Splendor in the Glass

Memorial Day has passed, so it’s OK to drink white. But, “The first duty of a wine is to be red.” That quip has been attributed to various wags, most enduringly to Alec Waugh, English novelist, who added, “the second is to be a Burgundy,” by which he meant pinot noir (not an unreasonable amendment, according to pinotphiles). Wine scholars have argued that Waugh was merely repeating an eno-adage that originated in the Middle Ages, or maybe with the antique Greeks. Whatever the actual source, a lot of bad attitudes about white wine have ensued. For one, there is the continuing notion that white wines should be served ice-cold, fine move if we don’t want to actually taste them (really, 53-60 degrees would be about right). Two, many folks think whites are not “serious,” mainly because they can never be as complex, as deeply flavored as reds; exceptions are noted for French Sauternes and the great white Burgundies (i.e., chardonnays), and the Germans might chime in with words for their superb Rieslings. Some of this is probably true: Great reds tend to pack more punch, but if we’re going to explore the duties of wine, we should leave be plenty of room for whites.

Winophile Stephen Tanzer, on his website Winophilia, asked various eno-mavens about the “first duty” of wine, eliciting diverse responses. One of the most intriguing came from Oregon’s Josh Bergstrom, whose wines are excellent: “If we are but hedonists, then wine is all about the pleasure. If we are students, then wine should stimulate our personal education and growth and appreciation. The fun is balancing the two.”

I’d argue that we’ve twisted the question by personifying wine and thus missing the point that duty belongs to the maker of the wine. And the winemaker’s first duty is to craft wines that are good food, not just good complements to food. Frank Ernandes, owner of Mazzi’s, led me to this insight when he pointed out that, to Italians, wine is the liquid course in a meal, hence it is food. And like all the other courses, the wine should be well-made, flavorful and nourishing. And it should be selected to fit into the menu; it should not detract from other courses, nor overshadow other flavors. If winemakers find fun in balancing wines’ pleasures and intellectual stimulation, a host should take some pleasures in finding wines that marry into a menu for any meal that is more about dining than merely eating.

All this adds up to claiming that white wines can be grand foods and grand with food. And we shouldn’t get stuck in old formulas — whites with fish and fowl, reds with meats. Some fowl — emu, ostrich, duck — taste just fine matched with the right red wine. And some reds — mature Bordeaux for example — just hide their flavors under, say, a grilled steak. Salmon, depending on the preparation, tastes delish with some Oregon pinot noirs. Pairing food and wine is part of the stimulation of our “education and growth” to which Bergstrom refers. 

Consider these in your learning, and your pleasures:

This month’s Consumer Reports praises inexpensive chardonnays, including Charles Shaw, the infamous “three-buck Chuck” (still only $3). No denying it: Chuck’s a drinkable bargain, simple and citrusy but quite tolerable, at that price. And it’s hard for Oregon’s makers of chardonnay to compete, even if our chards far surpass Chuck in quality. But we have Oak Knoll 2007 Unoaked Chardonnay ($7, on sale), waaay more complex than Chuck, mature without being tired, yummy with cheesy pastas.

Oregon chardonnays have risen from the grave in recent vintages, with prices soaring. Want the best? Try Cameron 2010 Clos Electrique ($58) or Bergström 2010 Old Stones ($29). St. Innocent 2011 Freedom Hill Chardonnay is outstanding ($19). Looking for a benchmark chardonnay experience? Lafon 2008 Puligny Montrachet ($127), white Burgundy that sorta sets the world standard and will etch a memory. Strapped for cash? Back to Chuck.

For a few bux more, don’t miss Chehalem 2012 Pinot Gris ($10), a beauty, firm, round and well-balanced, just the ticket for that fresh cod.

Still insist on red? Our neighbors near Monroe offer Benton-Lane 2011 Estate Pinot Noir at a bargain price ($19), delivering defined black cherry/raspberry flavors, nicely balanced, versatile, good food, good with food.

Outta time, outta space, last words: Whatever the first duty of wine — or winemakers — our first duty remains: Tend this garden with love and intelligence. And don’t neglect pretty white wines.

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