Doing It Differently

In search of new perspectives
Jan 6, 2015

It's far from breaking news that the longer you do something, the more likely you'll find yourself in not so much a rut as a cocoon. It's the irresistible comfort of predictability, of the attractive security in knowing how a story will end. This is why children adore hearing the same bedtime tale over and over and yet over again.

Wine offers an adult version of that same bedtime-story phenomenon. It offers a similar progression of pleasures, starting with the anticipatory, distinctive, comforting sound of a cork being pulled from a bottle. (This, I believe, is where screw caps fall sadly short.)

Above all, we look forward to the lullaby of a much-loved wine, anticipating the pleasures of its already-told story from yet another bottle from the same case. It will be our second such tale already told, or our seventh, or—saddest of all—the 12th and final one from an exhausted supply.

There's no reason why any of us should change our habits. Save one. And that one is the necessary effort to prevent ourselves not from being lulled, but from becoming jaded. When predictability somehow descends into a kind of static, unthinking habit then it's time to make an effort to shake things up, to do things differently.

Allow me, if I may, to offer some possibilities along those lines, the better to heighten one's pleasure by seeing things anew. For example:

Serve Champagne in the middle or end of a meal, rather than at the start. Now, I don't think that this suggestion is going to upend such a deeply ingrained tradition. But you might be interested to learn that serving sparkling wine at the beginning of a meal wasn't always the fashion. In Victorian England it was common practice to serve Champagne in the middle of the meal, with the meat course.

I believe—I may be wrong about this—that the seemingly preordained practice of serving Champagne at the start of a meal became fashionable as a substitute for serving Sherry, which was seen as stuffy and old-fashioned by the style-setting likes of the Prince of Wales in the late 1800s and early 1900s. He loved Champagne, which was fashion's favorite.

When he became King Edward VII in 1901, he sold off all the surplus Sherry in the royal cellar, some 60,000 bottles. The royal Sherry auction confirmed Sherry's unfashionability and swamped an already weak market. Sherry never recovered; Champagne sales soared.

(The royal cellars had so much Sherry because when Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, died in 1861, she virtually ceased entertaining for the next 40 years. However, the royal steward kept buying Sherry at the old rate, never mind that no one was drinking it.)

Today, we unthinkingly serve sparkling wine at the beginning of a meal. It's become a symbol of celebration, as well as thought to pique the palate for the meal to come.

But with today's often characterful grower Champagnes, some of which can be far more original-tasting and flavorful than many (although not all) of the large-volume big names, it's a disservice to confine the wines to the role of mere aperitif.

The best blanc de blancs (100 percent Chardonnay) can serve as well with fish and white meats such as chicken as any still Chardonnay. Blends with substantial amounts of Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier can be superb with the likes of pork and veal, although I still don't get the Victorian taste of bubbly with beef.

Not least, you might consider ending the meal with Champagne. There, it can refresh like no other wine. When I go to large trade tastings, where a lot of wines are on offer, I purposely try the sparkling wines only after I've tasted the red and white wines. You'd be surprised how effective this approach can be in heightening one's taste acuity, especially after a bit of palate fatigue has set in.

Experiment with different glasses than what are prescribed. I have long been on record as loving the likes of Riedel glasses, as well as newcomers such as Zalto. Usually, I find that the various glass shapes designated by Riedel as best for this or that wine type to be pretty accurate matches.

However, I've long since discovered that there are simply too many wines in the world, in too many styles, with too many differences (age, fruit intensity, oakiness) to really know which glass goes "best" with which wine. So life chez Kramer almost nightly has three or four different glasses lined up on the counter to see which one shows the wine to best advantage.

A few years ago, Georg Riedel, who I know well and like greatly, came to our house for dinner. We served Georg a red Burgundy in a glass that Riedel once offered but no longer does, named after its designer, Johann Willsberger. It's a large, straight-sided glass that tapers toward the top, and we've found that it shows off older Pinot Noirs beautifully even though it was designated as being for red Bordeaux. (The currently chic Zalto glass clearly is modeled on the decades-older Willsberger design, to my eye anyway.)

Georg was taken aback by seeing a Pinot Noir being poured into a design he felt was better employed for a different sort of wine. "That is not quite the right glass," said Georg, as lightly as he could. (He was a guest, after all.)

"Never mind what you think," I replied. "Taste the wine."

Upon tasting what he was served, Georg had to admit that, why yes, this glass did work surprisingly well for that particular wine. He was graceful in defeat. (Or maybe he was just being polite.)

Who knows which shape works best for, say, Ribera Sacra or Bierzo wines, two Spanish reds made from the Mencía grape variety. Or which shape shows certain Champagnes to their best advantage.

(Turning the tables, Georg once served us at his home a 1990 Dom Pérignon Oenothèque in his capacious Sommeliers series grand cru red Burgundy glasses. It was a striking choice, both stylistically—who expects such a thing?—and sensorily, as the shape and vast air space amplified the red berry quality of the Pinot Noir–rich blend in a way no conventional Champagne glass could have.)

Decant! Now, here's an old fashion that has gone so far from common use that it can rightly be said to be new again. Not only are we seeing all sorts of wonderful new decanter designs that make a style statement, but can anyone really doubt that exposing the (usually) very young wines we habitually drink today to a dose of aeration in the decanting process is a Good Thing?

Using a decanter at table offers something else that I, anyway, think is devoutly to be desired: It breaks the hypnosis of "label drinking." Decant the wine, show everybody at the table the bottle so they can see what's being served (blind tasting at a dinner table is sadistic), and then whisk away the bottle out of sight. You and your companions will drink the wine, rather than fixate on the label.

We now see and taste and live with so many wines—and so many different foods and dishes—that we need to discover new ways of seeing, tasting, thinking.

Doing things differently is a means of reminding us that established patterns, however pleasing, may no longer be the best way to heighten, even exalt, the pleasures that we so anticipate with wine.


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