A Teachable Moment

You get to choose the wine. But what's the lesson?
A Teachable Moment
Matt Kramer highlights three wines that offer opportunities to educate our palates. (Jon Moe)
Oct 20, 2015

Anyone who is involved with wine for a while eventually finds himself or herself in—to use the modern jargon—a teachable moment. Sometimes it's in a formal setting where you are in fact the teacher.

But more often, for the great majority of us, it's a situation such as choosing the wine from a restaurant wine list where you're invested with that "teachable" opportunity.

Sometimes you're explicitly asked to hold forth. (I'm more often asked to shut up, actually.) Often the role arrives by default. Either way, whether your table companions like it or not, everyone present is going to learn something thanks to the wines you choose.

Many wine lovers seize the teachable moment. I know I do. After all, professionally I'm forever going on about the joys/beauty/insights of this or that (often obscure) wine. For more normal sorts, it's the unadorned pleasure of sharing, of wanting others to partake of the beauty you've discovered.

So here's the question: Which wines do you seek out? Do you have "go-to" wines for such teachable moments? I certainly do, such as:

Chablis: Lately, various geologists and geographers have launched what's very nearly a crusade against the word "minerality." They insist that vines can't extract actual minerals from rocks, and that "minerality," therefore, is a bad, bad word. Rather, it's all a matter of acidity and suchlike. Minerals, they assertively submit, have nothing to do with "minerality."

I have no patience for this word-niggling, strict constructionist, academic literalism. After all, when we taste a good Riesling we find "peaches" yet, hey, there's no peaches in the bottle or anywhere near the vine. So we can't say "peaches"?

More important, does anybody involved in wine appreciation—as opposed to exclusive credulity in laboratory instrumentation—actually believe that soil doesn't inform a great wine? Laboratory instruments are far from the definitive arbiter in this matter, however impressive their ostensibly definitive spew of numbers might seem.

If I want to demonstrate the influence—the triumph, even—of soil, I head straight for a really good Chablis. You say you don't believe in minerality? You say soil doesn't inform the flavor of a wine? Well, try a great Chablis and then do your best to convince yourself that some miserable little gas chromatograph knows more about "minerality" than your own not-so-shabby sensory apparatus as it tastes the product of a stunningly sensitive Chardonnay grapevine rooted in chalky soil. Hah!

Nebbiolo: I've taught a lot of wine classes over the decades, and I know from experience that of all the world's great red wine grapes, Nebbiolo is among the most difficult for many people to appreciate. Even experienced wine drinkers, if their palates were formed on the template of Cabernet Sauvignon or Syrah, can struggle with Nebbiolo.

What's the source of the problem? It's the twin matters of tannins and acidity. Nebbiolo has both, in the (relative) extreme. It's a tannic grape variety with an unusually high intrinsic acidity.

Producers in Italy's Piedmont region, which is very nearly the sole source of the world's supply of Nebbiolo, have grappled with this challenge, trying to make their wines (Barolo, Barbaresco, Gattinara) more approachable and user-friendly. They've looked to such techniques as using small oak barrels (which "sweeten" the wine), shortening up fermentation times or using roto-fermentors to attenuate the tannins. The acidity always remains high, though, relative to most other grape varieties.

Still, when Nebbiolo is served with the right food, it's a revelation, especially to inexperienced drinkers and/or those who profess to dislike acidity or insist on "smoothness," i.e., no discernible tannins.

Dishes that have a certain richness are the ticket to falling in love with Nebbiolo. As the author of the first English-language cookbook on Piedmontese cuisine, I'm here to testify that the Piedmont menu has an abundance of just such dishes that reward the knifelike effect of high acidity. (Try a sformato, for example.)

Tokaji Aszú: Every time I hear someone say that they don't like sweet wines or dessert wines, I want to sit them down and have them try just one sip—a mere single sip—of a good Tokaji Aszú. This fabled Hungarian wine from the Tokaj district about 150 miles northeast of Budapest is composed mostly of the indigenous grape Furmint, along with varying amounts of another local white grape, Hárslevelű.

Modern, post-communism Tokaji is one of the fine-wine wonders of the world. It has seen an acceleration of quality that probably no other ancient wine resurrection can rival, so debased was it. This descent into banal mediocrity was the more striking for the fact that Tokaji once was the most highly regarded—and fabulously priced—wine in the world. But it plummeted into the wine version of despair, its producers reduced to cranking out industrial quantities of bulk sweet swill for Soviet consumption.

No more. Today, Tokaji Aszú shines with distinction. It's been modernized in the best sense. And its flavor is like no other: sweet yet briskly acidic and not at all "heavy."

A historical note: The residual sweetness of Tokaji Aszú traditionally has been expressed by the number of puttonyos (literally, buckets or hods) of botrytized grapes added to the base wine. The more puttonyos, the higher the proportion of botrytized berries and the more pronounced the cinnamon spiciness of the botrytis taste and scent.

Until recently, you could find Tokaji Aszú designated 3 puttonyos through 6 puttonyos. However, starting in the 2014 vintage, only 5 puttonyos and 6 puttonyos Tokaji Aszú wines can be offered, the better to raise the overall standard of Tokaji Aszú wines from all producers in the district.

And indeed, these sweetest, richly expressive versions of Tokaji Aszú deliver their distinctive flavors with impressive finesse. Even experienced wine lovers, familiar with the likes of Sauternes or sweeter German Rieslings, are astonished by a good Tokaji Aszú. Talk about a teachable moment.

OK, enough about my choices. What about yours? After all, we've all had such teachable moments. What did you choose, and why?

France Burgundy Chablis Hungary Italy Piedmont Red Wines Nebbiolo Opinion

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