The Holy Grail of writing about wine is simplifying the complex. Proof is found in the seemingly endless number of wine books intended for newcomers to wine, all purporting to make fine wine simple. Do they succeed? Most do not. A few get close.
Untangling the knot of wine complexity is a classic example of the famous aphorism popularly attributed to Albert Einstein: “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”
This is, of course, the underlying principle of Occam’s razor. But with fine wine, it’s a close shave. Too often, a little too much essential information gets scraped off.
That said, it’s always worth at least trying to make wine knowledge as straightforward as possible while somehow seeking to sidestep the simplistic. I make no claims to succeeding in what follows. Rather, it’s merely a (potentially embarrassing) public attempt at taking a penknife stab at what a newcomer to wine needs to know. For example:
When buying Italian wines, “Riserva” is rarely worth the premium. In fairness, this assertion could be extended to wines from just about anywhere that are designated “Reserve,” “Cellar Selection,” “Cask Such-and-Such,” and so forth. But it’s simpler to confine it to Italian wines if only because they can otherwise be so complicated for just about everybody.
Why is “Riserva” not worth the premium? Because too often all it means is that the wine saw more oak treatment than the so-called normale bottling—and just as often it’s more oak than the wine (or its drinker) can handle.
Keeping it simple: “Riserva” is rarely worth the extra money invariably asked. (It’s almost irresistible to declare this simplification universally true. Feel free if you’re so inclined; you likely won’t go very far wrong, if at all.)
When in doubt, go with a bigger glass. Now, this simplification can be taken to unnecessary extremes. Sometimes, yes, a wineglass can be too big for the wine under consideration. That acknowledged, experience suggests that most wines, most of the time, are better served—in every sense—in a larger glass.
Keeping it simple: Bigger generally is better when it comes to wineglasses. The trick is remembering to keep the pour relatively modest. It’s the airspace you want, not the (wine) occupancy.
Keep your cool. Too many wines, both red and white, are served at unflattering temperatures. Too many whites are served way too cold, which kills the aromas and stuns the flavors. Too many reds, never mind the grape variety, are served way too warm, sapping the wines of freshness and making them taste “flabby” and lifeless.
The trick is as simple as it is effective: All wines should be served cool. Not so cold as to fog the glass, but cool enough that you feel refreshed simply by the wine’s temperature alone.
Keeping it simple: Figure 60° F / 15° C and you won’t be far off for almost any wine you can think of (except maybe sparkling wines).
Always buy a great producer’s most modestly priced wine. If you’ve just tuned in to wine, you’ve blessedly missed one of the great ongoing wine wrangles of the past, oh, 30 years: Is the producer more important than the vineyard?
No matter where you land on the divide (the smart ones straddle it and refuse to budge), there’s no getting around the fact that the producer really matters. A lot. There’s no substitute for exacting personal standards, grapegrowing and winemaking rigor and a person’s sheer integrity and pride.
Keeping it simple: If you can afford a great producer’s most modestly priced wine, buy it. You’re not likely to get the deal of the century; great producers always command a premium. But you’re almost guaranteed to get something extraordinary for its category.
Never wait for a special occasion. This may be the biggest mistake more wine lovers make. And it’s the one that wine lovers willingly admit to more than any other, in my experience.
Everyone involved with wine sooner or later buys an expensive, rare or significant-to-them bottle and then sits on it waiting for that fabled “special occasion.”
Here’s the news: It never arrives. Somehow, for some reason, the special occasion never quite arrives. Or if it does, the desired guests don’t. Or if they do show up, then the wine almost invariably fails to shine as hoped for. It’s either too young or too old. Or it isn’t as appreciated by others as much as its caretaker had hoped. Whatever.
Keeping it simple: You (and your wine) make the occasion, not the other way around. If you’ve got a “special wine,” don’t wait for the wine gods to put in an appearance on your behalf. All of our wine trains are always pulling out of the station, whether we know it or not. Hop on while you can.
So how’s that for simplicity? Can we make wine simpler while not making it deceptively simplistic? It’s always worth a try. Go for it.