My very first article. My philosophy has stayed gratifyingly consistent...
ON THE WINE ROAD
by François M. Steichen
Wine is an adventure. It requires an adventurous spirit. How can it be otherwise when over 4,000 brands, and well over 10,000 individual wines, are offered daily in the State of Connecticut?
Four decades after the late Robert Mondavi revolutionized the American wine industry, more wines are available to the American consumer in more flavors than ever before. Yet the American wine market has become complacent. Brands, and industrially-produced wine, are taking an increasing share of the market. Consolidation is revitalizing the wine industry, but it is also creating homogenous wines.
My aim in this column is to challenge you always to be on the lookout for new wines, in new varietals (flavors), at a reasonable price. The wine snob is a living relic. Let’s bury him once and for all. But let’s also say goodbye to the wine anti-snob. The anti-snob claims that “the only measure of a good wine is whether I like it.” True enough. Yet the anti-snob all too often finds one wine he likes and uses it as a crutch, never trying any other. He misses out on a galaxy of good wines. At his most reductive, the anti-snob becomes a complete relativist: “c’mon! All wines are the same, anyway!” He morphs into the very snob he claims to find so distasteful.
The watchword for today’s ever more sophisticated consumer is CONFIDENCE. Wine confidence simply means understanding which wines you like, but also being open to new choices. It means treating wine more like the purchase of a new cell phone than a choice between commodities at your local supermarket. That is, it means informing yourself, asking a lot of questions, finding a salesman you feel comfortable with, and navigating the choices.
Yet with cell phones, you’ll probably have to start all over again in a year or two because everything has changed in the meantime. Not so with wine. The great thing about wine is that the more wines you try, the more you develop your palate. Before you know it, you will stride into every wine store head and shoulders held high. With a little guidance, you can develop your wine confidence almost by osmosis.
Two ever-popular varietals of the vintage season… and interesting substitutes:
Chardonnay is still King among white wines in America, but it has changed radically over the past 5 years. If you love a nice, oaky Chardonnay from California, but want something new, ask your trusted salesperson for an unoaked or minimally oaked Chardonnay the next time you’re in your favorite shop. Or ask for a nice value from the Macon area of Burgundy, such as those from Macon-Villages or
Viré-Clessé or St.-Véran. These are clean, crisp Chardonnays that will refresh your conceptions about this grape.
A nice substitute altogether for Chardonnay is Sémillon, and very nice ones can be found from Western Australia, specifically the Margaret River. Sémillon/Sauvignon Blanc blends from the Margaret River are also quite good.
Dry Chenin Blanc is also a great Chardonnay understudy. It will have more honey and flowers on the palate than Chardonnay, and it is a lot of fun for under $10 Dollars. Very good ones come from South Africa and from Chenin’s home, the Loire Valley, where France’s kings partied their summers away. The best value from the Loire is Vouvray, which is 100% Chenin Blanc, and named for the village where it is produced.
Pinot Grigio (PG) is a kissing cousin of Chardonnay. Most of the Pinot Grigio in America is from a vast plain of undistinguished vineyards in Italy, near Venice. On the other hand, the Pinot Grigio grapes that grow in the mountain air of northern Italy are more refined: they have bracing acidity and more nuanced fruit. Try a PG from one of the two eastern mountain regions: “Trentino-Alto-Adige,” or “Friuli-Venezia-Giulia.” The regions will be marked on the back of the bottle, or you can ask your favorite salesperson.
For diversity, there is Alsatian Pinot Gris: lighter, drier, with a superb flowery spiciness. These wines are perhaps the highest expression of Pinot Gris/Grigio, even if they are slightly more expensive, and somewhat harder to find.
Last but not least, Oregon produces excellent Pinot Gris. They have juicier fruit, and they are perhaps less nuanced, but they have great taste and better body than standard Pinot Grigios.
Of current interest:
Grape-growers all over the world are holding their breath about the 2008 Vintage; it has a flair for the dramatic. Drought, heat, frost and hail have affected Europe, Australia and Napa. And yet… the miracle of viticulture is that everything can be salvaged by a sunny August and September. Such was the case in Chile and Argentina last March. (Their vintages take place in the Spring, 6 months before the northern hemisphere’s.)
As a rule, I will not review specific wines. There are simply too many. Moreover, there are plenty of wine reviewers to choose from. I prefer to guide you to alternative styles of wine, then help you choose a professional store and salesman who can point out good brands in those styles. I will, however, periodically review Fairfield County stores; be on the lookout for this in subsequent issues of the Citizen.
In the meantime, two stores merit mention because they are new. In New Canaan, Jeff Barbour and his partners are opening New Canaan Wine Merchants on Pine Street (on the southeastern side of the railroad station) in the old Shaw’s Supermarket space. This store promises to be a major wine source in the area. It is slated to open in October or November.
If you get to central Westchester in your travels, a small gem opened on Labor Day weekend at the Four Corners (Heathcote) in Scarsdale: Vintology is at 10 Palmer Avenue.
Wine shops receive many of their new items at two periods of the year. One is around April and May, coinciding with both the shipment of the year’s white wine vintage and the coming Summer. The other period is in September/October; this is a great time to find new wines at your local retailer. If you will need sparkling wine for the year-end holidays, many retailers discount their champagnes and other sparklers in order to get the ball rolling.