For all you last-minute shoppers and remorseful resolvers, here’s an all-purpose wine-based holiday guide. Partly my personal wish-list, partly a resolution line-up, partly a trendspotter if we could choose our trends, it’s an optimistic (and largely useless) take on what we all might look forward to in the year ahead. (It’s also a sort of table of contents for the next few columns I plan to write.)
Open a non-boring sparkling wine on New Year’s Eve (“non-boring” to be officially defined next week), and slow down enough to realize that it’s a beautiful wine, rather than just a celebratory bubble-transfer device. Buy two more bottles and stick them in the fridge.
Next time you order pizza, or boil pasta for a cream-based sauce, or have an omelet and mashed potatoes for dinner, or bake haddock with breadcrumbs, or fry chicken, or open a can of white beans into a pan that is sautÃ©ing broccoli rabe, garlic and hot pepper, drink the bubbly.
If you’re worried about having to down a whole bottle, either buy a good sparkling-wine stopper, or recall that your wine is likely a low 12% alcohol, and use a bit of it for your dinner’s sauce or batter.
Pour all wines into the biggest, thinnest glasses you can afford to stock. I’m aware of the Riedel-fueled insistence that various glass shapes are suited to particular styles of wine, but all my recent side-to-side comparisons bear out a bigger-is-better approach.
You can’t go wrong with “Burgundy” glasses, especially those with a turned-out edge at the lip.
If wine is about aroma, depth and expression, let’s accentuate it. Maybe if you pour crappy wines, you should stick with the narrow, thick-glass goblets (better yet, stemless), so no one will be able to taste them.
Speaking of sparkling wines, these are dramatically better off in a large glass. Sure, a “flute” retains more effervescence for longer, but is effervescence-loss actually an issue?
Almost all good sparkling wines are pent up at first, and need a few minutes outside the womb before they’re ready; a large glass makes it possible.
Well, we’re all that now, right? There are countless blogs, apps and social-media-based platforms for disseminating opinions.
But my overall wish for people who pay attention to what they drink and then try to write about their impressions in an endeavor to help people learn is: Don’t talk about flavors. Descriptions of flavors indicate the quality of a wine as well as descriptions of colors indicate the quality of a painting.
Flavors are usually conveyed with nouns: blackberry, white pepper, apricot, hay. Is there anyone who will find true value in knowing whether a wine reminds someone of hay? (I ask this though I have used “hay” as a descriptor.)
One gets a bit closer to the truth of a wine by referring to body over flavor, and in so doing moves toward adjectives: rich, spicy, oily, pretty.
But the more I drink, the more I find that what distinguishes great wines from forgettable ones are texture and structure. And the parts of speech best suited to these traits are verbs and adverbs, because they express the how of a given wine’s project. Does the “hay” flavor come through easily, lightly, firmly, thunderously, steadily or off-kilter? As I drink a wine, I ask where the action is. What are the verbs? And how is that action handled? With grace, or stumbling?’
Put more information on the back label of your wine. Your Cotes-du-Rhone Villages, Rioja or Rosso di Montalcino is not going to be any less expressive of place if you list the grape names, and maybe some helpful information about your soil, climate and agricultural practices. Don’t put pairing suggestions there (“Pastas, meats and aged cheeses”? Really? All of those?), but use the space to talk about what you value most (don’t consult a marketing director), and maybe the general sorts of meals that you prepare when you drink your wine. If you have too much info to fit, embed it in a QR code.
Stop using so much new oak. We’re not where we used to be 10 to 20 years ago, when over-concentration coupled with profligate use of new oak barrels led to super-pimpy wines all chasing Shiraz down to Hades. But there is still today an over-reliance on new oak to cover up grape flaws, neutralize character, falsely indicate seriousness and produce inoffensive liquid. What does new oak do? It turns red wines into cherry compotes steeped in vanilla, whites to egg-battered bubblegum. It bashes everything in its path. It makes a wine taste good for five seconds at most, after which it becomes cloying, same-same and frankly disgusting.
The new oak pestilence affects wines at all price levels. Rampant with everything from cheap Argentine Malbecs to expensive California Grenache, winemakers using new oak betray a repellent disdain for their customers’ desire to taste the actual components in the wine. If you’re picking green grapes indiscriminately, you might feel you need to cover your tracks, but what you really need to do is find another career.
Force wineries to publicize ingredients. The list of acceptable additives in wine (not to mention chemical treatments applied in the vineyards) that do not need to be listed on labels is pages long.
Acetaldehyde, carbohydrase, soy flour, polyvinylpyrrolidone, gelatin, ethyl maltol and polyoxyethylene 40 monostearate are but seven of dozens of permitted ingredients.
In general, wines made from grapes alone and fermented naturally with their own yeasts taste the best, are the most nutritive and life-affirming, express distinctive character most directly, give the most pleasure, cause the fewest unwanted aftereffects. But most wines are not made from grapes alone, and we deserve to know it.
A very small number of wineries are calling themselves out on back labels, copping to the use of tartaric acid or oak chips, for instance, and explaining their reasons. I’m no fan of increased regulation, but industry transparency rarely comes about unilaterally. U.S. and EU authorities, move in!
Hold feet to fire. You ask your grocer where the broccoli came from; you ask your clothier the age of the Bangladeshi child who knit your socks. Wine is a consumable, and ought to be held to the same standards we apply to other aspects of our lives.
When you buy a wine, and especially if you find a wine you love, ask whoever’s helping you how it was made, the history of the region, the farming practices, the sort(s) of yeast, the choices made in using the particular grapes, the sulfur treatment.
Not all of those questions at once, but maybe one or two. Be curious, and push those in the business to stay curious, too.
Joe Appel works at Rosemont Market. His blog is soulofwine.com, and he can be reached at:email@example.com