Thu 20 Aug 2009
All the instruments agreed that yesterday afternoon in Memphis was hot as blazes and ridden with shirt-soaking humidity. Nonetheless, we sat out on the screened porch about 5:30 with a bottle of white wine, invitingly sheathed in beaded condensation, and a bowl of our favorite little Tuscan crackers, LL to finish that morning’s Times, and me to continue reading a biography of Frank O’Hara, and saying to LL about every three minutes, “Whoa, it must have been so much fun to live in New York in the ’50s!”
Now unless you are the sort of person endowed with the fiduciary prowess to say something like, “Let’s sit outside this afternoon. I’ll grab a bottle of Lynch Bages Blanc” — a wine I will admit not tasting for a decade or so — then you, like I, would bring something more modest to the table, in this case a bottle of El Coto Rioja Blanco 2008. This is not a great wine, and I think that anyone sipping from a glass of it would feel the same. It’s made from viura grapes, and not meaning to cast aspersions, this is a grape simply incapable of greatness. You could throw a lot of French oak at it, as some misguided producers are doing with the unsuspecting grüner veltliner grape in Austria, and the result would not be a great wine but merely an over-oaked, ponderous wine.
El Coto Rioja Blanco 2008 is, however, thoroughly enjoyable. Made completely in stainless steel, it’s taut and stony, moderately spicy in its general citrus-like nature, dry and crisp and with an almost haunting floral aspect. Fulfilling its purpose as a screened porch, late Summer afternoon, aperitif quaffer, it rates Good+, and there’s not a damned thing wrong with that. About $10, and appropriate for poolside, picnics, patios and such. Imported by Frederick Wildman & Sons, New York.
Later for dinner, though, needing more character and presence, I opened the Sequoia Grove Chardonnay 2007, Carneros, Napa Valley. Here’s a chardonnay perfectly suited to our palates. Given a cool fermentation in stainless steel, the wine is transferred to French oak barrels, of which only 35 percent are new; the wine does not go through the malolactic process — in which sharp apple-like (“malic”) acid is transformed to smooth milk-like (“lactic”) acid — the result being a chardonnay that tastes like the grape, is lively and vibrant, and receives subtle and supple support from wood. The Sequoia Grove Chardonnay 2007 is bright and bold, with a lovely shape and texture, a sort of lushness permeated by crispness thing, as if you were biting into a peach and an apple at the same time. Classic flavors of pineapple and grapefruit reveal nuances of cloves and roasted hazelnuts, while the finish is sleek, resonant and slightly floral. Drink now through 2011 or ’12 (well-stored). Excellent. About $28.
My point, lecteurs, semblables et freres, is not that one wine is better or worse than another wine but that a wine makes its place with a sense of purpose as well as accommodation. There’s room for compromise between the positions that (A.) you can drink any wine any time with any food you want to and that (B.) each wine created on God’s Green Earth matches with one exact and Platonic food or dish and no other. What’s important is a sense of proportion. When we look at a Dutch still-life painting — this is Breakfast Still Life with Blackberry Pie (1631) by Willem Claesz Heda — the glasses of wine depicted therein embody an astounding sense of authority and deliberation. This ideal, we think, this bride of quietness, is the only possible wine that could have found a place in this setting, among these glowing foods and burnished plates and utensils and glittering fabrics, and I defy you not to wish that you were there, in that painting, so you could try that wine, which would surely offer a form of transcendence.
We do not, however, as much as we might wish, live inside a Dutch still life painting, and in this imperfect world all we can hope for is a modicum of poise, the reasonableness to make choices based on our preferences and experiences, two qualities that feed from and strengthen each other. Are there truly no wrongs choices in choosing wine? Of course there are, but even wrong choices broaden our experience and help lead us to the right ones. Just don’t expect too much of wine — it’s only a beverage — but let it speak to you itself of its own virtues and let it find its own place.
“Breakfast Still Life with Blackberry Pie” hangs in the Gemäldegalerie, Dresden.