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Wine Advice that Nobody Asked For: Learning to Take My Own Advice

Not too long ago I wrote one of these little essays about what should be expected of wine, and the example I gave at the time was someone who was dissatisfied with a five dollar bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon. When it comes to value in a bottle of wine, I’m obsessively aware of what I think wine should cost in comparison to how it tastes as something of an occupational preoccupation.

In addition to forming an opinion on the value of a wine compared to its flavor, that’s also tied up with what the wine tastes like in regards to its style. Does this red Bordeaux taste like red Bordeaux, does this white Burgundy taste like white Burgundy? If my Vinho Verde tastes like a California Chardonnay, then I think we might have some issues.

Of course the typicity of a grape or region is tied up in western European wine traditions since the modern wine industry stems from the appellation systems of Italy, Hungary, and France. So when I (and many others) learn about wine in an academic context, sommelier training, or for a certifying board like the Wine and Spirits Education Trust (W.S.E.T), typicity of grapes and regions is thought of in regards to the classics: Burgundy, Bordeaux, Chianti, Rioja, Brunello, Sancerre, etc.

I’ve always been drawn to the classics in terms of wine while new world wine production (North & South America, New Zealand, Australia, etc) has always occupied my mental space as more of a passing curiosity than anything. Not that I write them off completely, but with a focus on the classics, it’s been easier to pay attention to them because I’ve spent so much more time studying them.

Recently I’ve been tasting more wine from South America that I’ve found compelling in one way or another, but something has historically struck me about Chilean wines that I could never quite wrap my head around. I often find them to have a smokey edge, leaning in towards a more vegetal nature, and often with an earthiness that wasn’t particularly to my liking. But why hasn’t it been to my liking?

I expect, and often enjoy, a vegetal edge (bell pepper, herbs, jalapeno, something green no doubt) in Cabernet Franc from Chinon, because it is often typical of the wine. If I get that same green edge in some Cabernet Sauvignon, I sometimes enjoy it because it is often typical to the wine. For the most part I don’t tolerate oak in my wine, but I often enjoy it in red Bordeaux and Tempranillo based wines like Rioja or Ribera del Duero because I understand it as historic to the style.

So the other night while drinking a Chilean blend of Carmenere, Carignan, and old vine Pais, I was quietly intellectualizing whether or not I had an opinion about it, and whether or not it was the right opinion. Meanwhile, my darling wife with a far better palate than I have, just says, “oh, that’s nice.”

No overthinking it, no comparing it to the classic regions, she wasn’t trying to figure out if there was varietal typicity, or whether or not there were flavors being influenced by vine pruning practices (all of which I was doing), she tasted the wine and just enjoyed it.

That’s not to say that the only thing that matters is whether or not you like the wine. There is appreciation and enjoyment to be had in scholarship, comparison, and critical tasting, but there’s also merit in approaching wine with what could be called beginner’s mind, shedding the classics when the classics don’t always apply to what could be considered “new” wine regions. Case in point, there are no classic French wine regions that call for Pais grapes grown from 100 year old vines.

So fine, I’ll take my own advice, I’ll keep an open mind, try new things, adjust my expectations to fit a new scenario, and I might even enjoy some of these wines that I otherwise wouldn’t have. And I’ll suck it up and actually take some advice instead of just giving it.

-Joe Buchter, Import Wine Buyer

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