I didn't drink in college. I was the default designated driver for years, making sure my friends (and sometimes co-workers) didn't make bad decisions (or at least not really bad ones) and got home safely. I was in my late 20s before I started drinking on anything resembling a regular basis.
While I missed out on all the college "fun" (this is my dubious face), as an adult I've enjoyed trying new things. And one thing I've learned is that I really do like wine.
I like all kinds of wines. There's so much variety and so many interesting things to learn. What I really like, lately, is red wine.
Wine reviews, though -- there's a whole lot of ridiculousness that can be off putting. What does "oaky with a hint of florals" even MEAN to the average person just looking for a bottle of something for the table? Not a whole lot. The language of wine is an invented one, full of simile and metaphor. (Though, actually, I will explain the oaky thing later.)
Honestly, wine reviews read like some English major's fever dream.
There's this scene in Disney's "Ratatouille" where Remy, the main character rat, is teaching his brother Emile
how to taste
. His advice?
That's pretty apt for tasting in general but it's especially good for wine tasting. Wine isn't always subtle, but you do kind of have to give it a minute to take its clothes off for you. And once it strips down (this metaphor was, perhaps, not well considered), some of that invented language starts to make a little more sense. In other words, when it comes to drinking wine, practice really does make perfect.
Don't believe me? That's okay, too. Because it's totally possible to talk about wine without all the overblown description.
The other night, I was looking for something I hadn't tried before. I'm lucky enough to live close to a store that's basically a warehouse liquor store -- they stock just about anything you might go looking for, and most of the staff is pretty knowledgeable. They sent me home with a new-to-me red wine.
Let's talk about red wine for a minute. The key structure of red wine's flavor is provided by tannins. What are tannins? They come from the sticky bits of the grape -- the skin and the stem and the seeds. They are, technically, polyphenols. When you break that down, they're compounds containing multiple phenolic hydroxyl group.
Which, I mean, if you're into chemistry that could be meaningful. I think chemistry is neat but I couldn't tell you what a hydroxyl group actually does in its spare time.
So here's what a tannin does: it's the stuff in wine that gives you a weird dry mouth feeling. Tannins are also present in tea -- which is why a lot of people sweeten their tea.
The younger a red wine is, the fewer tannins it has. That's why Beaujolais Nouveau tastes like grape juice -- it's only been fermented for a few weeks!
(There are a lot of things that can be said about Beaujolais Nouveau -- there are a lot of snobs who put it down, forgetting that the point of drinking wine is to enjoy it.)
When a wine doesn't have very many tannins, it's described as light-bodied. A light-bodied wine feels like water in your mouth, and you can often taste a lot of light fruit flavors. Sounds delightful, right?
That's not what I got at the store.
I wound up with a medium-bodied red wine from Spain: Vecordia 2009 Roble. It's from the Ribera del Duero region of Spain, which is known for its wines. Medium-bodied wines have, as you might have guessed, more tannins than a light-bodied wine but not as many as a full- or heavy-bodied wine. They feel kind of slippery in your mouth -- not like water but not like whole milk either.
The Vecordia cost me $12. While there's a lot of enjoyment to be had in really pricey wines, there's nothing shabby about a more affordable wine. You don't have to spend a lot of money. Your standard bottle of wine (750ml) will have about 4 glasses in it; that's about three bucks a glass for this particular wine -- not too shabby.
Here's the review part: I like this wine. I actually like this wine quite a bit and recommend it for sipping in the garden. I think it'd be good for sipping in a hot bath as well.
It's not grapey. It has a wonderful scent (I refuse to say aroma). It's spicy on the first sip -- not the same way food is spicy, but more the ways herbs smell spicy; I'd go so far as to say it's a little peppery. It's a savory flavor.
This is where the
don't just hork it down
advice comes in -- the initial flavors don't get to mellow if you've already knocked it all back in the pursuit of getting it over with already. Red wine is such a lazy drinker's drink -- you're meant to put some in your mouth and let it hang out there for a moment.
Once the spice mellows, there are fruit notes (passed behind the teacher's back) and just a bit of vanilla.
If you hork this one down (yes, at this point I just like saying "hork"), you'll miss the taste of cherries and currants. And that would be a shame because it's a really nice taste.
So where does the whole "oaky" thing come from?
When wines are described as "oaky", it's very nearly code for saying they taste expensive. Red wine gets aged in barrels -- oak barrels, which can be quite pricey when they are new. Oak is porous, and wine aged in oak is influenced by the wood around it. But oak barrels get less flavorful as they age -- they don't interact as much with the wine within them. What's a wine maker to do?
Wine makers get this desired oaky flavor now by cheating. They steep oak chips in their wines. Yes, like tea bags. Only replace the tea with mulch.
I'm not in love with obvious oakiness. Though oaks are lovely trees.
There is a bit of oakiness in the Vecordia, but it's mellow. You won't mistake this for licking a plank, and that's a good thing indeed.
I had chicken soft tacos for dinner, and the Vecordia paired pretty well with them. It's not a difficult wine -- I think you could pair it with most easy dinners. Steak, of course, is the no brainer pairing for red wines. I wouldn't pair this with, like, a bag of potato chips.
Wine has a reputation for snobbery. Some of that is a product of wine collecting in the 1980s. Some of it is just bog standard elitism. But don't let the jargon fool you -- people drink wine because it tastes good. The Vecordia 2009 Roble tastes good.
Let me know if you give it a try.