Everybody, that is, everybody with a commitment to the occasional/frequent/regular glass of wine, has bottles they remember as the “aha moments,” the ones that changed the way they thought about wine one way or another. It could be the first bottle they tried and enjoyed, or the one that showed them that Chardonnay wasn’t all that bad, or even that very inexpensive bottles of wine aren’t always offensive. Here are a few of mine.
Grimaldi Barbera 2005
This is the first wine that taught me that what I paid didn’t always reflect on the quality of the bottle. The Grimaldi was brought in on closeout, I think, something like that, but it was dirt cheap and easily dismissible. We all liked to pretend we were too good for cheap wine, but when it came right down to it, a shop girl’s paycheck doesn’t exactly support a high roller lifestyle, so we all drank the Barbera a lot. I mean a lot. It taught me to take a risk on an inexpensive bottle every now and again, because worst case scenario, I don’t like it or it becomes Coq au Vin. Best case scenario, I find an inexpensive accompaniment to a weekday dinner.
Barbera is an Italian grape from Piedmont designed for everyday drinking, high in acid and punchy red fruit. With a little age, it can have great depth and grip and is still one of my favorite varieties to drink. The Grimaldi wasn’t fancy, but if I were handed a glass without seeing a price tag, you could’ve fooled me.
Tenuta de la Terre Nere 2009
This Sicilian red was the first sheer, relatively light-bodied red I liked and enjoyed. It was inventory night at the shop and my boss decided she’d open a bottle for the five of us to help pass the time.
When you’re a new wine drinker, I’d say maybe 80 percent of the time, your way into the wine world is through fruit. A wine that has a lot of young, vibrant, “that’s right, I was made from grapes” fruitiness keeps acid and tannin, what usually get described as “bitterness,” in check. I was definitely no different and can with only mild shame reveal that I drank a lot of bottled sangria and fruit-infused local wines before dipping into the real stuff, and when I finally got there, it was a lot of red Zinfandel. Like, a lot of red Zinfandel. I think I bought us out of a few of them. The bold, concentrated, briery fruit punching me in the taste buds made the delicacy of Pinot Noir seem thin, watery, and weak.
But the Terre Nere, made primarily from the native grape Nerello Mascalese, was definitely light-bodied, and it definitely had plenty of acid and earth and subtlety, but I liked it. A lot. “Guys,” I said, swirling my glass. “I think I just became a big girl.”
Peju Merlot 2007
Merlot isn’t that much of a novelty to most. We all remember Paul Giamatti’s rant from the movie Sideways, but I think we’re all able to look at that in the rear view window and move on. I for one have enjoyed Merlot since my friend looked at me, twenty years and studying abroad in England, and said, “I think you’re a Merlot girl.” But the Peju is a pretty special wine. From Napa, this is insanely delicious and though it won’t age for long, it’s full of feel-good stuff: red and black fruit, threads of vanilla and tobacco woven throughout, and bright freshness keeping the whole thing afloat. It qualifies as the first wine I realized you could sip while on the phone with a friend and accidentally finish three quarters of the bottle. Oops.
Abbazia di Novacella Kerner 2009
I’ve never been one to swear off whole categories of wine, but I definitely favored the red side of things and probably still do. It’s not that I enjoy bottles of white wine less, it’s just that I do it less frequently, I guess. Could have to do with the season, could have more to do with what happens to be for dinner. Regardless, this Kerner was the first white wine to blow my mind.
It was early in my time at the shop and I was reading up on the Alto Adige in the northern part of Italy. Tasting things from the region you’re reading about is still the best way for me to make sense of the text, so I tried the Abbazia di Novacella on a whim. The grape, Kerner, is a weirdo hybrid made from Riesling and a red grape called Schiava and is intensely aromatic. Flowers, peaches, clean and pure fruit, with plump richness elevated by great acidity. It drinks a lot like an Alsatian white, both rich and light, but isn’t quite as dense. The idea that I could recognize the characteristics of both parent grapes, Riesling (peachy, appley, flowery aroma) and the Schiava (snappy acid, minerality, brambly dark fruit), was the coolest thing, and maybe one of my early encouragements to continue chasing my beverage fascination.
Nicolis Amarone de Valpolicella “Ambrosan” 2004
One of the first winemakers we ever had come to the shop was an Italian wine maker named Giuseppe Nicolis from the Veneto region of Italy. The winery is known for Amarone, which translates to “big bitter one” and is a wine made from partially dried grapes. Once the grapes lose some of their water, they’re quite concentrated and that very sweet juice is fermented in full, that is, all the sugar is converted into alcohol, which makes a very dense, very chewy, and deceptively dry red better paired, in my opinion, with a bittersweet chocolate cake than a dinner.
The Ambrosan is Nicolis’ top of the line bottling, superbly rich and hedonistic, ridiculously decadent, and it was the first time I let the wine speak before I slapped my descriptors onto it. “It tastes…like…it’s tastes like…itself.” And it did: dried molassesy fruit, tobacco, flower and dark cherry aromatics, something like Turkish apricots, all of these qualities were there, but for the first time I wanted to know what the glass was saying before I analyzed it. The wine tasted like it was supposed to. “This is my first one,” I announced to the winemaker. “Ah,” he said with his wonderful Italian accent. “You never forget your first one.”
Here’s to many more firsts, with or without innuendo.
Katie Callahan is a wine educator and former manager of Bin 201 Wine Sellers in Annapolis.