Slow Travel: An Amateur Drinks Wine
I am no expert on Wine. In a blind taste test, I probably wouldn’t able to distinguish one wine from another, one vintage from another, or one grape from another. Neither would I be able to tell you if the wine I was drinking was expensive or cheap.
As for flavor notes? I have no idea what they’re talking about. When a reviewer says there are notes of tobacco, spice, almond, and vanilla, my mind wanders, my eyes glaze. Wine tastes like wine. It’s either good, really good, or not so good. In some unfortunate instances, it is terrible. Boxed wine: terrible. I don’t care what those drunk girls sitting on the fountain steps say. Terrible.
Here’s the thing, I’m not alone. Most people are like me. Even the ones who claim to be connoisseurs, possess the taste buds of a reptile. They may sound smart, but all you have to do is blindfold them so they can’t see the label and, most importantly, the price, and they will love that boxed wine.
I’ve had some great expensive wine. Bottles that sell for over a three hundred bucks (or more) expensive. But in most cases, I’ve hated these wines. Often, they are aged for too long in the bottle. They are too thin, too odd tasting. or have simply gone bad. They have sat in a temperature controlled cellar for years.
You know the scene. The proud owner pulls out a dusty bottle with a fading label as if it were a newborn baby, and says something to the effect of, “This is from (name a year from a long time ago, a place, obscure, but fancy sounding.”) Everyone oohs and aahs.
The sacred bottle is passed around, the label can be inspected. Careful! Don’t drop it! At last, it is opened. The cork goes from person to person so that we can admire the purple hue on its long enclosed end. When it gets to you, you sniff it like everyone else. It smells … like wine, you think.
Drams are poured. What do you do? Do your swirl it around? Hold it up to the light? Sniff it? What does it all mean? At last, you take a sip and taste … and taste … vinegar. Well, what do you do? Make face? Spit it out? You look around and see how everyone else is reacting. Your new friends can give you clues as to what to say and do.
Now, what follows depends on the host. He/she, having the tastebuds of the aforementioned lizard, might think it a great wine. And perhaps the vinegary flavor, the acidic burn, might not be that strong. They say, “Now that is a great wine!”
Well, what usually follows this is quiet, embarrassed chatter.
Or, the owner of the sacred bottle owns up and says, “Shit, this wine sucks!” In which case, everyone laughs, and a cheap California Cabernet is opened and passed around. Everyone is happy.
Except you, because you are not exactly sure what just happened. But you want to expand, drink more wine, join the world of the cultivates. Where to begin? You can go to a bookstore (or more likely, go online) and read books on the subject matter. I used to own the Oxford Companion to Wine. I never read it.
There are others highly regarded publications, such as the World Atlas of Wine, the Wine Bible, Wine Folly,etc. But who has time to read a book?
You can watch YouTube videos. These videos often employ a single person, sitting at a table, usually in their kitchen or dining room, with a bottle of wine, and a wine glass. (Note, there are different types of wine glasses for different types of wine.) They talk about the wine, the type of grape it is, the vineyard it comes from. At about 10 minutes, they pour. They sniff, they drink. They start mentioning the palate, the flavor notes, the spices. Your mind wanders, your eyes glaze…
Or, you can take a class. Astor Place Wines (no longer on Astor Place) offers reasonably priced classes. The French Institute and the Cervantes institute have language and wine tasting nights. A nice way to work on your French or Spanish and learn a little bit about wines from those two countries. There are myriad options, especially if you live in New York.
Or, you can just wing it. Like me!
My taste, as mentioned before, is not very refined, or educated. But I know what I like. I shy away from white wine. I consider it awful, even in summer, except maybe in Italy, where everything — EVERYTHING is wonderful. Lets not even talk about Rosé. I do not like anything too sweet. But not too dry either. And, like Eli Zabar, I generally stay away from California wines.
Many would disagree. They will get all misty eyed as they talk about the vineyards of Napa Valley. Sure, Napa Valley is pretty, but if I have to drink another shitty California Merlot I’m going to…
I tend to prefer Spanish and French wines. And why not? Even the Romans drank Spanish wine. There are ancient wine amphora with the names of Spanish wine producers etched into them. We’re talking two thousand years ago here. And the French claim to have invented wine (along with everything else, including taste and culture,) and that’s just fine by me.
For one thing, if all you have to spend is, say, ten or twelve dollars, then head over to Mr. Wright Fine Wines and Spirits on Third Avenue and buy yourself a French or Spanish wine. Just as you enter, you will find a wonderful selection of wines from these countries in that price range. Nouvelle Beaujolais, easy Bordeaux, and tasteful Tempranillos will practically tumble onto your head as you squeeze into the store.
Go toward the pillar on the left and you will find the Spanish wines. A nice selections of Ribera Del Dueros and Riojas reside here. Head towards the back, and there are more French Wines; Burgundy, Bordeaux, and the previously mentioned Beaujolais.
I’m going to return to the Europe versus the U.S. argument for a second. Many will say I am a snob. And perhaps they are right. But if all you have to spend is ten dollars, I challenge you to find an American wine that tastes as good as a European one. Good luck.
It’s like Whiskey. There are people who claim that Japanese whiskeys are as good as Scotch whiskeys. I disagree. If you have sixty or seventy or even eighty bucks, do you buy a blended Japanese Whiskey with no age statement? Or do you buy a single malt Balvenie, aged twelve years, an Ardberg aged ten, or a Lagavulin aged sixteen? It’s an easy question to answer. You go with the Scotch. You will get a better tasting product for the price.
I feel the same way about Spanish and French wines versus U.S. wines. I’m not saying American wines are bad, but at the same price point, European wines are better.
Now, like I said, I’m not an expert. I’ll pair wine with anything. Red meat, chicken, fish, cheese, or salad. I will drink the wines I like no matter what and with whatever food is on the plate in front of me. Red wine always. I’m a gourmand that way.
The wines I drink are Anciano Tempranillo from Valdepeñas, Oak Matured, aged for three years, 2012. Palene Bordeaux, currently from 2014, Marqués de Riscal Rioja, from 2009, Creta Roble, an excellent and affordable Ribera Del Duero, 2013, Convento San Francisco, another Ribera Del Duero, 2011. All of these wines can be found for twenty bucks or less.
My personal favorite is Condado De Haza, a Ribera Del Duero from Burgos. As you can tell, I am Partial to Ribera Del Dueros. They can be dark and earthy and perhaps a little heavy. They are like the chocolate stouts of wine. I love this wine so much, I drink it with breakfast. Currently, my local wine shop is out. So I am saving it until their stock returns. You could say I am aging it. But not for too long. I might have to go up to PJ Wines to find some more.
What it comes down to is taste. As in: does it taste good or does it not. After the first couple of sips, it no longer matters. You’ll not be thinking of anything else except the pure enjoyment of the wine. If you happen to be siting on a terrace in Paris, Logroño, or Rome, even better.
more by Sergio Remon Alvarez
photograph by Sergio Remon Alvarez