The next best thing to knowledge is the appearance of knowledge.
I know from personal experience it takes years of reading,
tasting, attending tedious multilingual dinners, freezing
one's ass off in cold cellars, and nursing headaches to become
a certified wine bore. What many of us want is the ability
to impress our friends, and especially our enemies, and to
be able to spend our money in such a way to certify our connoisseurship.
In that spirit I offer the following Cliff Notes on Wine appreciation.
These ten rules have taken me half a lifetime to collect,
but I offer them as a public service. Master them and you
will be able to operate a wine list with dexterity or plan
the liquid part of an impressive meal.
1. Avoid artichokes whenever you consume wine. They contain
an acid called cynarin, which makes wine taste sweet. Not
as bad, but still dangerous, is asparagus, which contains
phosphorous and mercaptan, turning most wines ugly. If you
are planning a dinner party with wines, leave out these foods.
Ditto soup and salad - they are almost impossible to match
with wine. If you are at Daniel or Ducasse and you are ordering
the tasting menu, tell the chef to skip these foods when he
asks if there is anything you don't eat. Turn to your fellow
diners and mutter, "Wine killers."
2. Every five years there is a great worldwide vintage, most
recently '85, '90, '95. Almost every wine region in the world
experienced good to outstanding vintages in these years, the
'95's being the most relevant at the moment since they are
the most readily available. However...
3. Beware of famous Euro vintages in their youth. For more
expensive French (and some Italian) wines, one of the criteria
for supposed greatness is the ability to improve with age,
which means the wines have an abundance of bitter tannin and
acid, and hence may well taste offensive when young (and even
when they are old, for that matter). I recently had two vintages
of the J. L. Chave Hermitage on successive nights. The first
night I had the '88, a "great" vintage. Unfortunately it wasn't
nearly ready to drink, requiring another five years or so
to shed its nasty, mouth-puckering tannins. The next night
I had the '92 - supposedly a lousy vintage. But the wine was
wonderful - fruity and perfectly integrated, despite its far
cheaper price and mediocre score from Robert M. Parker Jr.
Right now the lowly '93 Bordeaux is probably more fun to drink
than the far more highly rated, but tannic '95. A corollary
to this rule is that great makers almost always make good
wine, no matter what vintage.
4. Almost any zinfandel that starts with R is good. For instance
Ridge, Rafanelli, Ravenswood, Rabbit Ridge, Rosenblum, Renwood.
Ditto any zin that ends in elli. Like Martinelli. We speak
of red zinfandel, of course. About white zinfandel, the proper
attitude is a lip-curling condescension. The word puhleaz
should be uttered.
5. Any good Italian wine that ends in the letters aia is
very good indeed. This seems to be the result of the fame
of Sassicaia, the so-called Super Tuscan Cabernet. Today you
can count on Ornellaia, Solaia, Lupicaia, Brancaia, Tassinaia,
and Piastraia. I don't now why, but they are all wonderful.
6. There's no such thing as bad champagne. Unless of course,
it has been badly shipped or stored. By champagne, I mean
the stuff that comes from the region of that name in north-central
France and is imported to the States. The bad ones don't seem
to get sent here. There are perfectly decent sparkling wines
from other parts of the world, but why bother when you can
get the real thing - a non vintage brut - for twenty to thirty
bucks? Just for fun order that nobody, including you, has
ever heard of. Like J. LaSalle or Henri Germain.
7. Burgundy should follow Bordeaux. And Pinot Noir should
follow Cabernet Sauvignon. this advice flies in the face on
conventional wisdom to follow lighter wines with heavier wines.
But I have found that the sweet fruit of Pinot Noir tends
to take the more rugged Cabernet taste bitter. (Merlot-based
Bordeaux from Pomerol and Saint-Emilion are the exceptions
to the rule.)
8. Almost everybody likes Chardonnay, and California Chardonnay
- in almost every price range - is the most idiot-proof wine
in the world. Not necessarily subtle. But like Harrison Ford,
it gets the job done. Wine snobs love to bash it, though you
can have it both ways by saying to your guests, " It's become
fashionable to dump on Chardonnay, but we think this Casa
Oak is hard to beat." Viognier is way cooler, but you have
to know what you're doing.
9. White wine with fish, red with flesh is a pretty reliable
rule. But any idiot can follow rules - it's far cooler to
break them. Pinot Noir can be great with salmon, particularly
grilled salmon. (The oily flesh highlights the bright Pinot
fruit.) And sweetish German Riesling is always good with pork
and /or veal. If someone else is buying Petrus or Chateau
d'Yquem, by all means drink of much of it as you can, no matter
what the hell your eating. Give the food to the dog.
10.Finally, the rule I call Don't try this at home: I love
red and white Burgundy only slightly less than I love my children.
But unless you are prepared to misspend a year or two in your
study, and thousands of dollars, stay the hell away from Coted'Or,
the source of more tears than country-music radio. Leave it
to the experts, baby.
Special Bonus Rule: If you are called upon by a waiter of
sommelier to pronounce judgment on a wine, trust your palate.
If it tastes nasty, send it back. If it tastes okay but you
feel inclined to make some judgment, say, "Needs a little
time in the glass."
Read the review of Bacchus & Me