November 07, 2010

A Gentleman's Guide to Wine, Part I

Some time ago I asked you all what on earth might be deemed a manly wine, and offered only its antithesis. I’m now proud to introduce the first guest writer on Being Manly, who knows his stuff and is happy to share. So, for your delight and to our advantage, I give you my friend, Amator Vini. And remember, dear readers, a symposium is technically a drinking party. You’re all warmly invited.

With the vast array of wine available in today’s market and the multiple challenges of price, provenance, and the tendency of wine to be branded, on occasion, as elitist, choosing a suitable libation for a gentleman’s evening of dining or for a romantic soirée can be challenging. Herewith, then, a Gentleman’s Guide to making a sound choice – part one – written from the perspective of a lover of wine in all of its forms, and a buyer of certain types of wine for the last decade.

Wine is a complex entity, and the fact that it is ‘alive’ and constantly evolving makes it profoundly interesting. The vast majority of wines, including those with the unfashionable but highly practical screwcap (which now finds favour in many New World offerings) are designed for consumption within twelve months of release and do not reward cellaring. Their primary appeal is the youth of their fruit, their lightness, and the simple pleasures which they inflict on the tastebuds. For an aperitif of this kind, one that is light on complexity, you could look to the classic options: a young Beaujolais for example, perhaps a Joseph Drouin or a Georges Duboeuf. Each November, watch for the arrivage of the Beaujolais nouveau, wines from that year’s crop, which are a pleasure to quaff and which can be had for a little as a few euros per bottle. More complex Beaujolais are found in the crus of Brouilly, satisfying wines with more character and body, but still suitable as well for a gentle drink before dinner.

Beaujolais has the advantage of price; even the most expensive rarely sell for more than thirty dollars or so. They lack the so-called ‘glamour premium’ that afflicts the great wines of the world, and that places the Lafites and Moutons out of the range of any but the sporting elite or the privileged of Hollywood. These wines – the vins du garde – are primarily responsible for wine’s elitist image (the Lafite 2009 costs over $1200 per bottle, and will be much more expensive when finally released on the open market in 2012). But to focus on these wines is to miss many promising possibilities. Take the 2009 Bordeaux vintage, hailed as one of the greats and held up alongside 1945, 1961, 1982, 2000, and 2005. Its wines, still being aged in the barrel but available for purchase on the futures market, are currently the most expensive Bordeaux offerings in existence. Yet below the stratospheric prices of Le Pin, Pétrus, Lafite and others lies a plethora of wonderfully made, well-priced wine. The appeal of Bordeaux, the largest wine-growing area in the world, is its complexity: wines are blends, typically of the five varieties allowed by law: Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Merlot, and Malbec. Assembled through the expertise of the winemaker, they are sublime creations and a true Bordeaux is a sum greater than its parts, and offers marvellous treasures: the softness of a Pomerol, perhaps Latour à Pomerol; the rich depth of a St. Emilion, maybe Fleur Cardinale or Figeac; the elegant fragrance of a Margaux, like D’Angludet; the robust strength of a Pauillac (think Pontet-Canet or, for less, an Haut-Batailley) or a Medoc, like Bernadotte or Pez, from St. Estephe. But how to avoid the pitfalls?

With Bordeaux, unless you have inherited great wealth, avoid the hype, and choose wisely. Consult guides such as those offered by reputable sources such as Decanter magazine, and follow the adage of buying lesser-known names from good vintages. Look for the magic years: 2000, 2005; even 2001, 2006, are promising. Avoid 2007, where poor weather produced wine without character, and wines were selling for far-fetched, pre-recession prices. For a steak-frites, choose a Pauillac or Medoc; for roast chicken, Pomerol; for a chateaubriand, a St. Emilion; a Margaux with fine cheeses. And don’t forget the sweet gem of Bordeaux, Sauternes: if the prices of the fabled Chateau d’Yquem make you weep, look to its lesser-known neighbour, Guiraud, which sells for much less and is just as good, and in good years, like 2009, possibly better. With a Sauternes, you might offer ripe figs, soft cheese, and chocolate.

What to do with those New World wines? Unlike their French avatars, the wines of Australia, Canada, Chile, and the USA tend to be sold by grape; a Bordeaux will never tell you what the blend is (you are expected by the Bordelais to have done your research), but the Americans will place it on the label. At the so-called Judgment of Paris, Napa Valley reds beat their French counterparts, and they are sure bets for a good evening – but only if you can afford them, for the great wines command the same hype found in Bordeaux. Avoid the wines from mass-production tank farms, such as those made by Gallo. The most interesting wines are those from smaller producers – Tablas Creek, Ojai, Longoria – although they can be hard to find. Canada’s wine offers many gems and with few polluted by cult status you can make some informed choices guided by the name. Choose Mission Hill or Iniskillin for easy options; Lailey or Tawse for more interesting styles. If you like the scent of green grass in your wine, choose Chilean Cabernet; for wines to be drunk with a resilience provided by over-extracted tannins, Australian wines.

Readers will note the absence of Italian wine here, and will also spot the clear preference for French wine. I must offer the confession that I have never quite understood Italian wine, finding it astringent and of inconsistent quality. A recent report discussed in Decanter suggested that up to 30% of Italy’s vineyards should be pulled up or replanted, as they make substandard bottles. That is open for debate. But if there is one thing to be said for choosing wine, it is to find a region you understand and enjoy, and learn all you can about it. France offers, for me, wines of unbeatable value. Away from Bordeaux you can find exquisite soft rosés from the south; heavy, tannic reds from Provence; fragrant, unoaked expressions of the Chardonnay grape in Burgundy, which put the vanilla-butter produce from some Australian or American vineyards to shame; and, the French wine par excellence, Champagne. Champagne offers what no other sparkling wine ever achieves; Prosecco and Cava are pleasant, but the curious mix of power, acidity, depth, and brioche in a fine bottle of Champagne, which can only be called such if it comes from the area around Reims and Épernay, is unmatched anywhere else. And what of the price tag? Champagne has also acquired its own glamour premium, and in my opinion money spent on Cristal or Moet prestige wines is wasted; leave them for the racing car drivers to show off with. Small family producers are the ideal choice – here you will find wonderful expressions of terroir. My favourite is H. Billiot et Fils, which, lacking the marketing power of les grandes marques like Moet, sells for a song but is a much finer wine.

So, gentlemen, whatever your choice, remember that prices can be misleading; research always pays off; and pick lesser-known wines from good years, especially for Bordeaux. Do not waste your time on buying footballers’ wines like Pétrus or parvenues like Le Pin (over $2,000 per bottle for the 2009); you will be disappointed, and in debt; and so, looking for a good wine? Try Ch. Bernadotte, from Bordeaux; a fine Drouin Brouilly from Burgundy; a provençal rosé from Bandol, or a brut from Billiot, and make sure that you approach wine as a creature of complexity and vivacity to be carefully poured, slowly tasted, and matched for its depth and weight with the food of your choice. In my next column, I will offer some more thoughts on the correct matching of foods and wines and sample menus, for your delectation. Until then –

Amator Vini


  1. This is a rather excellent piece regarding the pleasures of wine. Thank you very much, gentlemen.

  2. My dear Hilton, is that really you? It has been a while my friend. Good to see you in these waters again.

  3. Thank you, kind sir. My surgeon has required that I see a therapist in order to prepare for the elective procedure. I have mentioned your blog to her as the paragon of manly conduct during a life crisis.

    It is my wish that we were not divided by such a long distance in order that I may request a more formal mentorship from you such as the ancient Greeks (Platonic of course).

    When may we expect your book?

  4. Would that were possible, Hilton. Still, if you are able to 'like' the facebook group for this page over in the right margin I shall have a way to make contact 'off blog', as it were. Not that I'm pushing facebook, by any means; but it does have some advantages.

    As for the book, well, I fear I need my numbers to swell before that attempt might convincingly be made. In the meantime, my real-world scholarly pursuits keep me busy with somewhat drier book projects.

    Sending positive thoughts in your direction as you prepare for surgery. Stiff upper lip and a firm resolve, my friend. Best of luck.

  5. I remain a bit hesitant regarding Facebook. What would Tom Hodgkinson think?

    I will give it consideration. Anything else I may do in the meanwhile to assist your endeavor, please let me know.

  6. Yes indeed, it is and does all the things Mr. Hodgkinson says it is and does. But there is a positive side for those of us who don't deal in drivel, and who are discerning about what kind of things are divulged. I've thought about the compromises involved in being there, and have concluded that since my main presence is in the service of this blog, and that my readers do not discover my identity unless I choose to disclose it, I will live with whatever evil consequences may unforeseeably arise. It is safer, I believe, than divulging my email address here, for example. Yet on that score, I think perhaps it is time Vir Beatum had an email address, and I'll think about how to make that available to the good souls out there like you. Watch this space.


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