Although there is no denying that one of the most delicious elements of fine wine is the pleasure of disputing someone else's opinion, sometimes it seems that this can get out of hand. Put simply: Is there anything that we can agree on?
In the interests of what might be called "wine comity," I would like to take a stab at some possible categories that perhaps we can all agree upon. Of course, I have no illusions that any such thing will be accomplished. But, what the hell, it's worth a try. For example:
Malbec from Argentina. I admit that this is a category open to other nominations that are equally as legitimate as Argentina's Malbec. Nevertheless, among all of the many deals available today—Loire Valley wines, various reds from southern Italy and an uncountable number of wines from Spain—I'm prepared to hold firm about Argentine Malbec.
What's it got that makes it such a great deal? Argentina's Malbecs offer a killer combination of genuine originality and an almost absurdly low price. No other wine tastes quite like the best Malbecs from Argentina. This originality is all the more impressive considering that Malbec is not exactly unknown elsewhere, especially in its native France. Yet when it was transplanted to Argentina it became a startlingly new wine life-form. All that for what? Fifteen bucks a bottle?
The screw cap. Now, c'mon, can there really be any question anymore that the screw cap is wine's best friend? When was the last time you poured a bottle of wine down the drain because it had a bad screw cap? With every passing year the evidence continues to mount that screw caps are an almost ideal closure for both red and white wines. Traditionalists continue to both yearn and plump for corks. Believe me, I understand. Yet the fact remains—and it is a fact—that screw caps are the more reliable closure.
Syrah. Timing is everything, they say, and it was California Syrah's bad luck to have come upon the scene in sizable quantities at precisely the same time that California Pinot Noir saw its own surge. We all know what happened: California Pinot Noir became the new darling, and Syrah was thrust into an undeserved shadow. Regrettably, it remains there.
Yet the quality of California Syrah is nothing less than remarkable. This is proved by the fact—well, it's my opinion, anyway—that you can drink amazingly good Syrah at every price level, from the bargain-basement likes of Cycles Gladiator to the finest Syrah accomplishments of top producers such as Alban, Lagier-Meredith and Peay, among many others. I simply cannot believe that this level of quality can go unappreciated and unrecognized indefinitely. Right now, though, Syrah is California's most underrated red wine.
Moscato d'Asti. Do you remember tasting wine for the first time? For most folks it's not a terribly pleasant experience. Over the years I've discovered that if you want to bring someone around to the pleasure of wine, your best choice is something slightly sweet and you-can't-miss-it fragrant.
One contender for this prize is surely Riesling. That acknowledged, I have to say that my own experience shows Moscato d'Asti as the hands-down winner. I have yet to meet a person—be they novice or expert–who is not drawn to the siren scent and seductive fruitiness of the white Muscat grape. It's really unbeatable.
Your best bet is Champagne. This is a category best left to those with ample experience. But it appears that no wine provides greater opportunities in this rather sensitive effort. First, it offers an undeniable glamour. Second, there is a proven physiological effect, best captured in the song title "You Go to My Head."
In 2001, researchers at the University of Surrey at Guildford tested whether bubbles in wine helped to put their guests under the influence. Six of the 12 drinkers tested were each given two glasses of fizzy Champagne, while the other six had the same wine stirred with a whisk to get rid of the bubbles. A week later the test was repeated, with each guest receiving the other type of drink. Test subjects were weighed beforehand so that the amount of Champagne poured into their glass could be adjusted according to their body mass.
The results? Those who drank fizzy Champagne were more intoxicated by nearly every indicator, including blood alcohol levels.
Of course, you could achieve similar results with, say, Port. But how much of that can anyone drink? A bottle of good Champagne, however, is gone in a flash.
Tuscany. Here again, there are surely other serious contenders for this questionable distinction. Who, after all, can understand, say, Sonoma County?
Nevertheless, I believe that the single most confusing, difficult-to-grasp, almost-impossible-to-predict-what-you-have-in-the-bottle zone in the world is Tuscany. You can't know, for example, which grape variety or varieties your wine is composed of. You can't predict whether there will be a little or a lot of oak. Really, you have no idea what a name like "Chianti" really signifies.
And what makes this so maddening is that you can get anything from one of the most spectacularly fine red wines you can drink to an innocuous blend of no distinction whatever. Tuscany at its best is thrilling. But it's also hugely frustrating—and exceedingly difficult to understand.
Bordeaux. It's ironic that Bordeaux is so easy to understand, if only because it shouldn't be. After all, Bordeaux cranks out an immense amount of wine. It has tens of thousands of producers. Yet when you think about it, Bordeaux is surprisingly easy to grasp. At the high end, the French have given us a handy little crib sheet in the form of the classed-growths.
At the low end you have a variety of district names and, typically, just one or two wines (almost always blends) from each château. Given the vast array of wine produced, Bordeaux is impressively easy to comprehend.
Auxey-Duresses. The idea of a "deal" in Burgundy is always a questionable notion. Nevertheless, if you're looking for some of the best wines produced in Burgundy at the (relatively) lowest prices, your best bet is Auxey-Duresses. This, by the way, applies to both red (Pinot Noir) and white (Chardonnay).
The wines of Auxey-Duresses are known for a distinctive earthiness. They are also quite long-lived; most of the best reds and whites from a good vintage come into their own after a decade's worth of aging.
One other feature makes Auxey-Duresses a deal: The district collectively boasts some of the oldest vines in Burgundy. Consequently, yields can be lower than elsewhere. Auxey-Duresses has long been the go-to village for négociants looking for inexpensive high-quality Pinot Noir and Chardonnay to beef up their blends.
Spain. It's amazing how difficult it is to obtain really interesting dry white wine that doesn't cost a fortune. These days, if you say "Chardonnay," the odds of getting anything interesting are slim indeed.
This is all the more reason why I pronounce Spain to be the source of today's best white wine deals. Simply put, Spain now offers a greater variety of truly distinctive white wines that sell for what can only be called reasonable prices than any other country. (France is surely a contender in this category as well, but too many French white wines are increasingly expensive.)
When you think about the fascinating Spanish whites from zones such as Rías Baixas, Rueda, Txakoli, Penedès and Rioja—and let's not forget Sherry (Jerez)—as well as truly intriguing grape varieties such as Godello, Spain is a serious contender. When you factor in the reasonable prices, I’d say that Spain clearly offers today's best deals in really good dry white wine.
So there you have it. Of course I expect you to agree with all of my conclusions (yeah, right). Still, it's food—or rather, wine—for thought, and I look forward to reading your nominations, as well as your thoughts on why, inevitably, I am wrong in my own.
Brian Seel — Naperville, IL — December 6, 2011 1:57pm ET
Vince Liotta — Elmhurst Illinois — December 6, 2011 3:58pm ET
Dejan Bajic — Belgrade, Serbia, Europe — December 6, 2011 4:16pm ET
Ed Lehrman — Sausalito, CA USA — December 6, 2011 7:06pm ET
Giancarlo Ortega — Washington DC — December 6, 2011 8:55pm ET
Peter Shanahan — burlington, ontario — December 6, 2011 11:09pm ET
John Kafarski — Highland Park, New Jersey — December 7, 2011 8:21am ET
Stephen Stewart — new mexico — December 7, 2011 10:14am ET
Susan Aventi — Las Vegas NV — December 7, 2011 11:27am ET
Matt Kramer — Portland, OR — December 7, 2011 6:07pm ET
Matthew Johnson — Sacramento, CA — December 7, 2011 7:19pm ET
Susan Aventi — Las Vegas NV — December 9, 2011 10:23am ET
Dennis D Bishop — Shelby Twp., MI, USA — December 10, 2011 11:06am ET
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