Thursday, May 5, 2022

My Life in Wine Episode 29

In Episode 28, I recalled the rigors, as a rookie wine judge, of tasting  California Sherry early in the morning, under the watchful eye of a seasoned judge and panel leader.  And I revisited an evening in Hawaii when I was asked the dreaded question, "What is this wine?"

These three episodes of "My Life in Wine," plus two or three more in Episode 30, will be the last of MLIW.  The plan, for episodes 29 and 30,  is to ramble through the 50-plus years I have been writing about wine, starting here with some thoughts on the evolving nature of certain wines that caught my attention.  

Beaujolais villages

Borgogne Rouge: When the wine bug first bit hard, injecting me with a kind of drug that has had a strong hold on me over the years, my epiphany wine, tasted at a train station restaurant in Chaumont, France, was likely Beaujolais.  I was stunned by the flavor and complexity of this newly discovered drink, so much so, that I didn't write it down.  

Thinking back, I suppose it could have been a red Burgundy, since we were just up the road from Dijon, the gateway to the great pleasures of Cote d'Nuit red wine, but the wise old waiter who recommended the wine we had that evening knew better than to initiate a neophyte with a more complex (not to mention, more expensive) wine, when Beaujolais would do nicely.   

Beaujolais is south of Burgundy and while the two wines are distinctively different (terroir, grapes, styles), there is a certain sameness that places Beaujolais rouge as a gateway, a preamble, a transition, to red Burgundy. 

What I learned over the years is that regular Beaujolais, and the more complex cru wines, is a richly textured quaff-able drink, layered with ripe Gamay flavors, while even the lightest Burgundy from the Cote de Beaune, is more complex and   habit forming.  

I didn't know it at the time, but Burgundy would become my favorite, go-to red wine, even though I eventually spent more time writing about Bordeaux. 

Bordeaux Pleasures:  Burgundy's complexity and depth is derived only from Pinot Noir, while Bordeaux is a blend of five grapes that, over time, were carefully selected for their compatibility with each other, even though the growth characteristics are different.

Cabernet Sauvignon, the main component of the blend, doesn't stand alone in Bordeaux, but benefits from a blended association with Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot.  In practice today, the first three are the main components of most modern Bordeaux blends, while Malbec and Petit Verdot are used sparingly.

When I began writing about wine in the late 1960s, a popular phrase was "Bordeaux is the king of wine, Burgundy the queen."  Political correctness was not a topic in those days, so the comparison was more subtly explained by saying that Cabernet Sauvignon was leaner and more muscular and Pinot Noir was softer and fuller in body. 

Anyway, as a fledgling writer, I followed the trend and began writing more about Bordeaux blends and the emerging California varietal Cabernet Sauvignons, even though I was being seduced more by red Burgundy and the few Oregon and California Pinot Noirs I could find. 

Young Cabernet's rough tannins and leaner fruit are harder to like than the softer tannins and forward fruit of youthful Burgundy and Pinot Noir.  But the harder tannic nature of Cabernet went cross ways when I tasted my first aged Bordeaux.  

I have to admit, though, that as impressed as I am with the seamless blend and complexity of aged Bordeaux, Burgundy is still my fav red wine.  

Today, an appreciation for the differences between Burgundy and Bordeaux, adds to my ongoing enjoyment of red wine and by extension, other red wines like the variety of Italian vino.                          

Lombardy vineyards

Viva Italiano! In the early 1950s, while stationed in southern Germany, a friend and I headed south on leave in my 1950 Chevy Bel-Air, bound for Italy. Wine discoveries were not high on the agenda, but we did have a serendipitous meal at a mountain  hotel restaurant that left me with a desire to know more about wine.

The Chevy was struggling at the higher altitude, so we stopped at a small hotel to give the car a rest and have a meal. It was late afternoon and the dining room was bustling with an anniversary celebration.  When it was apparent that we were Americans, the boisterous celebrants invited us to join the party. 

Fortunately, my Italian-American friend spoke a little Italian, so we got the gist of what was happening.  The short version of a long story is that we enjoyed a full meal, with copious amounts of local wine and there was no charge

Ever since, I've tried to work out what the wine might have been.  The most likely route had us in the mountainous part of Lombardy, since we drove out of the mountains and stopped at a General Motors garage in Milan (I was amazed to find GM in Italy) to fix my ailing car.  So, the wine might have been Barbera or Pinot Noir from Oltrepo Pavese, or possibly a Valtellina Nebibolo. 

Whatever, it was a new red wine for me and another experience in the pleasures of good food and wine. 

Next blog: Jurancon and Jura

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