Happy New Year to you all! I hope your holiday season was full of lasting memories.
When we last left off, I discussed how you can train your palate to be more sensitive to nuance in wine and food. This is particularly important in appreciating the Old World wines of France and Italy. Old World wines are intentionally higher in acid and less fruit forward. Why is this? It is cultural, and it centers on the centuries old tradition of appreciating wine as a complement to a meal. Italians drink more wine per capita than any culture in the world – and they almost never drink wine outside of a meal. It is like a food group, and it plays a supporting role. For this reason there is no minimum age for drinking wine in Italy. New World wines, on the other hand, want center stage, and I find that they can compete with the food for primary attention. Americans often drink wine like a cocktail before dinner or at parties, and in this setting New World wines work very well. And they can sometimes pair well with certain foods. Zinfandel, for example, can complement barbecue because both the food and wine are screaming at you. But some of the peak wine experiences for me are Old World wines with Old World cuisine. As I have said before, it is the classical music of the wine world.
The one practice the Europeans follow to make their wines more food friendly is simply that they pick the grapes when they are less ripe. I’m sure you have bought Thompson seedless grapes at the grocery store. And I’m sure you have found that sometimes they are firmer and tarter, and other times they are softer and sweeter. This is all a question of ripeness. If the wine critic, Robert Parker, did one thing, it was to convince the wine world to let grapes hang on the vine longer so that they get sweeter and richer. To a point this was a good thing, but many believe that it went too far and needs a correction. Someone once told me that Americans tend towards these rich, low-acid, fruit bombs because our culture grew up on milk and Coca Cola – and it wasn’t skimmed milk either! Unfortunately, longer hang time leads to more sugar which leads to higher alcohol. This is why Old World wines are usually lower in alcohol. Interestingly, I have had many customers ask me why wine gives them headaches at home, but not when they are on vacation in Italy or France. There are numerous possible reasons for this, but lower alcohol content is the primary one. Also, most people don’t drink dry tart wines as fast as smooth rich ones – and in Europe the drinking is spread out over a long meal. I don’t want to sound like a European wine snob. I like all kinds of diverse wines just as I enjoy all kinds of diverse music. Bill Evans, Billy Joel, and Maurice Ravel are all wonderful composers of their respective genres of music. So I can admit that a rich Shiraz can go very well with Australian lamb. But try to keep the alcohol below 17%, thank you very much. I have to go to work tomorrow.