Spinning the bottle
It's time to learn the truth about merlot, chardonnay and the evil white zin
It couldn't have happened at a worse place. We had just sat down at Meritage Wine Bar, and as soon as the server opened our bottle of merlot, my friend picked up the cork, brought it to her nose and took a long, dramatic sniff. And then another. She continued like this for many mortifying seconds, her eyes shut tight in concentration, her lips puckered smugly with satisfaction as she practically shoved the thing up her left nostril. When she was finished, she looked up at the server with a smile.
"Mmmmm," she cooed. "That's nice."
I could see in his eyes that he was rattled—scared, even—by such a blatant wine blunder. But I don't blame my friend. For every sommelier (or, ahem, wine reporter) who can explain that no real knowledge can be gleaned by smelling a cork, there are hordes of well-meaning but misguided winos telling you otherwise. With so much misinformation running amok, it's hard to know how and when to hit the bottle "properly"—let alone which bottle to hit. So, we've set out to uncover and dispel some of the most common wine myths. If you found yourself shuddering at the word "merlot" above, or cheering on my cork-sniffing friend, rip these pages out and study them before picking up another wine list. Trust me. It's for your own good.
MYTH: Real wine drinkers don't drink merlot
That all depends on what you mean by "real." Real wine drinkers drink whatever they love. It's the real wine snobs who classify certain grapes as somehow "better" or more drink-worthy than others. There's a term for this kind of behavior: grapism, the systematic discrimination against a grape varietal. And it's an idiotic way of approaching wine.
Grapists who hate on merlot most likely do so because of the grape's history as a blending grape. Back in the day, it was blended with cabernet to make legendary Bordeauxs, but it was rarely bottled on its own. Now that's all changed, and merlot is the best-selling wine in the country. There's a reason for that: Merlots are soft, juicy wines full of wonderful fruit—perfect for everyday drinking. Nevertheless, Brian Duncan, wine director at BIN 36, hears the hateration all the time. "It keeps coming up in my wine classes," he reports. "It's so funny to me because people can't somehow seem to separate fiction from fact." To remedy the situation, Duncan recommends doubters try the Rex Goliath Central Coast merlot ($10.95) and Paul Hobbs's LaGarto ($12.95) at BIN 36 (339 N Dearborn St, between Kinzie St and Wacker Dr, 312-755-9463).
MYTH: Chardonnay is for old ladies
Well, yeah, it is, but not exclusively. Chardonnays as buttery as ghee are harder to find ever since wineries got hip to the fact that the yellow, full-bodied wines they were making were getting a Golden Girls reputation. To get chardonnay—which, let's be clear, is a fantastic grape, responsible not only for great California wines, but also for the best white Burgundies—back on track, a lot of producers are cutting back on aging their wine in oak barrels (which imparts those buttery vanilla flavors), thereby creating leaner, more acidic wines. But if you like the big stuff, Greg Wilson of Artisan Cellars has good news: "The thing that people need to know is that just because [a chardonnay] doesn't have oak, it's not a light, trifling kind of wine. It can be a rich, full-flavor wine without it." He recommends picking up Australia's Starvedog Lane No-Oak chardonnay ($14.95) and the Four Vines Naked chardonnay from California ($12.95) at Artisan Cellar, Merchandise Mart, (222 Merchandise Mart Plaza between Wells and Orleans Sts, 312-527-5810).
MYTH: Reds are for winter
What? No Cru Beaujolais in the flower garden? No pinot noir on Daddy's boat? And just what, exactly, do you plan on serving at your barbecues? I don't care how lovely that viognier is, it's not going to stand up to ribs or grilled eats like a peppy zin will. Fox & Obel's wine director, Ashley Stockstill, used to live in Singapore, which is just a few degrees from the equator, so she's "pretty much an expert on drinking red wines in hot climates." She admits that big, heavy reds that are full of tannins and alcohol (like Chateauneuf-du-Pape) are best left for snow days, but Beaujolais, made from gamay grapes, "is such a beautiful summer wine because it has great fruit, but it also has a good mineral background." She recommends the 2003 Domaine Les Fines Graves Chenas ($13.99) at Fox & Obel, (401 E Illinois St at McClurg Ct, 312-410-7301). And don't forget merlot. "There's a certain leafy and supple quality to merlots that can be really great for summer," like 2001 Westerly Vineyards' merlot ($19.99). Also, "a big, assertive American zin," like the 2002 Nalle zinfandel ($27.99), "can actually be very pleasurable if served at the right temperature." Which brings us to our next myth.
MYTH: White wine should be served cold and red wine should be served at room temperature
Ever been outside on a sweaty summer night and poured a glass of white so cold that it stung your teeth? Yeah, that's not supposed to happen. A wine that's too cold will taste like water because the cold temperature will mute its flavor. When Liesel Bennett, owner of Bennett Wine Studio (802 W Washington Blvd between Halsted and Green Sts, 312-666-4417), is deciding whether to carry a white in her store, she always tastes it at room temperature first. "You can't get to the wine if it's overly chilled," she says. "When you buy a real cheap wine, they tell you to serve it well-chilled, and there's a reason for that: It covers up the flaws." More dangerous than serving whites at the wrong temperature (because no matter how cold a white wine is, it will warm up as it sits on your table, eventually reaching its peak drinking temperature) is serving reds too warm. Heat pushes the alcohol into the wine, which causes that hot, sticky feeling in your throat when you drink it. A cooler red will be less harsh, more drinkable and more refreshing. I could tell you that whites are supposed to be served at anywhere from 43 to 55 degrees, and reds at "cellar temperature" (about 65 degrees), but somehow I doubt you'll be breaking out the thermometer. So try two hours in the fridge for whites and roses, and 30 minutes—or however long it takes for the bottle to be cool to the touch, but not cold—for reds.
MYTH: You can't get good winein a grocery store
So it pains you to buy a bottle of wine at Jewel. It feels like you're doing something wrong, something you wouldn't want your friends or co-workers to see. That's understandable. Jewel isn't a wine store, that's for sure. But it can work. "Look for basic-level wines from producers of the great wines you love," advises Belinda Chang, sommelier at Osteria Via Stato and Big Bowl. "[If] you order and drink Penfold's Grange Shiraz at TRU, pick up Penfold's Thomas Hyland Shiraz at the grocery store for dinner at home. They often use the same fruit; just the label is different." But be careful: Check for dust to determine how long it's been sitting on the shelf (this is especially important when buying nonvintage wines), and make sure the store isn't so sweltering that the wine has cooked on the shelf. And don't be afraid of boxed, or even canned, wine. The Australians (and a handful of Californians) have been putting remarkably decent wines in alternative containers for a few years now (try Three Thieves' Bandit). You'll not only be putting another wine myth to rest, but you'll also be an early adapter of a growing wine trend.
MYTH: Pink wines are trashy
So you can hang with cotton candy and gay pride, but when it comes to wine, pink is suddenly declasse? I know, I know: white zinfandel. Rose lovers like myself should bring a class-action suit against white zin for the damage it's done to rose's reputation. This wine myth is particularly annoying to those in the business, like Bennett. "There used to be a time, ten, 15 years ago, when nobody would imagine drinking pink wines—there were all these boxed wines that were terrible—and people have a long memory." What most of these people are remembering are wines that were made by literally mixing cheap white wine with cheap red—a guaranteed way to get a foul-tasting liquid not worthy of rose's name. But today, most roses are made by letting the grape juice steep with the skins for a while, resulting in a wine that's refreshing, but layered with complex flavors. For example, Bennett sells a delicious rose from Turkey Flat Vineyards ($18.85) and a Saintsbury Caneros Vin Gris ($13.49), made entirely with pinot noir grapes. "But people resent it," she reports. "I've only sold one bottle."
That's the damage a wine myth can do. But if you've been reading this carefully, you'll buy a bottle of rose tonight. Then you'll see that the upside of these monstrous wine myths is that the good stuff is left for those who know better.