Had any good wine lately? I’m sure you have, but make a note of Baron de Ley Reserva 1995. It is aged in oak for 24 months and is a typical yet wonderful Rioja red that’s characteristic of those made from the elusively flavorful tempranillo grape, an indigenous Spanish varietal noted for its plummy, smoky, oaky flavors. It often has hints of vanilla, licorice and pipe tobacco. Baron de Ley’s, with rich cherry fruit, and the Baron de Ley bodega is one of several outstanding wineries I visited this past May in Spain.
Confident of this wine’s quality, I opened it to enjoy with three guests a few days ago as we sampled several red wines from four quite different producing regions. I’m always pleasantly amused by the mildly shocked reactions of many wine drinkers when we do a simple tasting together and I suggest to them some of the smells I’m picking up, as we nose the wine and then taste it.
It happened again at the dinner-cum-wine tasting I prepared for my three recent guests. At first they gave mild gasps of disbelief when I suggested the flavors I’d tasted. When they concentrated more carefully, however, they concurred, somewhat gleefully, with a personal sense of discovery.
The moral of the story: Concentrate well after swishing a generous mouthful of the wine throughout your mouth and bringing it into contact with every part of your tongue, mouth and throat.
What is referred to in the wine trade as the “length” is how well the flavor of a wine endures after it flows over your taste buds and down your throat. Wine professionals also refer to it as “mouth feel” and “throat feel,” two of the taste sensations associated with wine as it is drunk. A wine with satisfying length — be it red or white — is said to have a good “finish.”
Since I’ve discussed white wine grapes rather recently, let’s consider some of the main grapes used to make red wine. Wine drinkers often ask me what is the best white grape, or the best black grape. Someone with a pronounced bias toward the most dominant characteristics of a particular varietal could in theory make a special case for that grape as being the best of the lot.
However, in practice, when push comes to shove in making the wine, what counts above all is the quality of the fruit (the grapes) and the ability of the winemaker. Some quite wonderful wines are often made from relatively obscure or undistinguished grapes. Winemakers themselves are often proud of these wines and are sometimes justifiably pleased with themselves for having made a lovely wine from a little heeded grape.
As you look over California reds these days, you might notice some made from the Sangiovese grape, the quite astringent, tannic, slightly spicy grape used to make Chianti in Italy’s famous Tuscany and throughout central Italy. This grape has found a home in parts of California, such as the Sierra foothills, where clever makers such as the brilliant Shenandoah Valley have done well with it. Valhalla Vineyards in Virginia, America’s fifth-ranked wine state, has also done well with it.
Que syrah-syrah? This amusingly named grape (syrah), called shiraz in Australia, calls the Rhone Valley home and can be tannic and complex in this cooler northern region as opposed to softer and more mellow in the southern part. In super-sunny Australia its character varies widely from very soft berry-flavored wines to firm, complex, peppery versions. And by no means overlook syrah from Argentina, often fantastic and always a good value.
Another red-wine grape to note is pinotage, the main black grape of South Africa and arguably the best in general in New Zealand. The pinotage is a cross between the pinot noir, a capricious grape rich in berry flavors, and cinsault, native to southern France. At its best, the pinotage is wonderfully plummy and smoky and can be quite tannic. Have some fun: Compare a pair each from South Africa and New Zealand.
In the 1990s, medical studies that linked moderate daily red wine consumption to the reduced risk of heart attack in France, cast an unprecedented spotlight on red wine and catapulted it to wine-world stardom, the likes of which no one could ever have imagined.
In America in 1991, after TV spread this story nationwide, merlot became America’s most fashionable wine. The rage spread worldwide to Japan, where red wine sales dramatically benefited from it.
For a number of reasons the 1990s may be said to have been the “Red Decade,” albeit not in the world of international politics. On the very day that freedom-hungry Germans were battering down the Berlin Wall, I was in Lisbon obliviously tasting Portuguese red wines of all kinds at a massive annual wine event I’d been assigned to report in the trade press. That night, Nov. 9, 1989, I watched TV coverage of the wondrous wall-smash in awed disbelief.
I still drink to it. Cheers!