Vino Veritas: Buy an Unknown and ‘Give it a Go’

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two wines

After almost a year of limited consumption while I was pregnant, my tasting chops are a little rusty. The first few weeks back in the saddle made the assessment of “white” or “red” a triumph, so the subtlety of red versus black currant or cooked versus snappy cherry was all but lost. Though I’ve read and dictated a slew of tasting notes, there are a few things you just have to do to understand. Riding a bike, for example. Or  breastfeeding.

Last week, my uncle sent me a New York Times article about celebrating the New Year by “drinking adventurously” (if you’re interested, you can read it here), and I felt rather inspired. What a great idea: Walk into a shop, find a bottle of something you’ve never heard of before, and give it a go. Sure, you run the risk of not liking what you’ve found, but…I mean…if you’re biggest problem is not liking something, you’re probably in pretty good shape. Buy a backup bottle of an old standby just in case. Problem solved.

So the goal was to periodically pick up a few things I’ve never had before, not necessarily a grape (a nerd in a wine shop with books and knowledgeable people at her disposal will discover that there are few truly esoteric grapes sold on retail shelves…most folks would rather reach for a Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc than a Ribolla Gialla, no?), but something interesting that strikes my curiosity. Here goes nothing.

Wine #1: Luigi Baudana “Dragon” Langhe Bianco 2012, Piedmont, Italy

I will not lie, I picked this bottle up because it a) was from Piedmont and b) had a dragon on the label. Proof that marketing has a place. A “Langhe Bianco” is a white wine from Langhe, in the northwestern region of Piedmont. I love many Piedmontese wines because of their elegance and aromatics, two qualities that evolve much more naturally in cooler-climate areas. The region is mostly known for reds made from the Nebbiolo grape (Barolo and Barbaresco) but there are plenty of pleasant whites to keep an interested taster busy.

Whenever a wine is classified simply by its color (Rosso or Bianco), it’s safe to assume it’ll be a blend of some kind that characterizes or at least nods at the more plentiful grapes of that color in the region. Most labels won’t list the cepage, or grape composition. In this case, I expected to find Arneis, maybe some Moscato, and Cortese. I was wrong.

“Dragon” is a blend of mostly Chardonnay with some Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, and Nascetta (you know, that old thing…turns out I did find a grape I’d never heard of), which, save the last two little additions, was admittedly a little disappointing. How ironic that I list the two most plenteous grapes in this blend earlier in this very article to illustrate how ubiquitous they are! And here they are showing up in my bottle of Dragon wine. Well, shoot.

Tasting notes: The nose, or bouquet, has some floral notes with hints of white peach, almond, a little funky sweet hay. “Sweet hay” generally translates to “slightly earthy, almost grassy, but more like dried grass than fresh cut grass,” but that takes too long to write. The palate feels rich and oily with musky peach and floral tones with a splash of citrus. If I’d actually taken the time to chill this, I’d bet it feel a lot crisper…at room temperature (~70 degrees), its 13% alcohol feels high and makes the wine what I’d describe as hot, which means boozy.

Overall appeal: This would probably accompany some kind of Asian food, maybe not so spicy Japanese, because the whispers of sweetness in the wine would play nicely with the rich umami and salty flavors inherent in that kind of cuisine. It’s fine, but nothing I’d pick over a good Alsatian Riesling to do the same job. Also, the bottle has a dragon on it. So. There’s that.

Wine #2: Edmunds St. John “Bone-Jolly” Gamay Noir 2012, El Dorado County, California

I did not select this wine for its label, though now that I’m looking at it, it’s pretty cute…two Dia de los Muertos skeleton cowboys in a vineyard drinking wine…they look like they’re having a nice time. No, I picked this wine because it’s a Gamay from a place I’ve never had Gamay: California.

Gamay comes from Beaujolais, which we’ve discussed at length here in Vino Veritas, and is a light, fresh red used to make the almost-juice Beaujolais Nouveau and more serious and age-worthy Beaujolais like those from Brouilly, Morgon, and Régnié. A region like El Dorado County in California makes me think the wine will be pretty sun baked, but in reality, the county is on the eastern side of the state and has a continental, moderate climate. The back label touts it is “the same true Gamay,” so I figured I’d give it a go.

Tasting notes: the nose is pleasant and permeating. I’ve had a glass of it sitting on my desk for about an hour now and all I can smell are ripe, just barely warmed strawberries with a little bit of a floral note. Its color is sheer and almost purple, like if you took the red-violet crayon from a Crayola box and lightly colored on white paper, and I suspect I should’ve brought the temperature down on this wine as well. The palate has more strawberry, bright cherry candy (think Jolly Rancher), and what reminds me of red baked earth with a finish that leaves a hint of sweet strawberry juice or fruit leather. It’s basic, but it nods a little at where it came from.

Overall appeal: Probably won’t go for something like this again, just because I like Beaujolais so much and I miss the minerality and extra layer of substance that region gives Gamay. However, tossed in the fridge for a while and served on a porch with olives or salami, even chips and salsa, and I’m pretty sure you’d be a happy camper.

My first few months tasting wine were totally built on recall: What does it make you think of? What is the color like? What about it is similar to other wines you’ve tasted? Join me as I try to reboot my tasting chops…who knows where it’ll take us?

Katie Callahan is a wine educator and former manager of  Bin 201 Wine Sellers in Annapolis.

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