What makes a good wine? Surely, you can't go wrong with a bottle of 90-point, old Amarone, right? There seems to be so many rules around wine that makes finding and serving a good bottle intimidating. Here are a few of the common misconceptions and a recommendations.
Sweet (German) wines are bad wines
Aside from the fact that you are biologically hardwired to like sweetness, you shouldn't hate on sweet wine, specifically, German wine. Most wines have a little bit of sugar left over from fermenting those sweet grapes, some more than others, of course. The important thing is the balance of the wine. A sweet wine with plenty of acidity will have balance (like an apple), while a sweet wine with no acid will taste syrupy and flabby (like Kool-Aid).
Avoid flabby wine by trying good quality Riesling like those from Canada or Germany (spend more than about $15-20, cheapskate!), and see if they change your mind. Or, try Riesling or Gewürztraminer from Alsace. They are generally bone dry, but still have all the acids. So good.
Old wine is better than young wine
Saying old wine is always better is like saying every grandparent spoils grandchildren. Exceptions can and do exist. Wine changes as it ages — young wines tend to have more fruit character covering up spice, earthy flavours and often some rustic characters. As wine ages, the fruit diminishes, allowing more of the subtlety to come through, not always for the better. Most wine will develop in the bottle for a short time, with only certain regions, grapes, or price ranges improving enough to make cellaring worthwhile. Just because a wine is old, or even expensive, doesn’t guarantee you will like the wine more.
Deep punts make better wine
Yeah, that’s right. Rumours persist that the deeper the punt (the hollow at the bottle of the wine bottle), the higher quality of the wine. There are a few unfounded rationales circulating — the deeper punt is for the sommelier at a swanky restaurant to grip while pouring your wine — but in short, the depth of the punt has nothing to do with the quality of the wine. Though, to be fair, a deep punt can make the actual bottle more expense than an “off the shelf” bottle, and does make the bottle look nicer and larger on the shelf, but there are plenty of crap wines put in fancy bottles to command a higher price.
White wine should always be served cold
The temperature at which white wine is served is a bit like that of beer. Crappy American beer like Coors or Budweiser should be served ice cold to mask the ”flavour”, but more flavourful (actual, desirable flavours) beers should be served warmer to let the character show.
Generally, for wines, sweeter wines and lighter whites should be served cooler (as low as 6-8 C), while fuller-flavoured whites like Chardonnay can be served a little warmer (8-10 C). A good way to go is to chill your whites in the fridge, but allow some to warm up a little on the counter, or rest on some ice before serving.
Terroir is only something European wine has
Oh, terroir — that unique sense of place that wine lovers expound upon.
Terroir is a combination of the physical, historical, and human factors that make a wine taste like it came from somewhere rather than nowhere. This is what makes a wine tastes like its French, or Italian, or like a Rioja, or even Aussie shiraz. The Europeans used to claim some sort of exclusivity on terroir, claiming that history (understanding what was planted on a site for generations and why) was on their side. Not true. Plenty of wines from around the world illustrate this sense of place, and plenty of wines from Europe could come from anywhere.
Wine scores are the best way to find good wines
As someone who used to score wine for different publications, I see the advantage in scores — they are a good way to find wines that stand out. But, there are many wines that don’t get scored, and a great many wines that get scored by organizations that aren’t very diligent or even reputable. For example, there are a lot of wine competitions in California that are, at best, medal mills that churn out golds and double golds for wines.
The best way to find good wine is to taste for yourself and keep some notes. A close second would be to make friends at your local wine shop and tell them what you like and even what you don’t like, and let them help you find your next favourite wine.
Three wines that cut through the bullshit
Tantalus 2012 Riesling
Okanagan Valley, British Columbia
One of my favourites from Canada. Tart acids, buckets of mineral character, and yes, just a bit of sweetness. Riesling doesn’t get better than this. $27
CedarCreek 2010 Proprietor’s Red
Okanagan Valley, British Columbia
A “cheap n’ cheerful" red blend from the Okanagan with big fruits, some nice balance from the tannins, and a pocketbook-friendly price that go hand in hand with virtually any beef or game meat dish. $17
Sibling Rivalry 2012 White
Niagara Peninsula, Ontario
A second label from Henry of Pelham, the Sibling Rivalry is a wickedly good white blend with a dollop of sweetness; but it’s crisp, tasty, and very versatile with food. Think seafood, poultry, or even on its own. $16