My husband and I recently discussed out-of-fashion wines and realized that based on the bulk of our experience, our assessments of what’s in and what’s out are different depending on our contexts. He, with his buzzing around his many restaurants on a nightly basis, sees folks struggle with the pressure of public choice: “I really don’t want to look like an idiot, but I also don’t know anything so I’m going to go for what I think will garner the least attention and judgment.” For my customers in the shop, people were buying wine to drink in their house behind their closed doors. Retail shoppers buy the wine they want to drink when nobody’s looking. So I’m going out on a limb here, exposing a list of a few culprits that find rest in my own fridge and basement and glass where I think nobody will find them.
What is the most embarrassing of my behind-drawn-curtains wine drinking habits? Could it be the $5 Barbera I drank without shame or ceasing a few summers back? Or the same bottling of a California Zinfandel I enjoyed literally every night for about a month? What about the Vinho Verde I drank through a straw? No, none of these…I think it has to be the constant presence of bottom shelf, easy to love Tempranillo.
There’s nothing unfashionable about Tempranillo; people can still barely pronounce it, let alone remember that it’s a grape from Spain used in making some top tier Riojas and Ribera del Dueros. It’s a great buy, hardly touches the hem of top shelf Cabernet Sauvignon, and is by no means the most common or expected thing to choose. It’s the fact that there are so many in the sub-$15 range that really are stellar, not because they have much complexity or age-worthiness, but because they’re so damn tasty now.
The fresh, unoaked versions I like to keep around (and drink from big old juice glasses with maybe a few ice cubes if I’m feeling crude…don’t tell) taste like grape soda with a kick: soft, round, fruity, plush, a little acid but never too much. It’s what you want to have for your sangria, but also what you want to accompany you as you watch four consecutive hours of competitive food television. It’s ripe, not abrasive at all, low in tannins, and will go with whatever leftovers you have in the fridge. I’m not always proud of it, but I’d be foolish to denounce its usefulness, availability, and tastiness.
“I’d definitely recommend that Peju Merlot for your duck with roasted plums,” says the over-enthusiastic wine sales associate, eagerly pointing to the stately black-labeled bottle that she downed three quarters of accidentally while on the phone just the previous night.
“Oh,” says the customer. “I hate Merlot.” He doesn’t know much about wine, just that he wants to impress his date tonight and he recalls vaguely watching the film Sideways and hears the echo of Paul Giamatti’s declaration he was “not drinking any [explitive] Merlot.”
“Oh,” says the sales associate, deflated. “Have you had a Merlot recently?”
“I hate it. Something else.”
Here’s the deal with Merlot. It’s great. Actually, it’s responsible for some of the most prestigious wines in the world, wines from Pomerol and Saint Emlion in Bordeaux and is involved in some classic California and Italian “cult” wines that demand hundreds for a single bottle. It’s one of the most widely grown red grapes in the world, but this ubiquity is what got it into trouble. As with anything, when production is excessive, the odds of the product being made well decrease dramatically and naturally, it falls out of favor. Merlot never stopped kicking, but producers (especially those in California) have stopped kicking it so hard…which means lower production and better quality.
I really love good Merlot. Wines from Pomerol on the Right Bank of Bordeaux, which are predominantly comprised of this stellar little grape, remain some of my favorites ever, period. Sleek and elegant with irony minerals and a cool, polished texture with rich, dark fruit like just overripe boysenberries and plums with terrific acidity to balance the whole thing. You’ll find snippets of that flavor profile across the globe, depending on the warmth of the climate, elevation, winemaker’s technique—the usual culprits of terroir. Bad ones taste like strangely vegetal and astringent red fruit, leafy and underdeveloped, watery, over-oaked, I mean…there are a lot of bad Merlots. But for about every fifteen bottles you try, one or two of them will blow you out of the water with its price-to-quality ratio. And I admit I’m willing to take those odds for the sake of a good, if embarrassing, glass.
“I’m an ABC white wine drinker,” my aunt once told me. “Anything But Chardonnay.”
People who say they hate Chardonnay generally haven’t had a good one, or one made in a style they prefer. It’s the master chameleon of wines, sneakily able to don both opulent, viscous texture from oak and ripeness and also laser-like precision, minerality, and breadth. It can taste like apples (all sorts), toast, hazelnuts, brioche, pineapple, lemon, seashells, each a full expression of itself. It can be crisp and subtle, obnoxiously decadent, and everything in between. It’s a schizophrenic. It’s great.
One of my favorite things, not just wines, but things, in the world is Champagne, and one of the most important ingredients in that famous blend is, in fact, Chardonnay. Red grapes Pinot Noir and Pinot Munier make up the remainder, and while they may add more fruit flavor, earthiness, and spice, it’s Chardonnay that gives heft and presence to the final sparkling wine. It’s like wearing combat boots under a wedding dress: delicate, lacy, ethereal, powerful, assertive, and kickass.
But like our frienemy Merlot, Chardonnay fell victim to dramatic over-production and suffered both in quality and from what I like to call the “Coldplay Effect”: everybody liked it for a while, so now everybody doesn’t like it, or refuses to admit it if they do. Like many things that gained popularity in the late 1980s and soared into the nineties—grunge, Pauly Shore, Nickelodeon, all boy bands, center hair parts—Chardonnay became an unfashionable thing to admit to liking. But like my undying affection for boy bands, I will not abandon Chardonnay. It is, in the words of the Backstreet Boys, “Never Gone.” Thank God.
We’re creatures of habit, we wine people, but don’t let the habits be formed by fear of judgment. Without shame, you can order that glass of Merlot without your taste being called into question, or drink that dumb baby Tempranillo because it just tastes good. If people judge, it’s purely out of envy at your bold, I-do-what-I-want attitude, so drink up. If we’re only as good as our worst habit, I’ll gladly bear the weight of my shameful wine affections.
Katie Callahan is a wine educator and former manager of Bin 201 Wine Sellers in Annapolis.
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