The beginning of a new year is irresistible not just to columnists, but to all of us really. Like the start of a new school term, consciously and otherwise we all have a need for the proverbial tabula rasa, or blank slate. I'm sure those with theological training will suggest an inner need for redemption, which a new start seemingly provides.
Whatever the motive, I do like the idea of starting, if not afresh, at least with a renewed resolve. What follows is what I think that you might consider. But it's a two-way street here on Internet Alley. As I say up front, I'm "open to suggestion." Here, to begin, is what I suggest:
Stop Fussing About "Saving" Opened Wine
I can't tell you the number of times I've been asked about the best way to save or preserve an unfinished bottle of wine.
Many people use one of those vacuum pump gizmos. Allow me to be direct: Those vacuum pumps are worthless. They don't work, however satisfying they seem to be. Trust me on this. These pumps have been tested and they lose their vacuum literally overnight.
So what does work? Your local refrigerator. Nothing—and I mean nothing—is more effective in reducing oxidation than cold. This was neatly explained to us a century ago by the Nobel prize–winning Swedish chemist Svante August Arrhenius (1859–1927), in a well-known (to chemists) formula called the Arrhenius equation.
Arrhenius demonstrated that if you have an increase of 18° F (7.7° C) you should expect the rate of the average chemical reaction to double. The same holds true in reverse: the colder, the slower the rate of reaction.
This is why the best place to "save" your unfinished wines is the refrigerator. Simply seal the bottle and shove it in the fridge. Over the holidays, we were away for a week. I put a half-finished bottle of 2007 Castello di Farnetella Chianti Colli Senesi, which is 92 percent Sangiovese and 8 percent Merlot, by the way, in the fridge. A week later I exhumed it, let it return to room temperature and it was unchanged—and delicious.
Now, it helped that the wine was young. A vibrant, youthful fruitiness keeps better. When I've tried this with, say, a 10-year-old Chambolle-Musigny, there was indisputably some degradation in the (delicate) fruitiness of the wine. On the other hand, powerful wines such as Port or sweet wines such as Sauternes, Quarts de Chaume, Bonnezeaux or pretty much any vermouth, can retain their goodness for weeks when refrigerated.
Bottom lime: You've got the world's most effective wine preservation system right at hand in your kitchen.
Start Cellaring Cheap "Cinderella Wines”
There's a tendency—I've seen it often and I'll bet you have too—on the part of wine lovers to cellar only expensive wines that are "supposed" to be aged for a better tomorrow. The signifier, if you will, is price.
Expensive wines, by definition, deserve cellaring while the lowly priced are immediately sent to the kitchen counter. It's a Cinderella thing: No one can imagine a scullery maid as the belle of the ball.
"Cinderella wines" are those low-priced jewels that, because of obscurity, fashion or just poor marketing, don't command a price that signals "fine wine." Yet fine they are, and deserving of cellaring whether for just a year or two or as long as a decade.
While it's tempting to conclude that cheap wines don't get the compliment of cellaring because of snobbery (and sure, there's certainly some of that), mostly I think it's the persuasion of price. Everyone knows—including wine producers—that we pay more attention and give more respect to whatever is most expensive.
So it takes an effort to get past price. I suggest that you make that effort. If nothing else, it won't cost you much. So why not?
All of the wines I suggest below are absolutely drinkable upon release. But allow me to suggest that they all will reward, and in some cases even deserve, time in a cool cellar.
If I was asked about the biggest change in wine from what wine lovers knew, say, 50 years ago, I would submit that the world has never known as many "Cinderella wines" as exist today. Ask anyone who has cellared a good-quality cru Beaujolais or a great Muscadet. It's amazing how even modestly priced wines can transform with time in a cool space. But without cellaring, to borrow from Fats Waller, one would never know, would one?
For example, you might pick up a case of Delas Côtes-du-Rhône St.-Esprit or even Delas Côte-du-Ventoux, both of which will cost you not much more than 10 bucks a bottle (and even less by the case). Although they're eminently drinkable now, these Syrah-infused wines will surprise you with a year or two of cellaring. Of course, any number of Rhône jewels will do equally as well.
Italy abounds in choices, from the likes of Piedmont’s Nebbiolo d'Alba (try Renato Ratti, Marchesi di Grésy, Paitin) to reds from Apulia (the heel of the boot) made from Negroamaro, Primitivo and Malvasia Nera di Lecce. Look for producers such as Accademia dei Racemi, Michele Calò, Taurino and Leone di Castris.
Of course, Argentina and Chile offer amazing wines for the (very little) money. One zone that has lovely possibilities is Argentina's Patagonia zone, which delivers pure, precise-tasting red wines from Malbec and Cabernet Franc. Look especially for Bodega del Desierto, whose wines will get you a chunk of change from a $20 bill. Recently, I tasted a lovely Patagonia Malbec brand-named Ruta 22 from the producer Universo Austral. Cost? $10.
In Chile, I have been mightily impressed by the Carmenère from Casa Silva, especially the (admittedly more expensive) one designated Los Lingues. Still, it's $20 tops. At the low-priced end you'll be surprised, I promise, by the quality of the Carmenère from Cono Sur, a brand from Chile's biggest winery, Concha y Toro. At $10, it's a world-beater.
And don't forget Portugal. You want cheap yet cellar-worthy? Try Quinta da Espiga Tinto from the producer Casa Santos Lima. It sells for—brace yourself—$8, yet it's a beautifully made red wine blend of mostly indigenous Portuguese grapes such as Castelão (which is also known as Periquita) along with Touriga Nacional and Tinta Roriz. Also, keep a palate peeled for table wines from the Douro such as Altano, Charamba, Bago di Touriga, Duas Quintas from Ramos-Pinto and Post Scriptum (a joint venture between Bordeaux's Bruno Prats and Portugal's Symington family). Most of these can be secured for 10 bucks or less, with a few, such as Post Scriptum, hovering around $20.
The list is surprisingly huge. I haven’t even gotten to Spain (nominations anyone?), never mind Greece, Hungary and much of France. All are chockablock with cellar-worthy wines that are light on the wallet and, with a few years of aging, lovely on the palate.
Keep an Open Mind
I don't mind admitting that I have to work at this all the time. The longer you do something—I don't care what, from ditch-digging to dentistry—the more convinced you are that you've got the answers. After all, you've been at it for 10, 20, 30, 40 years? You do know something.
Nowhere is this more true than with wine. First, we're all experts about what we like. And we all figure—present company emphatically included—that because we consider ourselves pretty savvy about, say, Burgundy or Bordeaux or Chardonnay, we can extrapolate that expertise for other wines or districts. Big mistake. Amend that: really big mistake.
Recently, I heard a guy who is wine knowledgeable insist that Barbera is a grape variety that is intrinsically limited. That it should never cost more than $20 or some such arbitrary figure. And that all the hoopla over the idea of high-end Barbera was a shuck. (I've heard this same assertion about Malbecs from Argentina.) There was only one problem: He didn't know what the hell he was talking about.
We've all been there. I know I have. (It's an even greater offense in my case because I'm supposed to know what I'm talking about.) The guy who was inveighing against what he considered the "Barbera bamboozle" knows a lot about wine. He figured, "Hey, I know what I'm doing. I've tasted thousands of wines."
But every wine, especially every potentially fine wine, is its own universe, with its own aesthetic dimensions, criteria and form of beauty. There's no one-size-fits-all understanding of fine wine.
Myself, I still struggle with Sherry for example. And vin jaune from the Jura. Oxidized wines just don't reach me.
But I have (finally!) learned one lesson: With these wines and others like them that I don't "get," e.g., old-fashioned Riojas, I keep me gob shut. Well, I try to, anyway.
For what it's worth, it might be one of the better resolutions for 2011 to try to talk about what you really do know about, and not trash-talk what you're only extrapolating about.
Those are my suggestions for 2011. Now the tables are turned: What are you going to do this year? Or for that matter (dare I ask it?) what would you have this wine columnist do? Operators are standing by.