On Wine Adult Wines Take Time To Learn And Savor

Posted: June 07, 2000

Yeah, but is it wine?

I'm enjoying a glass of Bordeaux with my friend the chef. Actually, enjoying is too frivolous a word. He is silent, eyes closed, leaning back in his chair, lower lip pulled in, head tilted slightly back to heaven. I am gaping off into the distance while the flavors bounce around from my tongue to my brain. The wine has layers and layers of taste and aroma.

Deep and rich, it goes on forever.

My wife walks by. She has seen this tableau before, so she doesn't bother to check either of us for a pulse. I offer my glass to her, she sniffs, makes a face, takes a sip. "Eeyooo! Wine cooties! What is that?"

Obviously, we have a difference of opinion here. Just as obviously, she is misguided, shallow, oenophobic and wrong. The error of her ways is highlighted when I see her a bit later with a glass of Merlot from Australia.

"How is it?" I ask.

"Mmm. Good. Smooth," she says. I've tasted the wine she's drinking and I think it has about as much adult interest as a Barney video.

So what's going on here? If you love wine, you've certainly learned that there are some of your friends who are happy to join you in a bottle of the best and others who would just as soon have a vodka and cranberry.

Is it just a matter of taste-different strokes, de gustibus and so on?

It may be deeper than that. When grape juice ferments, sugar turns into alcohol and that, as a matter of definition, is wine. But really, there's a whole lot more happening - a chemical factory full of reactions that produces dozens of tastes. Grape juice isn't just changed into wine; it's transformed.

The Greeks, who understood these matters, were taken with the way that wine became different from grapes. They sometimes added herbs, pine sap and even mushrooms to it. Roman winemakers aged their wines in large ceramic jugs called amphoras. The jugs could be tightly sealed, and the prolonged aging periods made the wine less and less like raw juice.

Medieval European winemakers built wine presses so they could add an extra measure of stemmy, sharp-flavored wine to the wine that ran freely from the fermenting vessel. A 13th-century book describes (and prescribes) wines flavored with rosemary and other herbs. These medieval wines were stored in leaky wooden barrels. Air got in as the wine got out, which led to quickly soured wines. The taste of vinegar would have been more common at the table than the taste of fruit.

With the advent of bottles and corks and wines made from the grapes of single estates, wine could again age successfully. In Bordeaux and Barolo and a few other blessed spots, the wines became symphonies; complex blends of herbal, spicy, woody and earthy aromas. There is, in the land of the senses, nothing like the complex flavor of a well-made, well-aged wine.

There's an awkward word for that taste. We call it "vinous" which rhymes with "highness." "Winey" would be a good word, but the sound of it has been taken by another meaning.

Now, vinous tastes are grown-up tastes. They're tastes that are constructed and tastes that have to be acquired. These days, as we become more childish, less patient and more "natural," it's not surprising that these tastes are slowly falling out of favor.

The early warning signs of the change in taste were things like wine coolers and fruit wines, but now there are regular grape wines that advertise themselves as "fruity" and "easy to drink." The implication is clear: These wines don't have cooties, there's no tannic bite, no flowers, no earthy, leathery notes. Just a simple fruit bomb, 12 percent alcohol, thank you.

If you'd like to taste the difference, here are two good-quality, inexpensive wines on either side of the great divide. Both are available locally.

Casa Lapostolle Merlot '99 Rapel Valley ($8). This Chilean wine is so loaded with cooties that you might have to taste it on several nights to get them all. Rich and earthy, it is an epitome of the European taste in wine.

McPherson Shiraz-Cabernet '99 ($8). If not the actual fruit bomb, it's at least the grenade. Smooth and rich, uncomplicated and emphatic. There's a bit of oak thrown in for the old-school crowd, but this is a perfect expression of the new style with an Australian accent.

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