I have been drinking wine for a few years now, studying it for several and writing about it for two. I once read an article about what styles and regions the typical wine drinker evolves to and thought it was rubbish. I now agree and would like to offer up my own life cycle of vino appreciation.
Riesling is the number one wine that most people drink first. It is usually a touch sweeter than most, fragrant, low in alcohol and easy to swill. It makes a good afternoon poolside beverage which can easily glide into an early evening aperitif and transition to a dinner libation. It goes well with most foods and is particularly helpful when eating spicy as the sweetness cuts the heat without destroying the wine’s essence. It’s apparent lack of complexity is easy to understand for the newbie. Plain and simple, it is a novice varietal. Stand by for it’s second incarnation.
Without insulting the readership with mumbo jumbo about sparkling spritzers or white Zin, we move on to the next real stage of a wine drinkers adventures- Chardonnay.
I hear a few groans….. That’s because we have all been down that path. Every single one of us has delved in the Chardonnay field. Some like the buttery over-oaked monsters while others prefers the steely French varieties. Either way, this is one of the most planted of grapes and the pools of Chardonnay will never go dry. It is a good wine, perhaps over-consumed, nevertheless with a purpose to serve. Some of the most expensive wines in the world are the complex Burgundies that age forever and develop nuances and turn golden. Most of us will never have the opportunity or the financial resources to delve that deep. For us, a basic $15 California Chard will suffice with its overdone oak and buttery creaminess. For readers overseas you may have more opportunity to pick up some Old World versions, where Oak is eschewed and the true varietal notes of Apple and Pear come out in a racy fashion. Malolactic Fermentation is sometimes allowed to occur and the resulting wine is softer with less acidity but more of the buttery mouthfeel (which I kinda like sometimes). The heavy use of Oak is a trademark of many New World Chards but in Australia the terroir gives the wines a more tropical style of fruit probably due to the higher average temperatures. The grape is also instrumental in Champagne production and is certainly easy to drink with many styles of food.
For me the Syrah/Shiraz phenom was next on my adventure. It’s hard not to drink an Aussie Shiraz, back in the day the wine shops were overflowing with the stuff. Cheap, over done and full of flavor made them popular. The average Shiraz had a touch of sweetness which appealed to the American palate. Most of us had no idea where Hermitage was nor did we differentiate it from Syrah, until later, much later. For the time being, Shiraz was the bomb, literally. I grew bored rather quickly and despised the jammy juice that was being poured into bottles and shipped out of Aust like there was no tomorrow. The world cottoned on soon enough and I started reading about the great Aussie wine glut, rows of vines being pulled out and the general market malaise over what was once the darling varietal. It was a good intro to reds and was easy to drink, perhaps too easy. Some of the higher end, better made Shiraz wines were not on many peoples radar, certainly not on mine until recently. I gave the variety a break for a few years and have been slowly wandering back, albeit searching out the Old World style almost exclusively.
Merlot was the obvious next in the varietal lineup. It was soft, smooth, easy to drink and not as over the top as the now passé Shiraz. I had my fill of the stuff and started to notice it’s nuances. There was a particular style of Merlot that I could not stand, it escapes me right now but as soon as I remember I will certainly let you know. The plum profile and medium tannins of the grape lend to more approachable less complex wines than say Cabernet Sauvignon. Most novice drinkers could easily drink a Merlot and not even know what it was, enjoying it while quoting lines from movies trashing the varietal. The thing about Merlot is that it can offer up some great complexity and morph into a whole different animal if grown and vinified in a certain manner, a’la St. Emilion or any of the right bank communes of the Bordeaux region. On the left bank it is the underdog, used to soften Cab Sav, but on the right it is the main player in some huge wines. I never grow weary of this wine, blended or standalone.
Once I had a basic understanding of wines I was introduced to my first fine wine, Don Melchor from Chile. A Cabernet Sauvignon of such class and precision that it bowled me over. If you read my original blog post you will see that I have a love affair with this wine, it was like my first kiss, my first love, my first solo flight. I remember it like it was yesterday.
Cabernet Sauvignon is the king of wines. It is the main player in the majority of Bordeaux blends, the supreme grape of California’s Napa Valley, the key ingredient in the spectacular Super Tuscans and can be found in any supermarket for about $10 if you really want it. Ranging in price and style I have drunk the cheapest of cheap all the way up to $300 per bottle. The variety of styles from all over the world will leave any wine drinker with a plethora of choices. It is the most versatile grape I can think of as it stands alone at a pinnacle yet is also blended as a minor addition in world class wines. I enjoy the basic stuff for what it is and appreciate the finer Cabs for their tannic frames, ability to age and morph. I love watching wines evolve over a 10 year period, starting with the young brooding monster that softens, mellows and picks up a weathered persona while shaking off the flab of youth. The first region to fall in love with in the Cabernet Sauvignon cycle of your wine life is Napa, followed by Bordeaux. I did it in reverse. The French wines were so alluring with their cassis and earth that I dissed Cali Cabs as a fad, overpriced and stuffy. I later on found out I was wrong. Napa offers a different angle on Cabernet. Much more fruit forward and driven, yet they mature in much the same way and can resemble Claret after a few years in the cellar. My first Napa experience with such an animal was the 1996 Burgess Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon. A wine of impeccable character that screamed Left Bank at me. I have since opened my eyes to the region and enjoy the warmth of the California sun that translates into the gems that are made there. Unfortunately Bordeaux has become so overpriced that I seldom purchase any of my old faves, relying on my stash of cellared treasures or picking up lower quality wines in good years to satisfy my cravings for the nectar.
Once you have had a taste of Bordeaux, you begin to realize that there are a few hidden varietals that are used there to help blend the main Cabernet or Merlot backbone. I’m taking about Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. Franc has quickly become one of my favorite grapes. It offers nuances and perfumes that others can’t compare to. I have searched for it in New and Old World, finding one of the best examples right under my nose here in Virginia. The Barboursville Winery makes an awesome Cabernet Franc that I believe is world class. Petit Verdot is seldom sold as-is but when you find one, grab it. Fiercely tannic, flavorful- almost chewy, this wine is not for the faint of heart. It adds a whole new dimension when drunk straight up. I love it with a big fat steak….mmmm.
At some point in the wine drinkers evolution they are impressed by a Spanish wine, made from the Tempranillo and hailing from the Rioja region. Juicy, plump and tasty would be my descriptors. Once of my ‘AHA’ moments was a bottle of Murrietta Y’Gay Gran Reserva that i nearly poured down the sink, fearing it was shot. I let it breath for 30 minutes and discovered one of the most surreal olfactory experiences known to man. My love of the grape and region was formed that day. The grape is also mass marketed from Chile and is widely available for a low price. Easy to drink, it offers lots of bang for the buck.
Italy is a minefield for me. I will say that I love Italian wines and have made some interesting discoveries. The two main varietals I am talking about are Sangiovese and Nebbiolo. Sangiovese reminds me of aged Pinot while Barolo is simply one of the most delicious, long lasting grapes around. There are other varietals in Italy that I later learned about like Nero d’Avola, Primitivo and Aglianico. All of them unique, tannic in most cases and really delicious. Once I had tried Spain and Italy I was off to the races. Portugal came next with their relatively inexpensive Touriga National’s and Aragonez blends- each offering up a savory mouthful of tasty styles. I was intrigued.
The last major red that consumed me was Pinot Noir. Specifically Burgundy first and then New World. I still prefer the Old World funk and that earthy character that they seem to have but I appreciate the efforts put in by winemakers in Oregon, Washington and New Zealand. The freshness of their style is indeed welcome on a warm summer’s eve when hoisting a marinated sirloin onto the charcoal. For purity though, I always look to the small communes of France where the grape is indeed revered and made into some of the world’s most complex and expensive bottlings. There is nothing finer in the red wine world than a properly aged Burgundy, nothing.
Along the way I also got into Sauvignon Blanc, dabbled with Grenache, and had some interesting Petite Sirahs. Pinotage has appeared recently on my radar and who could forget Zinfandel. I enjoy all flavors of wine yet I am a creature of habit, returning to Bordeaux and Burgundy when I am in need of a fix. Sweet whites are an aside, they complement the reds and have become more and more a part of my stable. I love the unctuousness of a sticky, the honeyed charms of Botrytis, the silky mouthfeel that is Sauternes.
And then we finish the circle….. Back to Riesling. The mightiest of them all and for good reason. The grape is so versatile that you can make a $5 bottle that everyone can enjoy. Or you can buy a $50 bottle that will age forever and gain such complexity and intensity that it boggles the mind. It can be made in several styles to suit the winemaker, several degrees of sweetness to suit the drinker. The possibilities are infinite for this grape of grapes. It is aromatic and can be used in sparkling wines as well as table. It is a chameleon, taking on the character of its terroir and becoming one with the land. Compare a Riesling from Germany with one from Australia. Drink an aged one versus a fresh one. Try a dessert one versus one from the Finger Lakes. Numerous combinations coupled with various levels of complexity make this a grape that is on my short list to get to know better. I have come full circle and am looking forward to the next stage. Salut….