Thursday, March 13, 2003

If it's Thursday, it must be Winesday!

Kathy the Caremlite asked me to recommend some good "supermarket" wines, since she is blessed to live in a state where such a phrase is possible. (Technically, it's possible in my state, too, but the license for it is so expensive and so restricted few besides gourmet shops bother with it. Only one Trader Joe's in the whole state sells booze, forsooth!) Before I answer her request, let me lay out a couple of things.

I tend to drink wine that costs between $8 and $12/bottle. Once in a while I really go nuts and spend $16 or even $17, but usually only when I'm getting a deal on it, like when my friends go with me to the wine store so we can buy a mixed case and get a 10% discount. So much of what you find here will in fact, pricewise at least, be the sort of thing that grocery stores carry. I do however attend tastings sometimes that sell more expensive wines, and will (as today) occasionally offer a higher-priced wine review. I will list prices when I know them.

But, philosophically, I am opposed to the existence of wine that costs more than about $25/bottle. After that price, it is almost always the label or perceived exclusivity, rather than any real increased value in quality, for which you are paying. (I am talking release prices, by the way, not the prices to which the last 3 known bottles of a particular vintage are driven by scarcity of supply. All you Adam Smith fans can go suck eggs, because I am telling you that almost any bottle you find released at $125, I can find a similar wine, just as good, for $25. Not absolutely, but nearly all the time.) One of the really great joys of enophilia is finding a really outstanding bottle of something for $13.99 at the local packy, and it is equally fun to find something pretty darn good for $8.

Okay, on to Kathy's question. First, I'm no longer a big beaujolais fan, and I like Duboeuf's beaujolais least of all. He buys his grapes in bulk, instead of growing them himself, and mass produces the stuff, and while it's quaffable, many other brands are better. Beaujolais is nice and fruity, and not too acidic or tannic when done nicely, but it is very simple, and when you have finished a sip of it, you may forget before it finishes passing your pallet what it is you are drinking.

In that same price range, however, are are many much more interesting wines. The Chilean winery Santa Rita (with their distinctive "120" on the label) produces a very pleasant Merlot that can usually be had for $7-8/bottle, and their Cabernet/Merlot blend (the grapes usually represented in Bordeaux, though in different proportions) is also quite tasty for about the same price. I happen to know Total Beverage stocks it, too, since I served it at my wedding and bought it there. For $5-6/bottle, you can also try any of Australian producer Banrock Station's reds. The Shiraz is actually surprisingly good, though it benefits from decanting into a carafe an hour or so before you serve it.

[Jargon Alert: Decanting red wine aerates it, which helps the tannins unfold and be less astringent. When people talk about wine "breathing" what they mean is, aerating it. When someone pops the cork and then leave it in the bottle with all of 1/2 a square inch in contact with the air, he usually saw that particular maneuver on TV. Unless you are planning on letting it "breathe" like that for a day or so, it's going to do very little good.]

As for whites, I have to confess that I loathe Chardonnay as most wineries conceive of it. They take a light, fruity but not expecially vibrant grape, and in the hopes of making it a little more sexy, they age it in new oak casks. The problem with new oak is, it leeches flavor into the wine. Now, with a really robust grape, that can make for an interesting flavor complement. But with such a subtle grape as Chardonnay, what happens is the grape gets completely lost. In fact, what the typical Chardonnay drinker (mass produced, cheap American Chardonnay) thinks of as the particular flavor of that wine is actually just plain oak. (Don't believe me? Visit your local homebrew supply store, and ask if they have any oak chips for their home wine makers. Stick one in your mouth and suck on it for a few minutes, and you will see what I mean.)

But Chardonnay is the principle grape in White Burgundy, and in that style of wine, it is a noble grape indeed. Sadly, that nobility comes at a price, as very few come for less than $12-15/bottle. (For all you eaters of Freedom Fries, never fear, however. There are a number of American producers of White Burgundy style Chardonnay. Ask the wine buyer at your local beverage store which ones they carry.)

So what do I recommend? Well, first, there is always the jug wine route. I find Gallo French Colombard to be tolerably drinkable--especially on a hot summer day, when it is actually quite pleasant. It is cheap, and cooks very well, too, in many sauces.

For something a little less likely to cause snickering among your snobbier friends, an underappreciated grape is Muscadet, which can often be had for $6-8/bottle. Look for it in the "Loire/Alsace" section of the wines. (I drink a lot of La Barillere Muscadet Sevre et Maine, but it is hard to find. "Sevre et Maine," by the way, is an appellation, not a brand, and many vintners use it.) Muscadet is light, pleasant, nicely acidic, with vague hints of citrus fruits in it, when it is even moderately well done. It's not necessarily something you would serve with dinner for your wine-collecting boss, but you might offer him a glass during the canape.

And, of course, there is Sauvignon Blanc. If you are looking for French, look for some with the "Touraine" appellation. New Zealand is the world leader in Sauvignon Blanc at this point, but I don't know a particular $8 bottle to recommend. Jug Sauvignon isn't worth it: it's too acidic, and often over-oaked like Chardonnay.

This has gotten long, so I will put my recent tasting results in a different post.


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