How do I Choose? — Eeny, Meeny, Miney, Merlot!

How many times have you been in a wine shop faced with a bunch of unfamiliar selections and had to pick one in a hurry?  If you’re lucky, you’ve got a short written description of the wines, and if you’re even luckier, a person in the shop who can help you.  What you really need, though, is an understanding of what you like and why.  We’ve talked about some of the attributes of wine before, including aroma.  But wine doesn’t always taste the way it smells, and it all comes down to taste in the end.  It might seem like an academic exercise to analyze the taste of wine, given the rhapsodic descriptions of it in literature through the ages, but even poetry has its proper forms that contribute to your enjoyment if you understand them.  Likewise, if you take a little time to examine the things you like in a wine, you can then explain them – and avoid a potentially costly mistake when you have to choose a wine you haven’t tried before.

So hang on – here we go!  There are three phases to the taste of any food or beverage, including wine:  the initial impression, the developing flavors, and the finish.  The initial impression is that first second when the wine hits your tongue.  The taste buds on the tongue are receptors for sweetness, sourness, bitterness, and saltiness.  While the wine won’t taste salty (we hope), that first wave should trigger the other three sensations, especially if it’s a red wine:  sourness from acidity, sweetness from any residual sugar and byproducts of fermentation, and bitterness from the tannins.  The alcohol content factors in there as well, contributing to the texture, and sometimes giving a little burn if it’s really high.  There should be a good balance to the different attributes, even if one of them predominates.  For example, even if you’re drinking a sweet dessert wine, there should be a little acidity in there, otherwise you’ll get the impression that the wine is flat.  You won’t necessarily think it tastes like anything you could name at this point, only that it has a particular intensity, or even a bit of creaminess or thickness to it.

The second phase happens as the wine warms in your mouth and the oxygen interacts with the wine, releasing different flavors.  The tannins recede a bit and that also allows some of the other flavors to come through.  As the wine sits in your mouth, you may detect some flavors that come in waves.  For example, in a red wine you might taste ripe fruits like blackberry, then a bit of earthiness, then spice.  Or a floral quality, followed by fruit flavors and maybe some herbs in a white.  Of course, you don’t keep the wine in your mouth for more than a few seconds, but this is where most of the action is.

Finally, you come to the finish.  You’ve either swallowed or spit the wine out.  The old saying with the smell of perfume is that it should never be in a room not occupied by the person wearing it.  But with most wines, the flavor will linger on.  It may not be the same flavor as when it was in your mouth, but it shouldn’t be unpleasant either.  It might last only a short time or a few seconds more.  But the key is that it tastes good no matter how long it lasts.

It might seem hard to break the taste down into its components, but it gets easier in a hurry.  A few notes, mental or written, help too (and the more you drink, the more you ought to write them down!)  You’ll quickly be able to identify the attributes you like.  Combining these with information about the foods you plan to have with the wine, you can go into a wine shop and – with the help of those short descriptions or a knowledgeable salesperson – walk out with something you’ll like, in nearly any price range, without resorting to picking at random.  Of course, when you’re at home (or in one of our shipping states) we know you’ll go to first vine’s website, where we have all the description you’ll need (and more).  But we can’t be everywhere, hard as we try, can we? 😉

Now for the recipe.  This week’s Washington Post food section features a recipe for baked apples.  It looks pretty good, but not as good as the ones we had in France a few weeks ago (oh no, you say, are they going to keep talking about France?  Oui, nos chéris, we are!)  Our Bordeaux producer, Gérald Majou de la Debutrie, made us a wonderful dinner of duck, accompanied by baked apples and a mash of potatoes and celery root.  We don’t cook duck a lot at home, so we’d serve the apples with roast chicken, whether roasted by us or the grocery store.  You could have them for dessert too, but the combination of meat and fruit is outstanding, perfect for a mid-winter meal.  Gérald served his Château Milon Bordeaux Supérieur Rouge, and it worked beautifully.  It’s a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Malbec – dry and full-bodied, lower in alcohol (typical of French wines), with a good balance between bitterness and acidity, followed by ripe fruits and moderate spice, then a hint of vanilla and oak for the finish, combined with a little earthiness.  Oh, and it smells gorgeous, too.  No need to close your eyes and pick at random for this one!

Bon Appetit!


ps — Great news!  We just heard from Cecile Dusserre, owner and winemaker of Domaine de Montvac, our producer in Vacqueras.  She told us that her Domaine de Montvac Vacqueras Rouge was just given a 90 point rating by Wine Spectator.  This is the first time her wines have been rated by an American wine publication, and 90 is a great score.  Congratulations!

Baked Apples with Fig Jam and Walnuts
Serves 4

4 large apples that aren’t too tart but will hold their shape in cooking (Gala and Jonahgold work well)
Lemon juice
2 tablespoons butter, melted, plus a little more for the pan
8 walnut halves
Half a cup of fig jam, maybe a little more
Pinch of salt
About a cup of dry white wine

Using a small paring knife, make a cone-shaped cut in the top of each apple, removing the top of the core in one piece (you can save the tops for garnish if you like).  Do the same with the bottom, and then use the knife to remove any of the core that remains.  You should end up with a tube cut out of each apple from top to bottom.  Cut a small slice off the bottom so it will stand up properly (feel free to eat these), then with your finger or a brush, brush the inside of the tube of each apple with the lemon juice (and the top cones too if you’re keeping them).  Set them aside.  Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Put the walnuts on a microwave-safe plate and microwave on high power for about a minute and a half.  Check the walnuts, they should smell fragrant but not burned.  Cook for another 30 seconds, and then again if you need to.  Let them cool a little, and chop them finely.  Combine the walnuts, melted butter, fig jam, and a pinch of salt in a small bowl.  Brush the bottom of a small baking dish with the melted butter, and put the apples in.  Fill each apple with a small spoon.  You can add a little more jam to each apple if they look underfilled, but don’t worry if you have to mound the filling up on top a bit.  Pour the wine in the dish – it should come up about a quarter inch.  Bake the apples for at least an hour, until you can stick the point of a sharp knife in the side all the way to the center without resistance.

Remove the apples to a plate and look at the liquid left in the bottom of the baking pan.  If it’s syrupy, go ahead and pour it over the apples.  If it’s liquidy, pour it into a small saucepan and boil it to reduce it to more of a syrup.  Then pour it over the apples, and put the top back on each one if you’d like, preferably at a jaunty angle.

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