If you believe wine populists—those folks who insist (demand, really) that everything about wine is a matter of personal taste—there's no such thing as a wine truth. It's all so personal, they say. Everything is subjective and no two wine drinkers are alike.
This, in a word, is nonsense. Plenty of "truths" apply to wine, just as they do to any number of other seemingly subjective experiences. Here are three such "truths" that can withstand close scrutiny, having proved over long experience to be true—at least to me, anyway. For example:
All Good Wines Can Age (But Not All Can Transform). If there's a "halo effect" in wine it surely involves the practice of aging wine. Everyone, including people who never even drink wine, has seen pictures of old stone cellars in Europe plumped with bottles with the patina of fossils. You can visit cellars in Burgundy and, especially, Tokaji where you'll see bottles enveloped in a thick, wooly black fungus.
When you see such wines, the apparent endorsement of antiquity is so strong that you can't help but believe that all wines need a half-century of aging. (Actually, that wooly fungus grows surprisingly rapidly in certain humid cellars; a bottle that looks ancient may be a mere two decades old.)
Wine literature recounts wondrous tales of wines that have lain in cold Scottish cellars for the better part of a century and emerge miraculously fresh. More prosaically, you see tasting notes with "drink windows" that purport to tell you that this brand-new wine can be drunk next week or as many as 20 years from now. Clearly, the idea that fine wine, by definition, needs and rewards aging is so installed in the world's wine culture that suggesting otherwise verges on heresy.
Now, there’s no question that some wines, especially from certain grape varieties, do indeed deserve and reward time in a cold cellar. But what is less often noted is the vast gap between a wine's ability to age as opposed to transform.
This business of transformation is critical. Bluntly put, there is little reason to award extended cellaring to a wine unless you have some expectation (or at least hope) that the wine will see a significant transformation. Feel free to come up with your own figure, but I reckon that about 90 percent of all the world's wines do not transform over time.
Oh, many wines—especially reds—will become rounder and softer over time, like a rough pebble smoothed by a stream. Time erodes rough tannins in red wines, making them more supple and less astringent. So yes, cellaring has this benefit even for wines that do not transform. The great majority of white wines, meanwhile, rarely do little more than oxidize if cellared.
If you're wine knowledgeable you will, upon reading this, immediately think of dozens of exceptions. And I, for my part, would very likely concur with many of the exceptions you might cite. But if you pull back and look at the broader picture, you will see that nearly all of the exceptions you can think of occupy that privileged 10 percent stratum of the world's wines.
The "truth" is this: Many of today's wines can age, thanks to clean winemaking and good packaging. But relatively few wines transform with the benediction of time.
Time alone tells us the truth about transformation. We simply don't know whether many of today's new wines that seem so promising—e.g., some of the newer Napa Valley Cabernets, Pinot Noirs from many up-and-coming regions around the world, various Syrahs from California, Washington, New Zealand and cooler sites in Australia—will actually transform into layered, multidimensional wines that transcend their original, often lovely, primary fruitiness.
All of these wines, and many more, can "age" thanks to good winemaking and packaging. In a cold cellar they will keep their fruit and so provide enjoyable drinking. They will be preserved. But will the caterpillar become a butterfly? That's transformation. And it's transformation that distinguishes great wine from the merely good.
All Good Wines Work Wonderfully With Any Food That Is Remotely Plausible for Them. There's a whole cottage industry today that specializes in suggesting—sometimes even insisting—that this wine goes with that dish. Many books have been written (and more surely will be) about "marrying" wines with food. Various authors have labored mightily to explain, in ever more scientific terms, right down to the molecular level, why one or another wine does or does not "go" with this or that food.
After a respectable number of decades spent eating (and cooking) pretty good food and drinking even better wines, I have come to the conclusion that all this business of oh-so-precisely pairing food and wine is just so much eyewash.
Now, I don't doubt that certain dishes do indeed go better than others with certain wines. So what? You can drive yourself nuts pursuing the just-so wine with the just-right dish. And even then, when you conclude that you have arrived at some pinnacle of perfection, you can hear the poet E. E. Cummings declaring: "Listen: There's a hell of a good universe next door; let's go."
Go to Alsace and order its signature regional dish of choucroute garni, which is a bed of sauerkraut garnished with slabs of smoked bacon and pork sausages. You will be served either a Pinot Gris or, more likely yet, a Riesling. Now, how many food-and-wine matchmakers would have arrived at either of those two wines for such a dish? I rather doubt that many would. The Alsatians serve them because that's what they grow and—this is no small point—their Pinot Gris and Riesling are really good. The combination works because, above all, the wines are simply so good.
This brings me to what I devoutly believe is a "truth": All good wines work wonderfully with any food that is remotely plausible for them. If the wine is only mediocre then it can't hold its own. But if the wine is really good and has something to say, it will take care of itself.
I can't tell you the number of times I have heard (and read) wine lovers exclaim over the goodness of an "unlikely" wine that is being served with a dish. This is that "hell of a universe next door." It's there all the time. Let's go.
All Wine Drinkers Get in a “Taste Rut.” I am hard-pressed to think of any wine lover (and I most emphatically include myself in this) who does not, over the course of a long span of "wine love," get into a rut.
Left to my own devices, I will always reach for Pinot Noir. I know others who are in a Cabernet rut. Yet for others it's Chardonnay. I'll bet you that if you look clearly at your own wine habits, you too can discern your own (very comfortable) rut.
While this "truth" may not seem all that significant—after all, we all reach for what we most like—the fact is that the very existence of these wine ruts blinds us to a world of expanding wine beauty. (See Mr. Cummings, above.)
You might be amazed at how many otherwise experienced wine drinkers are unaware of the remarkable accomplishments annually being achieved in places well beyond their respective "ruts": Hungary, Australia, New Zealand, Oregon, parts of California beyond Napa and Sonoma, Argentina, Chile, all sorts of places in Spain, southern Italy, Ontario and British Columbia, and many more.
Recently, I had the pleasure—the privilege, really—of serving to a Burgundian winegrower friend a Hungarian 2006 Juhfark from the producer Lajos Takács. His tiny winery, which I have visited, is called Hollóvár.
Juhfark (literally “sheep's tail,” because of the shape of the grape cluster) is a white wine grape that, as best as I know, is grown almost exclusively in one small district in Hungary, called Somló.
Difficult to grow, Juhfark is a dry white wine of remarkable character that is—dare I say it—almost Burgundian in its depth and minerality. My Burgundian friend was dazzled by it, as was I. We were catapulted from our respective white wine ruts. It was exhilarating.
Troy Peterson — Burbank, CA — March 20, 2012 1:46pm ET
Amador De Vino — Burleson Texas USA — March 20, 2012 1:50pm ET
Greg Dunbar — Seattle, WA, USA — March 20, 2012 3:34pm ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — March 20, 2012 6:59pm ET
Jason Carey — willow, ny usa — March 21, 2012 11:37am ET
Hugh L Sutherland Jr-m — miramar beach, fl — March 21, 2012 1:52pm ET
Raymond Archacki Jr — Wethersfield, CT — March 21, 2012 8:21pm ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — March 21, 2012 8:25pm ET
Ivan Campos — Ottawa, Canada — March 21, 2012 9:38pm ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — March 22, 2012 9:05am ET
Kelvin Lou — Macau — March 23, 2012 3:50am ET
David Holstrom — Portland Oregon — March 23, 2012 12:55pm ET
Stephe Rousseau — Wooster, OH, USA — March 28, 2012 9:56pm ET
Chris Meehan — Atlanta, GA — April 2, 2012 3:55pm ET
Chris Meehan — Atlanta, GA — April 2, 2012 5:47pm ET
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