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
Wine Appreciation: keeping it simple
I know you’ve heard the term: “Harder than Chinese arithmetic,” right? Well, I’m here to tell you that wine appreciation doesn’t need to be that hard. Despite what some folks would like you to believe, it’s not necessary to have a degree in oenology, be a romance language expert or be wealthy to enjoy a glass or two of good wine.
For instance, some critics get way down in the weeds and use obtuse words to describe the sensory characteristics of wine. What, for example, do the terms precocious, unctuous or assertive have to do with the way a wine smells or tastes? Sometimes when I find myself slipping into what I call “snob-speak,” I harken back to an old Waylon Jennings song. In “Back to the Basics of Love, ” Waylon’s words give me swift rhetorical kick, knocking me off my high horse so I can explain in plain English the qualities of a particular wine.
So, when I describe a particular chardonnay as having ripe green apple flavors, you will immediately use your own memory of the taste, smell and texture of ripe green apples to understand how the wine might actually taste. If I wanted to be more specific, I could say that chardonnay also has the taste of ripe Honey Crisp apples. Well, you get the point.
In evaluating wine over the years, I have detected the flavors of blackberries, cherries, vanilla, cinnamon and countless others. And I have experienced the aromas of toast, grass, butterscotch and leather as well, unfortunately, as mold, Limburger cheese and vinegar too. These are descriptions that are based on solid sensory memories.
But what defines a good wine? Many of us struggle with another major consideration: price versus quality. Most of us assume there is a direct correlation between what you pay for a bottle and the way it should taste.
If you could afford to pay $100 or more for a “trophy” wine, wouldn’t you expect that bottle to be memorable? I had a friend who recently plunked down $150 for a bottle of Bordeaux that, indeed, was memorable, but for the wrong reasons. He described it as “rancid and musty.”
Since that description could fit any number of animate organisms, including cheese, old socks and/or a bevy of over-the-hill politicians, my friend assured me that he was describing wine. The obvious lesson here is that expensive does not always equate to quality when it comes to buying wine.
Conversely, inexpensive wines are not always inferior. As a matter of fact, in my never-ending quest for excellent wine at bargain prices, I am often pleasantly surprised by the quality of wines I did not expect to be very good. The point here is that often our expectations are colored by the price of wine.
Here are a few tips when you’re looking for a good inexpensive bottle of wine. First, pick the wine that lists the grape varietal (i.e. cabernet sauvignon or zinfandel, etc.) on the label. Given the choice of choosing an inexpensive wine labeled as “Red” or “White,” or one described as chardonnay or merlot (for example), choose the one with the grape name.
Next, look for wines with a recent vintage date to insure freshness. With most inexpensive wines, producers concentrate on trying to make wines that exhibit bright fruit and freshness. Unfortunately, these are the flavor components that disappear first as most inexpensive wines age. This is particularly important with white wine which is more prone to losing fruit and freshness as it ages. My general rule (and remember, there are always exceptions) is to pick lower-priced whites with vintage dates no older than three years. With most inexpensive reds, vintage dates should be no older than four years.
There is another very important way to determine the quality of lower-priced wines. You should always try to select wines where the label indicates the specific origin of the grapes. For example, a 2018 merlot that indicates it was produced in Monterey County would be preferable to a 2018 merlot simply labeled as having been made in California. The more geographically specific the appellation of origin is on the label, the more likely the wine will be the better choice.
So that’s it for now, but in future columns, I’ll try to present you with more of the basics of wine appreciation. And a special shout–out to the late and great Waylon Jennings for reminding me to keep it simple.
John Brown is also a novelist. His latest book is “Augie’s World” which is a sequel to his debut novel, Augie’s War. You can find out more about his novels at wordsbyjohnbrown.com.