John Brown has been a wine and food columnist in West Virginia since the 1980’s. His regular columns appear in the Charleston (WV) Gazette-Mail under the title Vines & Vittles and in The State Journal - a statewide business weekly

No more Uncle Vito's Thunder Mountain Red!

I like to think that, like a fine wine, my own personal vinous tastes have matured, morphing from “in your face” big, tannic purple monsters to balanced, flavorful and nuanced wines of all colors. This transition did not occur overnight and, in fact, it took about two decades for my mind to accept what my palate had been transmitting to it: that bigger is not always better.

When I became seriously interested in wine a few decades back, my tastes ran to just about any red that was full-bodied. The bigger, the better! These were new world wines produced either in the U.S., Australia or South America, and they always seemed to have tons of rich, dark fruit flavors, mouth puckering tannin and stratospheric alcohol levels. Even the white wines I occasionally drank ran to heavy, over-oaked California chardonnays.

But I have seen the light, brothers and sisters! And it is not bright and blinding. No, it is soft, muted and subtle. And this evolution of taste has nothing to do with  sophistication, aesthetics or a sudden epiphany. Rather, it reflects a realization that I had stubbornly resisted for years: that wine appreciation is all about balance. And finding that balance is a challenging, but fun, life-long pursuit.

Sangiovese grapes at Castello di Bossi in Tuscany

Hey, I will be the first to defend your right to drink any wine you wish. If you prefer Uncle Vito’s Thunder Mountain Red with filet mignon, then go for it. My only wine appreciation admonition is: If you think you’ve found the world’s greatest wine – you haven’t- so keep trying.

It’s easy to enjoy – as I still occasionally do – those big, rich monster wines that provide instant gratification, but they are one dimensional palate bullies that don’t get along with food. And that’s the crux of the issue for me. Wine should almost always be enjoyed with food and especially at mealtime. And finding that perfect food and wine pairing is the payoff.

So today, let’s talk about red wines you might try from appellations that are known for producing flavorful but balanced bottles. In the good old US of A, pinot noir is the red that can be rich, yet subtle and the best regions to find these excellent food-friendly products are: Willamette Valley of Oregon; Anderson Valley, Sonoma Coast and Santa Rita Hills of California.

While you may be surprised by this suggestion, zinfandel can also be produced to provide subtle, lighter styled wines that are very good food companions. Try zins from these California appellations/producers: Dry Creek Valley – Preston, Quivira and Pedroncelli; Amador County: Easton and Sobon.

In Europe, you should try the lighter to medium bodied wines of France, Italy, Spain and Portugal. In France, the wines of the Cotes Du Rhone feature grenache as the primary red grape while in Beaujolais it is gamay and in Burgundy it’s pinot noir.

In Italy, you might look for the reds of Chianti in Tuscany produced mainly from sangiovese while in the Veneto look for Valpolicella. In Piedmont, barbera and dolcetto are great choices, and the nero d’Avola of Sicily is a lovely quaff. The wines of Spain provide some subtle, but flavorful offerings. Try Rioja made from tempranillo as well as the reds of Ribera Del Duero and the Penedes region near Barcelona.

And while most people think that Portugal produces only Port, you might ask for the lovely dry red wines from the Duoro River Region produced from the touriga nacional grape.

Enjoy!
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