the vines, wind, cover crop, and a bunch of other things related to the vineyard, far more than anything the winemaker does. Nowhere in the wine world more than Burgundy is the idea of terroir held so absolutely, regardless of whether any of it can be proved. And I don’t think it can. Yet I believe in the idea.
A Brief History of Burgundy
For hundreds of years leading up to the French Revolution, the great vineyards of Burgundy were owned by the nobility and the Catholic Church, who leased them out through a chain of proprietors down to the tenant farmer who actually maintained the land and the vines, and grew the grapes. While the nobility is long gone and the Church has invested in other things, this fragmented owner/operator system still exists.
The first Burgundy chateau we know of was built by monks from Citeau in the year 1115. And as far back as 1395, a focus on quality was formally established through an ordinance published by Duc Philip “the Bold.” Twenty years later, King Charles VI set the original boundaries of the Burgundy wine-producing area.
In 1720, the merchant company Champy was founded…and is still in business today. And as the French Revolution came 60 years later, vineyards owned and operated by the Catholic church were confiscated and auctioned off, setting the stage for today’s Burgundy where even tiny vineyards often have multiple owners. In 1861, Beaune’s Agricultural Committee issued the first classification of Burgundy wines of the Côte d’Or.
In 1875, the nasty little louse Phylloxera began destroying the vines in Burgundy, and in return, huge vineyard areas were eventually torn out and replanted. On the eve of WWII, Morey-Saint-Denis became the first Appellation d’Origine Controlee (AOC) in Bourgogne; on the eve of D-Day, the “Premier Cru” category was created in the region. In 1975, Burgundy’s version of Champagne called “Cremant de Bourgone” was granted AOC status, and just five years ago, Bourgogne Tonnerre became the region’s 100th appellation.
Understanding the Classifications
Burgundy is composed of five distinct regions, from north to south: Chablis, Cote d’Or (Cote de Beaune in the north and Cotes de Nuits in the south), Cote Chalonnaise, Maconnais and Beaujolais. The Cote d’Or alone has 28 different wine-producing villages called communes, with a total of 20,000 acres or 8100 hectares of vineyards. The entire region has about 72,000 acres of vineyards, and produces about 200 million bottles of wine a year.
The classifications in Burgundy do have a certain logic to them, but they’re still a pain in the ass, and they’re far different from the Bordeaux ones. The important thing here is the vineyard and village where the grapes are grown, rather than the Chateau (winery) as in Bordeaux.
The top classification is Grand Cru— there are 33 Grand Cru Appellations representing about only 1.5% of the wines produced here —and they’re named by the single vineyard alone. If you’ve spent some time in the Burgundy section of a wine store, some of these names might ring a bell: Bâtard-Montrachet, Chambertin, Clos de Vougeot, Échezeaux, Montrachet, Musigny, Richebourg, and Romanée-Conti. Each Grand Cru wine really is its own Appellation.
The second tier is ironically named Premier Cru or “first growth”, sometimes abbreviated 1er Cru. These also represent great terroir and about 10% of Burgundy’s production. In an interesting twist, a few 1er Cru wines will actually take grapes from more that one named vineyard, and then they’ll keep the Premier Cru designation but name the wine for the village only. But they’ll always say “Appellation Premier Cru Controlee.”
Tier 3 are true Village wines, about 37% of all Burgundies, and the grapes for these wines are sourced from vineyards within a single village or commune…and that’s what they’ll say, the village name; for example, “Appellation Nuits-St. George Controlee.” The thing here is that the vineyards themselves have to be classified at the village level or better.
Bringing up the rear, but by no means bottom-feeders, are wines from the 23 Regional AOCs, making up about 52% of all Burgundies. Make no mistake, the wines from regional appellations can be superb and command pretty big prices. These will be labeled by the broad region alone, such as Appellation Bourgogne Controllee, or by a smaller sub-region such as Cote de Beaune. Regional wines can also have the name of the grape on the label, and this is the only level in Burgundy where this is permitted.
The Wines: Chardonnay
Chardonnay is far too often grown in hot-climate areas all over the world, allowed to overripen, and then turned into high-alcohol, over-oaked, sweet caramel bombs. I know that some people like these, including a lot of Americans, so who am I to say they shouldn’t drink them…just because I won’t?
But since we’re on the subject of White Burgundies, I want to mention that while there are a lot of lousy ones from here, there are also the world’s best, with names on the bottles that you’ve probably heard of such as Chassagne, Meursault and Puligny. The finest are rich without being sweet, with enough oak to balance their acidity and bring out the honey, nutty, vanillin and toasty flavors that make this wine, well, the best white wine on earth.
As an aside I want to give a shout-out to Chablis, and no I don’t mean the crappy, sweet and watery California jug wine I drank in college, made from French Colombard grapes. Although it’s considered the northernmost part of the Burgundy region, Chablis is actually about 70 miles northwest of the top end of the Cote d’Or. Its chalky soil (similar to the soil of Champagne), relatively cool climate, and restrained style of winemaking produces wines that are often described as austere or flinty. What they are for sure is about the purest “expression” of Chardonnay.
The Wines: Pinot Noir
The merits of Burgundian Pinot Noirs are probably discussed and debated among wine lovers more than any other grape, wine or wine region. People that love them don’t think anything else comes close, and they’ll give you the reasons: they’re elegant, perfumed, silky, subtle, nuanced, and glorious! Notoriously thin-skinned, Pinots are lighter in color and lower in perceptible tannin than almost any other red wines, and deliver up a lush bouquet of summer fruit: to me, red cherries, strawberries and raspberries. As they age they gain spiciness and complexity that they clearly lack in youth, and contrary to a lot of conventional wisdom Red Burgundies can age for a very long time, at least those from good terroirs in the best vintages.
Movies about wine are relatively few, and good ones are as rare as a 1961 Hermitage La Chapelle. Here’s an overview of a couple worth seeing, and some educational ones, too.
Bottle Shock, which was independently released in the United States in August of ’08, is available on video. The movie is supposed to tell at least part of the story of “The Judgment of Paris,” that game-changing event in 1976 when a Chardonnay from Napa’s Chateau Montelena and a Cabernet Sauvignon from Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars beat some of the top French wines.
In a blind taste test. In Paris. With some of France’s top wine experts as judges.
Problem is, lots of stuff shown in the movie just isn’t true. Steven Spurrier’s wine shop, the Academy du Vin, wasn’t struggling at all but was a fairly successful business, teaching classes and catering to English and American expatriates living in France. There are a lot of made up characters, too – you know those composite people that Hollywood loves to invent when the real ones aren’t compelling enough. And let’s not forget the gratuitous beauties that pop up: Eliza Dushku as a local tavern owner and Rachel Taylor as a cellar rat/intern and love interest. There’s a lot of unnecessary drama that detracts from the real story – a classic underdog tale and one that is ultimately satisfying, even if we know all along who’s going to win.
And there’s one huge hole in the movie: Warren Winniarski, the proprietor of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, is entirely left out along with his award-winning Cabernet. So is his winemaker at the time, Mike Grgich, one of the first employees of the Robert Mondavi winery and today the proprietor of his own, famous, and award-winning winery.
Oh, rent the movie anyway. The scenery is gorgeous, the American wines actually did win, the French were really pissed off, and this single event helped launch the modern and very successful American wine business.
You probably know by now that the biggest wine movie in memory – actually a thinly disguised buddy movie – is 2005′s Sideways. To be sure, there were a few glaring errors in the movie with respect to wine; for example, in a fit of panicked snobbery, Miles stands outside a restaurant and declares that he won’t under any circumstances drink any fu**ing Merlot, and if anyone orders any, well, he’ll leave. And at one winery he whines that he’s not a fan of Cabernet Franc even when it’s made well. Yet later in the movie he raves about one of his prized possessions, a Chateau Cheval Blanc, made with…Cab Franc and Merlot, of course.
Aside from the fact that Sideways is a much better movie in general than Bottle Shock, it’s a much better wine movie, too. You’ve probably seen it, but if you haven’t, go to your nearest Red Box and rent the movie. And without giving anything away, all I can tell you is to look forward to the brief soliloquy of Virginia Madsen’s character, Maya, as she describes in delicate, heartfelt, and almost heartbreaking terms the creation and evolution of a single bottle of wine and all the lives it touches along the way.
Another movie, both fascinating and educational, is 2006′s Mondovino, a documentary that tries pretty hard, maybe too hard, to pull back the curtain and expose the ugly underbelly of the global wine business. Its point isn’t too hard to figure out: a handful of huge wine and spirit conglomerates is slowly but surely taking control of large and small wineries round the world. They’re homogenizing winemaking so that we’ll all be drinking the same thing one way or another in just a few years. And we’ll like it, because that’s what we’re being told to like.
A few of the world’s wind notables emerge as clear villains here, among them wine critic Robert Parker. And more particularly, Michel Rolland, “the flying Frenchman” who consults to about 100 wineries worldwide including many in France, the United States and South America. It’s interesting that Rolland denies that he tells his clients to “micro-oxygenate” their wines, but about 12 minutes into the movie he is seen and heard doing precisely that. Director Jonathan Nossiter, an established filmmaker and sommelier, seems to include Robert Mondavi in his gang of bad guys, ironically based on Mondavi’s attempted joint venture in Italy which failed, and his prominence as the leading spokesman for the powerful American wine industry until his death.
The movie rambles a bit, a lot actually, and at 165 minutes it’s way too long and lacks, well, editing. The camerawork is really crap, too – I could do better on rollerblades with a camcorder after a magnum of Champagne. And if you think Parker is the man and Rolland is, uh, the other man, then you won’t like what you see and hear.
But if you’re concerned about the direction that the wine world may be taking, slip this in your DVD player and spend a couple hours seeing how sausage, er, wine is made. Curiously, I couldn’t find a trailer for this movie anywhere on the Internet except in French, not even on the filmmaker’s own website where it says “coming soon.”
Jancis Robinson’s Wine Course
The two-disc set walks you through winemaking techniques and wines made from the so-called “great grapes” including Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc, Shiraz, Riesling, and Pinot Noir. Best of all, Jancis takes you to countries where these wines are made, giving you gorgeous views of the vineyards and interesting chats with owners and winemakers. It’s interesting that Jancis is able to translate wine concepts and terms in ordinary language, and yet you see how she’s a bit arrogant and condescending when she’s talking to the people who actually make the wine.
In any event, though, I don’t think you can find a better introductory video wine course at any price. Naturally it’s available from Amazon.com but you can also find it in the larger bookstores and video outlets that stock cultural and educational videos.
The Secrets of Wine
This course, on the other hand, is a single disc with a scant 60 minute running time. I won’t tell you that you can’t learn anything from this course, but unless you know absolutely nothing about wine, you won’t learn very much. I’d skip it. By the way, any book or video that promises to reveal “secrets” probably isn’t worth your time or money – after all, if they’re really secrets they won’t be on video, will they?
Get Real Wine Series: Napa and Sonoma Harvest
This 2005 video on a single disc is actually pretty interesting although the production values are lousy and, like Mondovino, it could use some editing and polish. It was produced by a guy named Eric Gerardi from Dayton, Ohio, which piqued my interest since that’s my old stomping ground and there aren’t a whole lot of wine-savvy people in southwestern Ohio.
Gerardi visits and interviewers winemakers from Benzinger Family Vineyards, Steltzner Vineyards and Markham, and speaks with chef and author Cindy Pawlcyn, the owner of Mustard’s Grill in Napa where I’ve eaten a dozen times. Despite the amateurish quality, in about an hour and 15 minutes you get a nice picture of winemaking in Napa and Sonoma – along with a healthy dose of self-promotion by the winemakers.
I don’t think this video sold too well, and as a result it’s a bit hard to find, but it’s certainly worth about the 15 bucks it will cost you.
One of the ways I’ve learned about wine, oddly enough, is to read wine books. And here are some great book for Summer Reading.
Of course you can read lots of technical books – on home winemaking, wine courses such as Jancis Robinson’s, or tasting books such as Hugh Johnson’s. And for those who get into wine geekery like me, there are books such as Clive Coates’ The Wines of Burgundy, or Vino Italiano – The Regional Wines of Italy, that can take weeks to read and are more appropriate for people studying for their MW rather than casual wine drinkers and even dedicated tasters.
For my money and yours, though, I recommend that you have some fun while you learn, and for that reason I’m going to recommend three, all narratives, without boring statistics about the number of grand cru vineyards in Burgundy, how many clones of Chardonnay there are, or how long it takes to apply extra toast to a brand-new French oak barrel.
Now, I write about Robert Parker pretty often. He’s a force in the wine industry, to be sure, and called the single most influential wine writer alive. But I think of him more as a wine “rater” than a writer, and I just don’t buy the notion that you can reduce the quality and pleasure of any particular wine to a specific number with mathematical certainty. For that reason, I was eager to get my copy of Alice Fiering’s 2008 book, The Battle for Wine or Love or How I Saved the World from Parkerization, and plunge into it.
By contrast, Adventures on the Wine Route – A Wine Buyer’s Tour of France, is pure pleasure: personal but not uncomfortably intimate, written with equal or even greater conviction but with no sign of a chip on his shoulder by Kermit Lynch, a pioneering wine importer who just happens to be a great narrator.
Like Fiering, Lynch is passionate about artisanal wines, but he makes his case more by talking about who is making them rather than who’s not. And his view that “Wine is, above all, pleasure. Those who would make it ponderous make it dull” runs through his chapters and paragraphs, which are by turns funny, absurd, colorful, quirky, and sometimes all at once. I think he’s equally unhappy about the power of ratings as the gold standard for wine consumers, oddly enough given that he’s an importer and a commercially successful one at that. As you might expect, he raves about a great many wines on which his own fortunes turn, and in this sense he’s certainly not a disinterested critic like Alice Fiering.
Nonetheless, if you really want to get a feel for how the art and craft of wine works in Europe, run out and buy this book. You can read a lot about Bordeaux and Burgundy elsewhere, but you won’t often find these kinds of stories about winemaking and wine styles of the Loire Valley, the Languedoc, Provence, Chablis, or Beaujolais for that matter. And if you really like the culture of wine and not just the taste of it (or the buzz you get from it) this book will enrich both your mind and your spirit.
From a little closer to home in California’s Sonoma Valley comes A Very Good Year, a truly inside look at winemaking by Mike Weiss. Originally a series in The San Francisco Chronicle where Weiss was a staff writer, this narrative tracks the 2002 vintage of Ferrari-Carano Fume Blanc (Sauvignon Blanc) as it goes from vine to glass, from the field and crush pad to a white-linen restaurant table in Manhattan. Along the way we meet the wealthy owner and his muse, the winemaker and his lieutenants, the vineyard manager, the head of sales and marketing and his sales minions. Most poignantly we meet the ordinary field workers, one a tragic character who takes his own life in Mexico after the 2002 harvest.
Into these personal stories are interwoven professional jealousies, seemingly creative decisions based mainly on accounting spreadsheets, the false ostentation of California wine culture, and the real power of some wine writers that would make the personalities in Falcon Crest blush like a dry rose.