Monday, January 10, 2011

Getting to know your wine

A first impression shouldn't be only impression when it comes to tasting wine. Unfortunately, most professional evaluations of wine are based on rather brief first impressions. It is a rare treat when notable critics get to spend more than a few sips with a single wine, as Steve Heimoff described in a recent blog post. This is an unfortunate, yet unavoidable, circumstance in the world of wine evaluation due to too many wines to review in too little time.

Perhaps this phenomenon is part (just a part) of the rise of wine bloggers gaining credibility. Many wine bloggers are writing about wine as a passion and not a career. I know that if this website were my career that I would be the envy of my cats (and by that I mean living in a cardboard box full of tissue paper, outside!). I write about the wines that I buy to drink. Sure, there is the occasional sample, but I am not sampling multiple wines each day. When I, and most other wine bloggers, review a wine it encompasses not just the first impressions of the wine, but how the wine pairs with a meal and how it evolves in the glass over an evening or two (or morning, or afternoon, I'm not judging).

Just as Heimoff explained that spending an entire evening drinking just one wine changed his initial assessment of a high-scoring Pinot Noir, regular wine bloggers have similar wine experiences all the time. I use the term experience because that is what I think what wine is. I am not here to tell others that they must view wine in the same light, though I assume if you are reading this wine blog that you might be of a similar persuasion. Yet, to some wine is a social lubricant, an escape and even just a number.

One of my favorite activities is to explore wine shops for older vintages of ageable wines that have not increased in price since release. I've found a few hidden gems, but I am still keeping my eyes out for that 1982 First Growth Bordeaux that has been sitting tucked away in a corner for the past 20 years for only $20! In the same shop that I found the Dragon's Hollow unoaked Chardonnay, I found a bottle of 2000 Cesari Mara Vino di Ripasso. I've had my fair share of trade samples of young Amarone and Valpollicella Ripasso from my time in retail, but I've often been put off by the high alcohol and musty raisin flavors of these young wines. Perhaps not as significant as finding a case of Champagne at the bottom of the sea, I was intrigued by this "baby Amarone's" potential to age and mature in the bottle. When I decided to open the bottle the other night, I poured a small glass to "evaluate" before I made dinner. Now, if I were a professional critic on par with Hemioff, Robert Parker or James Suckling (oh, I know these big names drive web traffic...) this first impression is all my readers would see.

But, lucky you, I am not a famous or well-respected wine expert! I was able to drink a couple of glasses over a few hours and experience, not just taste, the wine. I am able to share with you (hi, mom!) how the wine changed over time. While I understand, and hope that you do too, that the standard 2-3 sentence tasting note and score provide an important snapshot of a wine, more interesting discussions about how wines are experienced will better help educate consumers about wines that they may enjoy.

2000 Cesari Mara, Valpolicella Superiore, Italy

I opened the bottle and poured a small glass to take quick notes on. This blend of Corvina Veronese, Rondinella and Molinara was a dark garnet that faded to a brick red at the rim. Aromas of tobacco, sour cherry, cedar and a cinnamon were noticeable. It did not smell much different than most other, younger Valpolicellas that I've tried. I initially tasted leather, dried cherries, walnuts and a slight musty earthiness and raisininess that I am not especially fond of in similar red wines from the Veneto. I drank a couple glasses of the Mara while I ate my cheese and herb-stuffed manicotti that morphed into a cheese lasagna because I over cooked the noodles. The pairing wasn't the best, but after I inhaled my meal I was surprised with how much the wine was evolving in the glass. Gone were bitter walnut and the mustiness that I don't enjoy. Complex and more nuanced secondary earth and chocolate flavors came forward. It became much mellower and approachable. I only had a couple of glasses over the course of a few hours so that I could have some more the next night. The second night was more of the same. Smooth and earthy flavors reminded me of a more full-bodied Burgundy. To me, this says that this wine really needs to be decanted to be enjoyed to its fullest extent and gives me hope about spending my money on Amarones and other Ripassos in the future. 13.5% abv Purchased $14. Good/Very Good (tasted 1/4/11)

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