WINE Vino Veritas

Uncorking the truth behind some vintage wine myths

No, I’m not going; to tell you thatI everything you know about wine iswrong, not even as an attention-j grabber. But I do think that a lot ofwhat might be called the commonwisdom about wipe today is wrong.’ To put it more bluntly, I think thatmost American wine drinkers of thecurrent vintage have far too much faith in thethings they hear from people 1 ike me and nothalf enough faith in their own gut feelingsabout wine. Thus, what they believe aboutwine isn’t always what their experiencestell them might be true but rather whatsomebody else’s experiences tell them mightbe true or even what certain parties simplywish were true.

For example? Well, for example, these five statements about wine-all of which I’ve heard expressed in one form or another in recent years, sometimes even by wine professionals. Some of these statements are more sophisticated, and some are closer to the truth than others-but all of them are misleading, for the reasons that follow:

1.White wine goes with fish and whitemeats; red wine with red meats and game.This is basic wine lore, frequently reinforcedby wine books, helpful restaurant wine lists,even the lively arts. (Sean Connery as JamesBond in From Russia With Love knows thatthere’s something rotten about Robert Shawbecause he orders red wine with fish.)There’s some truth to the white/white, red/red notion, of course: an intense red wine(one of those thick, red-black young California Zinfandels, for instance) would positively overwhelm a delicate fish or veal dish; asubtle white wine, by the same token, mighttaste like water if consumed with barbecuedspareribs or a hunk of venison in a rich, darksauce. But those are extremes. Anyway, it’snot the basic foodstuff that should determinethe accompanying wine, but how that food-stuff is prepared. Chicken in a cream saucemight taste good with white wine, that is. butchicken in tomato sauce might go better withred. (Chicken in red wine sauce-coq auvin-certainly would.) And then there is thesimple fact that some white wines (high-alcohol California Chardonnays, whiteRhdne wines, good German Spatleses, etc.)tend to be bigger and more intense in flavorthan some reds (California Pinot Noirs,non-riserva Chiantis, and such)-and thusmore red-blooded, more appropriate tostronger foods. An artificial color barriermakes little more sense in wine than it doesin life (and is just as pointlessly limiting).

2. Wine doesn’t go with Mexican (Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Thai, etc., food).Nonsense. Wine goes with everything-or,rather, some kinds of wine go with at leastsome dishes in every culinary tradition youcan think of. Of course, if a given dish is toospicy, it will pretty much deaden the palateto the niceties of wine-though somethingparticularly cold and aromatic, like an Alsatian Muscat or Gewurztraminer or perhapsan icy Beaujolais Nouveau, sometimesstands a chance. Another problem is the useof vinegar and/or pickled foods in certainkinds of cooking. (Wine-based vinegars arethe worst: they seem to drag wine down intosourness with them, like an upright citizencorrupted by a relative gone bad.) If you enjoy wine and would like to drink it with thefood of Mazatlán or Madras or wherever, allyou have to do is give the matter a littlethought: why, for instance, should a heartyrose” taste good with pork chops and not withcamitas? And. if an icy and acidic Muscadetgoes well with raw oysters, then why notwith cold shredded jellyfish in the Cantonese manner? Of course, many Mexican,Chinese, Japanese, Indian, and Thai restaurants don’t have very good wine lists. Butthat is probably just because most of theircustomers think you can’t drink wine withthese kinds of food. ..

3. White wine is lower in calories than red wine. Not necessarily. As the New York wine writer Alexis Bespaloff pointed out a few years back in Food & Wine, the calorie content of wine is determined mostly by its alcoholic strength and has nothing to do with the color at all. Thus, he notes, “a delicate red Gamay with 11 percent alcohol would have about 123 calories less per bottle than a rich white Chardonnay with 14 percent alcohol.” Sugar, needless to say, is another caloric villain that affects white wines almost exclusively, since reds are rarely sweet. Dessert wines are the worst of all, of course: a five-ounce glass of Sauternes, for instance, has about 160 calories.

4. Wine should always be allowed to”breathe” before it is served. The idea isthat oxygen affects wine. Specifically, itoxidizes it. This is a good thing, withinreason-softening the wine, releasing flavorand aroma components within it, and soon.That’s at least partly why wine is aged inporous wooden barrels (or in bottles withporous corks), in fact-so that a bit of air cancreep in slowly to do its good work. But whatdoes leaving a wine open on the dinner tablefor a few minutes, or even a few hours, reallyaccomplish? About five years ago, I gave asmall dinner party at which the star wineswere to be two fine Chiantis from goodvintages in the Fifties. On the advice of aknowledgeable colleague, I decanted themabout three hours before they were to beserved. As I did so, their fragrance exploded into the room-incredible bouquets ofgreat complexity and beauty, suggestingeverything from violets to raisins, nutmeg tovanilla. By the time we got around to drinking the wines, though, that bouquet wasgone. The air had eaten it.

5. Wine gets better with age. Well, yesand no. Almost all wine benefits from someaging. The big, serious ones tend to be un-drinkably harsh when they’re too young.Even the lighter sort usually need some timeto settle down, to find their bearings. (Asnoted, a bit of oxidation helps.) But whatabout the idea that some wines won’t even beready to drink for twenty years or so, or thatthey will improve for forty or fifty? Nonsense, if you ask me.

First of all, the newer California (or Texas) producers have no idea how long their wines will last. They’ve only been making them for six or eight or ten years. They’re just guessing-and hoping that they can explain away the sledgehammer alcohol and tannin their wines often have by calling it “aging potential.” And the French, German, and more technologically advanced Italian producers, who do have an idea about their wines’ lifespan. are mostly making them in a lighter style today, for earlier drinking. Anyway, storage has a lot to do with how well a wine endures. British connoisseurs of the 19th and early 20th centuries, for instance, used to buy good vintages by the case and stow them in their cellars (which were real cellars, not refrigerated closets next to the TV) for decades; French restaurants of serious intent did likewise. These wines remained unmoved from their time of birth until their consumption. An old bottle of Bordeaux or Burgundy on a wineshop shelf today, in contrast, has probably been moving from one private or commercial cellar to the next once every three or four years for its whole life-hanging out with the wrong crowd on loading docks and truck beds in the process. The chances of those wines still being drinkable are rather meager.

And that brings up one more point. There’s a big difference between remaining drinkable and actually improving. What’s the kick in drinking a thirty-year-old wine that’s still “alive,” when its ten-year-old counterpart would probably taste a good deal better? By way of illustration, I tasted an 1846 Chateau Ausone about ten years ago that was still identifiable as wine. It was an exciting experience-but, history aside, any current Christian Brothers red wine I could have bought in any liquor store that same night would have been better wine. I don’t expect a lot of people to agree with me, but I have to say that I think most old wines (i.e., of fifteen or twenty years of age or more) are simply not as good as most comparable younger ones. Furthermore, I suspect that people who disagree with me are going by what they’ve been told they should expect from old wines, and not by what they really find there.

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