How to argue about wine

Jul 15, 2009 at 12:00 am

When it comes to getting to know wine, it helps to have friends who know the subject. And, since most people into wine can have strong opinions, all you have to do is bring up a hot-button topic and stand back: Once wine aficionados get going, the wisdom can come pouring out! Here are a few common points of complaint and debate.

1. Grape-based marketing: In most supermarkets and party stores, wines are organized by the grape they're made of — Merlot, Cabernet Sauvington, Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, Pinot Noir, Zinfandel and Riesling, to name some majors — instead of region of origin. For the beginner, this is reductionist and often misleading. Wine is more than fermented grape juice, and many of the finest wines are blends of more than one kind of grape.

2. Terroir: This French word is cousin to our English word "terrain," and with good reason: A wine with "terroir" tastes like the place the grapes were grown. It can be redolent of the soil, weather and sunlight, or have the chalky flavor of fine shells in the soil or the mineral taste of a nearby stream. For those willing to pay a bit more for wine from a particular place, a whole world of flavor is opened up. Then again, some feel terroir is overrated, and that what happens after the grapes are harvested can make the difference.

3. Old World vs. New World: In the Old World (Europe), wineries are established, and the prevailing school of thinking is that you grow grapes in the proper soil and treat them right, making wine the way you've made it for centuries. In the New World (Australia, the Americas), things are more fluid. Only open to viniculture for a handful of centuries, we are still experimenting, finding new places where grapes can be grown, making our own history with each new harvest. Among friends, ask which world is better and then look out!

4. "Progress" vs. "natural wine": One of the prime players in modernizing wine production has been the University of California-Davis wine program. They've earned their reputation, coming up with processes that have altered the way the world makes wine, especially the New World. As winemakers outside Europe do their best to make fine wine without centuries of knowledge about where to grow the right grapes, they're also using technology to tweak the wine after the grapes are grown. Among wine lovers, the ideas uncorked by UC-Davis can be viewed as innovative or disruptive to "natural wine," which is made the old-fashioned way, or (really stand back here) organic and biodynamic wines.

5. I like what I like: If the discussions about wine get too heated, one point of view that is a touchstone is that any wine the drinker likes is the right one. No matter how much a person knows about wine, the ultimate judge is the individual palate. If you enjoy drinking a particular wine with your friends, and it leaves you feeling good, who can argue with that? (Well, stand back anyway.)

Michael Jackman is a writer and copy editor for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]