I’d fallen into bad habits over the past 2 or 3 years: I used to be an ardent red wine drinker, but found so many syrupy/cloying/medicinal notes in the Malbecs, Cabs, and Pinots that were in my (modest) price range I started gravitating towards whites. It’s easier to cover flaws in a non-prestige white wine, both during production and as a consumer. I mean, if it’s not great, you can throw some frozen fruit into it and drink it screaming cold and it’ll still give you the “I’m having a pleasant glass of wine” moment. Not so with a red that was either gross to begin with, or, as is the case with lots of blue-collar red wine here, might have started out reasonably enough but then was exposed to too much temperature change or light in transport or while on the shelf.
My steadys were Vinho Verdes (green wines, usually from Portugal, very acidic, mostly dry, lightly effervescent), steel-aged Chardonnays from non-prestige regions (so, not from France or CA, probably not the PNW either), and Cava/Prosecco that promised no sugary taste.
And these are things I still enjoy. But now that I’m buckling down, I’m trying to develop a lexicon of archetypes to draw upon for reference— many of my colleagues in the Winemaking Certificate program will be miles ahead of me, and the course starts January 5. (eeeeeee)
So November and December I gave myself a few goals.
- Find a Riesling I liked.
- Taste the difference between German and French Riesling.
- Discern the taste and basic profile of Côtes du Rhône
- Try at least 2 new varietals
- Start tasting Old World and New World wines of similar age and varietal
And so I did.
I was watching the Somm series, and everyone kept banging on about how much they loved Riesling, and I was like “maybe winemaking isn’t for me”, because I’d only had these awful, syrupy renditions that coated the mouth like NyQuil and didn’t taste much better. I heard one of the sommeliers say that wine pros love Riesling because it can be bone-dry and doesn’t fatigue the palate.
Sounds good to me.
I headed to a local shop run by a wonderful French woman who is spiky and feisty and incredibly knowledgable- and she sent me home with a German “halbtrocken” (half-dry), and one from Alsace, describing them as “the girl next door” and “Angelina Jolie” respectively. Although I could have dealt without her burdening this transaction with a reminder of the misogynistic requirement that women 1. always have to be beautiful and 2. will be evaluated on that criteria and 3. are considered failures when they do not want to perform beauty… I bought Angelina and Neighbor Girl and went home
and took off my makeup, as a wee protest. Cheers!
As I read up on Riesling, the main explanation for the difference in taste was simple: to suit regional cuisines and cultural preferences. The German Rieslings tend to be sweet because they stop fermentation before all of the sugar has been turned to alcohol, and then usually add back some of the unadulterated grape juice to further sweeten the wine. French Rieslings exhaust all of the sugar during fermentation, leaving an acidic but still wonderfully fruity flavor that is crisp and quick on the palate. You’re not left pondering a mouthful of French Riesling. It’s just this lovely moment that happens, and if you want to taste it, it basically has to be in your mouth or just gleefully slipping down your throat.
The German Riesling was actually wonderful in itself. It had some sweetness, but the acidity seemed more bold. I think this is what people mean when they talk about a wine being structured. I could taste two things that seemed not to mix at the same time. Sweet, tart, clean. I started craving salty fried and pickled foods when tasting this, so it really does seem well suited to German cuisine. Although I do kind of crave fried and pickled food pretty much all the time.
The Riesling from Alsace was dry, lovely, easy, non-confrontational. It’s not that it didn’t have big flavors- they were all just so agreeable and harmonious. I tried it with some spicy Indian food, and later with popcorn, later still with some fruit and honey. While these may not be the official pairings, the main point is that the person drinking the wine and eating the food likes the way everything tastes. And I liked all of this.
Later, for fun, I went back and bought 2 more bottles. One, the Cuvée I had already tasted, the second, a more working-class bottle, also from Wilm (yellow label, one year younger). While both were lovely, there was such complexity to the Cuvée, especially as the wine came closer to a cool version of room temperature. Some research showed that some of the difference may have rested in the weather in Alsace in 2013, which did not make things easy on vintners.
These Rieslings are all around the $20 mark. Sorry I don’t have a picture of the German stuff. I’ll put that up next time I grab a bottle, which will be soon!
Ooh look, lovely Châteauneuf-du-Pape. This guy was around $25-30. Btw, I highly recommend Wine Folly‘s guide as an accessible, easy-on-the-eye tool to help make sense of wine tasting, pairing, and pricing. I open it up whenever I’m trying a new bottle- and probably when I’m tasting something again, just to make sure I’m on the right track.
I had a wonderful experience with Côte du Rhône: a wine that came recommended to me as both archetypal and delicious. When I tasted it, I seriously thought I was going to die. Oh god was it nasty. All acid, tannin, rubber, horrible. I thought, “Maybe this is just not a wine that I like”, temporarily forgetting that I’ve enjoyed many glasses of CDR poured for me at restaurants. I took another sip, and it was dreadful. I poured more into the glass, swirled it around, and set about cooking dinner.
20 minutes later, it was like drinking a ribbon of silk. Complex, dry, still tannic but tempered by all kinds of wonderful things like herbs, coffee, and orange peel. It had opened up and come back to life. I took this lesson with me to the second bottle, which I opened a week later and allowed to decant for 30 minutes.
I should mention that I don’t have a wine fridge, and store nearly all of my wine in the regular ol’ refrigerator. It’s like 15 bottles of wine, a giant stalk of brussels sprouts, every condiment known to man, and two different almond milks in there. 🙂 Anyway, part of the reason the CDR was so tight was the temperature. I like my red wine a little cool, but this was just cold. The same phenomenon that allows mediocre white wine to taste better straight out of the fridge was responsible for the punishing stiffness of these beautiful reds.
Cab Franc is one of my favorite wines, and I’m pretty sure this trio came from Mom’s Organic market down the way. It’s one of the rare grocery stores in MD that’s allowed to sell wine. Coming from CA, where you can buy literally anything—wine, beer, booze– at any hour of the day or night from nearly any retailer, the liquor laws here seem really silly.
None of these are pricey, and I’ll admit I was so busy drinking and cooking with these that I don’t even have anything more to say except holy hell were they easy going down. I’m a wine student, but sometimes you just want to drink some wine.
When people ask me what kind of wine I’d like to make, I have two answers: sparkling (so Champagne, Cava, Prosecco or American méthode Champenoise) and Rosé. I remember people looking down their nose at the pink stuff for AGES, but I think that’s just a throwback to the bad old days of early American wine consumption. Apparently we reaaally liked garbage cheap fortified wine (high alcohol, high sugar, completely puke inducing), and “blush” wines came in jugs and were favorites for 1970s swingers on a budget.
I started drinking Rosé for the wrong reason: I’d heard Robert Parker Jr. say all kinds of nice things about it, so I subbed in his judgement for mine and tried some. It was wonderful. Crisp like a white, but with body and complexity not unlike my ultimate favorite varietal, Pinot Noir. Better yet, they are some of the better values out there, as emerging producers in South America, Europe, and the eastern United States get into the business of pink wine.
On the right is the first bottle of Muscadet I’ve ever tried. Holy smokes. Transcendentally wonderful stuff. I’m going to taste the next bottle against some of the nicer Chablis I’ve been saving.
Oh, another excellent read is Kevin Zraly’s complete wine course. He writes with such authority and yet manages to make it a very personal and approachable subject. Add to it any number of Jancis Robinson or Hugh Johnson texts, and you’ll be in good company when you open the next bottle.
So now it’s back to remedial chemistry in preparation for the second semester of the Davis certificate course. If you’d like to donate towards my tuition, you can do so here. See you next time. Santé!