So there I was having a perfectly lovely private dinner at an elegant Napa Valley winery. For once, I had kept me gob shut and, as best as I knew, hadn't offended anybody.
Then the host, whom I happen to like a great deal, declared to the assembled table, "Matt doesn't like Cabernet Sauvignon. Actually, that's not true," he quickly amended, "Matt only likes Cabernets that are painful."
Allow me to translate: By "painful," he meant "acidity." It's true. I do like acidity. And too many Napa Valley Cabernets are, to my palate, lacking this virtue. Too many are "flabby.” This isn't because Napa is too hot (never mind the climate-change naysayers). Rather, it's because too many Cabernets in Napa Valley are picked overripe. Guess what gets lost?
Anyway, I found myself feeling like the proverbial fish out of water. Once again I was not swimming in the mainstream. And that, in turn, got me thinking about how, inadvertently, we get defined—fairly or otherwise—by our wine choices. There's a majority taste and a minority one.
Allow me to offer some examples of the push-pull of the majority/minority divide. We've all experienced this. For example:
Cabernet Sauvignon vs. Cabernet Franc. Since this all began with Cabernet Sauvignon, it seems right to start with the gulf between Cab Sauvignon/Cab Franc.
Make no mistake: Cabernet Sauvignon is by far the majority taste. It's far more widely planted, if only because it performs admirably in many more climates and soils than does Cabernet Franc. And you can make a case that, at its best, Cabernet Sauvignon is the more "complete" wine, capable of offering the broadest array of flavors and the richest assortment of layers in the wine.
Yet there are those tasters who prefer Cabernet Franc. I'm one of them. I like its "edge," especially when grown in a cool (for the variety) climate, such as France's Loire Valley.
I've met very few Cabernet lovers who like both grapes equally well, which tells you something right there.
Chardonnay vs. Pretty Much Anything Else. Talk about a majority taste. What is it about Chardonnay that makes it the deepest channel of the mainstream?
So here you are: The wine list arrives at your table in the restaurant. You're with two other couples. They're wine-interested, but not especially wine-knowledgeable. Will you choose a lovely, bright, likely oak-free Spanish white such as Godello or Albariño, or even something really oddball like a Txakolí? Or will you run for cover and choose Chardonnay?
Actually, let's make it simpler yet: Let's say it's just you dining alone. Which would you choose? Anything but Chardonnay? Or Chardonnay über alles?
Côte de Beaune vs. Côte de Nuits. Most people are happy with any good red Burgundy that comes their way (especially if someone else is paying). But Burgundy obsessives are a famously, even notoriously, persnickety lot.
My experience is that there's a definite majority/minority divide between those who seek and prefer red Burgundies from the Côte de Nuits (which collectively are richer, more opulent Pinot Noirs) and those who prefer red Burgundies from the Côte de Beaune (which are leaner, more austere, more noticeably mineral and usually less succulent).
Need I tell you which zone grabs the majority preference? That noted, there's little question, in my mind anyway, about the aesthetic differences between the two representations of red Burgundy goodness and the underlying values of those for whom one zone is preferable to the other.
Lambrusco vs. Prosecco. Now, here's an almost stark majority/minority divide. As is well known, Prosecco, the white Italian sparkling wine, has gone into sales orbit. I'm not really sure quite why, except that Prosecco is reasonably priced and reliably bland. How's that for a prescription for majority appeal?
Lambrusco, for its part, is not quite as bubbly as Prosecco (in Italian wine lingo Lambrusco is frizzante—with a prickle—while Prosecco is spumante, or "foaming"). And it's a red wine, with noticeably high acidity that makes it ideal for rich, cheesy dishes or fatty sausages.
Which is the more characterful of the two? It's Lambrusco, hands down. Which is the majority wine? Prosecco, of course. But what a wonderful minority vote is Lambrusco!
Sangiovese vs. Nebbiolo. While we're in Italy, here's a closer-run race between Sangiovese (Tuscany) and Nebbiolo (Piedmont). If I were writing this column 20 years ago, the majority/minority gulf would have been a very wide chasm indeed. Today, much to my amazement, the divide has closed considerably.
In a way, the Sangiovese/Nebbiolo divide is a near-mirror of Bordeaux/Burgundy. In both cases, the former are almost always blends, often from sizable estates.
With Tuscan Sangiovese wines such as Chianti, the blends comprise a backbone of Sangiovese with such additions, depending upon the producer, as the indigenous grapes Mammolo and Canaiolo Nero, as well as the likes of Syrah, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. The classed-growths of Bordeaux are famously a varying blend of five grapes (Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec and Petit Verdot).
Nebbiolo on the other hand is, like Pinot Noir in Burgundy, chastely monovarietal. It trades on a uniqueness of flavor and scent that is diminished—at least in the epicenter of Nebbiolo, the Barolo and Barbaresco zones—if blended with other varieties. As I once wrote long ago, to blend Nebbiolo is like putting Pavarotti in the chorus.
The surprise of the majority/minority divide is that Sangiovese is nowhere near the overwhelming majority choice it was 20 years ago compared with Nebbiolo. This is itself a mirror of how Burgundy (and Pinot Noir) has increasingly become more popular against the once-unchallenged stardom of Bordeaux/Cabernet Sauvignon.
So, where do you find yourself? Do you invariably wind up on one side or the other of the majority/minority divide? Or do you toggle between the two, depending upon the wine, the grape or the social circumstance?
Not least, have you found your tastes changing? Were you once firmly planted on one side only to now find yourself, thanks to a change of palate or perspective, on the other?