Ed Young On Wine
Take a few minutes each month to read Ed's insights and you'll never be at a loss for "winespeak".
In Defense of Chardonnay and Zinfandel.
by Ed Young, Frugal MacDoogal.com Feature Writer.
Photos by Jerry Hall.
After almost 15 years of writing this newsletter, we are sometimes asked: "What does a wine writer drink?" That is a good question, and the answer will probably surprise you. First, because I'm into the world of wine a little more deeply than the average person, I get an opportunity to taste many types of wine that aren't usually experienced by the casual wine drinker. For instance, I get to experience Cinsault, Petite Meuniere, and Petit Verdot, as varietals, when most experience grapes like these only as part of a blend. Second, I am incurably adventurous. I'll try almost anything once. Of course, I get disappointed a lot, but the occasional "home run" makes the gambles worthwhile. It is greatly satisfying to discover a wine you love that you had never tasted before. So, part of the answer to the question is that a wine writer drinks a wide variety of wines - some of which are experienced only once, while others become part of his ongoing repertory.
The wine that I drink the most of is Chardonnay. This may not comport with anyone's idea of wine sophistication, but there you are. Although some wine "experts" (snobs) turn up their noses at this ubiquitous grape, it remains California's #1 grape in terms of acres under cultivation and overall sales. So, what is the rap against Chardonnay? Maybe it is too popular, and has maintained its lead for too long. Maybe it is because many knowledgeable critics find the oaky and buttery style objectionable. Or maybe too many wine drinkers with unsophisticated palates enjoy it.
There are a sizeable number of wine drinkers who belong to the ABC (anything but Chardonnay) club. I think that is amusing. A few years ago I was enjoying a tasting at a winery noted for its Chardonnays. I asked the bartender if he gets many visitors who claim to be members of the ABC club. He admitted that this was a common experience. I asked him how he responds to that and he smiled broadly. "I go into the back room and bring out another white. I pour it and they will say that's better and they like it. When they ask what they are drinking, I tell them Chardonnay". What the so-called sophisticates don't realize is that this white grape is very versatile and is made in a wide variety of styles around the world. A French white burgundy like Montrachet is quite different from a flinty Chablis, and both of them are quite different from a big oaky, buttery Napa Chard. Yet all three are made from the same grape! Some Chards are matured in metal barrels and never see oak at all. Some undergo a single fermentation while others get a second malolactic fermentation. Pay your money and take your choice, but don't go snobby and dismiss the grape entirely!
I like Chardonnay because I'm a sipper and this grape is good by itself or with a wide variety of foods. I like it because it is a substantial wine with a good mouth feel. If I could drink anything I desired without regard for cost I would choose a Newton unfiltered Chardonnay. This can be found in the Frugal "cave" and is priced at $50-$55. Newton is oaky, buttery, flavorful and absolutely delicious, but it surely would offend those who abhor this style. For a mid-priced Chardonnay, I recommend Kali Hart ($16.99), which is made from grapes grown in the Santa Barbara area. The low-end choice is Mirassou ($9.49). This has one of the best price/quality ratios in the store. I drink it myself. I'm also particularly fond of the Rhone whites (Viognier, Marsanne, Rousanne) that are bottled as varietals or as blends. Treana and Belleruche (both under $20 are prime examples of tasty blends.
So, how about the reds? If I were going to be stranded on a desert island with only one case of red wine, I would choose an old vine Zinfandel. This grape incorporates so many qualities I admire. It is fruit forward, delicious as a sipper or with food, and is just fun to drink. It is the wine that made California the place that it is today.
Most experts would probably choose a Cabernet Sauvignon. I have several problems with Cab. First, it isn't a sipper - it needs food. Second, even a really good Cab can go into a dormant period. I remember opening two bottles in mid-afternoon for a Christmas dinner several years ago, and after three pours into a carafe neither of them would open. $100 per bottle and I had to come up with something else. Cabernet Sauvignon is like a Siamese cat. Sometimes it feels favorably disposed towards you and wants to be petted. Other times it arches its back and marches off to do its own thing.
Zinfandel, on the other hand, is like a big friendly dog that wags its tail and is ready to play when you are. No matter how bad your day has been, a dog loves you and is ready to have a good time. Zin is like that, and it is also very reasonably priced. I hardly ever pay more than $35 for a top Zinfandel. Our top recommendation is Ravenswood Baricia Single Vineyard 2009 ($34.99) if there is any left. The best mid-priced Zins are Four Vines Maverick ($26.99) and Seven Deadly Zins ($17.99). If you are budget-impaired, or are having a party, go for the Rosenblum at $9.99. I like Pinot Noir, but that grape is finicky, hard to grow, and the top ones will run $50+. I am also very fond of Australian Shiraz. This delicious fruit-forward wine comes in a range of prices.
A wine writer who picks Chardonnay and Zinfandel as his two favorite grapes is not going to ascend the highest ladder of wine sophistication, but so what? There isn't any right or wrong in this business. Palates are highly personal. I've always said that a person who favors white Zinfandel can eventually be coaxed into trying something else, but someone who drinks only Kool-Aid is beyond redemption. We've traveled the wine world and had wonderful tasting experiences in France, Spain, Portugal, Morocco, Turkey, Israel, Italy, Germany, Greece, Argentina, Chile, and Canada, as well as Napa, Sonoma, Paso Robles, and the Finger Lakes of New York. We've tasted the wines of Hungary, Lebanon, South Africa, and dozens of other countries that we haven't personally visited. Our palate is experienced, if not highly sophisticated. We know what turns us on and makes us happy and that's a huge part of the wine-drinking experience.