Here’s wishing you a Happy New Year, a bit belatedly. After all the hoopla a year ago, isn’t it ironic that the new millennium didn’t actually begin until 11 days ago?
Names and numbers can play games with us and the wine world provides numerous cases in point. Winery names are worth no more than the significance that consistent quality invests in them. Even then, each vintage varies. Was 19-whatever a good year? Here yes, there no. What’s a good year in parts of Bordeaux may not be an equally good year in Burgundy nor indeed in other parts of Bordeaux.
It’s confusing to say the least, and labels don’t always impart all the necessary information. For the moment, let’s do what everyone does before a new season begins: return to fundamentals. Briefly, let’s consider a few guidelines that will help you explore the wine world and drink wine more intelligently in the new millenium.
Old World, New World: Please get this down pat. Old World refers to Europe and the older civilizations (Asia Minor, continental Europe, etc.) as opposed to the New World, principally the Americas and other lands discovered by Old World explorers such as the great Vasco da Gama on their monumental voyages of discovery. American, Australian and Chilean wines, for example, are New World wines. French, German, Spanish, Italian and other European wines are Old World wines.
What’s the difference? Wine experts tend to say that the Old World uses traditional grape-growing and winemaking methods while the New World favors the dictates of modern science and technology. Happiness probably lies in a harmonious marriage of these two approaches.
The sense of smell: Of all the basic senses, this is the least understood, the most important and the most underrated (except by wine experts). Try to cultivate your sense of smell by smelling different spices, herbs, teas, coffees, flowers, fabrics and other things scented or aromatic, such as leather, licorice, pipe tobacco, vegetation, essential oils and aromatic essences.
Log your impressions. Go back. Sniff again. Develop your sense of smell so you can pick up subtleties. Learn to trust your nose more and more. Olfactory receptors in the nose and in the retronasal passage (at the back of the mouth) help us sort out some 10,000 different aromas.
Tasting wine: Can’t taste your food with a stuffy nose? That’s normal, so closely linked are the senses of smell and taste. The mouth can distinguish sweetness (tip of the tongue), saltiness (further back, on the sides), sourness (on the sides still further back), and bitterness (back center). Don’t like what you’re tasting? Hold your nose.
Varietals (grape varieties): Often you’ll read the word varietals, referring to types of grapes from different parts of the world: e.g., to name a few of the best known, cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir and merlot — “black” or red-wine grapes — and, among white grapes, Riesling, chardonnay, and sauvignon blanc.
What are the best varietals? My answer is “none.” Good wine rests on a number of factors, such as having a good harvest with good fruit — be it a “noble grape” (a major varietal) or an indigenous one — plus good vinification by a skilled winemaker.
A good winemaker can make a worthy wine from modest grapes. But it pays to study varietal characteristics, as they contribute much to the wine’s taste and many wine labels bear a varietal reference.
Wine accessories: Starting with corkscrews, sooner or later you’ll need this and that to assist your wine-drinking: e.g., an ice bucket, decanters, wine racks and more. As for storage, in earthquake-prone Japan keep your wine, glasses and decanters safely close to the floor, not on shelves. Wine needs a cool, dry, vibration-free place with constant temperatures, away from sunlight.
To start your wine-drinking year right, visit Bookin Wine Shop near Kayabacho and Nihonbashi stations (tel. 03-3666-5511), a pleasant shop with good wines, including five excellent organic wines, at realistic prices.