This is the first of two parts about cava, the Spanish sparkling wine. The second part, short reviews of several cavas, posted Feb. 4.
Two things confuse wine drinkers about cava, the Spanish sparkling wine. First, they assume that because it has bubbles that it’s like French champagne or California bubbly. Which it’s not. Second, because it’s so cheap — almost all of the world’s cava costs less than $15 — they figure that it’s one of those cheap wines that they shouldn’t be seen drinking in public.
Neither could be further from the truth. The Wine Curmudgeon is a long-time cava supporter; after all, it’s cheap and offers value, and that’s my reason for being. Yet even I discovered there is more to cava than meets the price tag during my trip to Spain last week. It is, as the inestimable Janet Kafka noted, “a wine that needs someone behind the label to explain it.”
The words "food friendly" crop up on the blog all the time (as well as in many other examples of wine writing. What's most interesting about the term is that it's not really official winespeak — doesn't show up on a lot of wine tasting terminology lists, for example. But it's still an important way to describe wine.
That's because it's not a winespeak term. You won't see it, for example, on many reviews that include scores, which prefer to stick to their tried and true adjectives like cigar box and leathery. For them, food friendly isn't an accurate description of what the wine tastes like. It's an assessment of the quality of the wine, and they have scores for that.
Which is just fine with me. Food friendly wines complement what you're eating, and that is an important assessment to make. If the wine is going to overpower the food — think of an inky, 16 1/2 percent alcohol shiraz — you need to know it before you serve it with a piece of beef that cost an entire week's salary. In this, a food friendly wine is not the star of the meal, but the part that helps to bring out the flavor of the food.
Know, too, that a food friendly wine is versatile, and will pair with a variety of dishes. Think of pinot noir, which goes with salmon, lamb and chicken. The same holds true for red wines from France's Cote du Rhone, which is almost as versatile as pinot noir, or many sauvignon blancs.
So, yes, food friendly wines tend to have softer tannins and more fruit — but that doesn't mean that food friendly wines are always lighter. It's more about balance. Cabernet sauvignon, which is usually tannic and acidic, can be food friendly if those characteristics are in balance with the fruit. Chardonnay can be incredibly food friendly, but not if it's over-oaked or too high in alcohol. High alcohol, in fact, makes a wine food unfriendly, because a high alcohol wine needs food to soften its characteristics.
What, you say, you already know how to do that? Don’t be so sure. And, for good measure, the Wine Curmudgeon throws in advice on holding the glass, smelling the wine, and even spitting it — just like the pros do. And check out those rockin’ hand gestures (plus, of course, my hat).
The most common question people ask the Wine Curmudgeon is, not surprisingly, “What’s your favorite wine?” My answer, also not surprisingly, usually disappoints them. I am, after all, the Wine Curmudgeon.
That’s because I don’t have a favorite. One of the tenets of the Wine Curmudgeon’s faith is that wine should not be about playing favorites, but about looking for new wine to enjoy. What’s the point of drinking the same wine over and over when there is so much still left to try?
This doesn’t mean that there aren’t certain wines that I like. White Burgundy is my guilty (and expensive) pleasure. Sparkling wine always makes me smile. Well-made regional wine, preferably with obscure grapes, is a huge treat. And, of course, any of my $10 wines — whether I’ve had it before or I’m tasting it for the first time — is a reason to open a bottle.
Which raises an important question that I’ve never really addressed in the blog’s three-year history: How do I decide which wines I like? What are my criteria? What makes a well-made wine? This is especially relevant given Monday’s release of the 2011 $10 Hall of Fame. It is, as always, an eclectic mix — grocery store wines, wines made with odd grapes, lots of rose, wines from small producers, and even chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon. What qualities do I find that sets them apart?
The first thing to understand is that wine is subjective. Everyone’s palate is different. What I taste in a wine may not be what you taste. The second thing to understand is that there are no bad wines. If you like a wine, it’s good, and it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks.
That’s why I don’t use the words “good” and “bad” to describe wine. They’re empty adjectives and much too subjective — my interpretation of what wine should taste look, as if I was the wine tasting god and everyone had to obey my decisions. I’m also not a fan of descriptions like smooth; I’m not quite sure what that means. Water tastes “smooth,” but it’s not very wine-like. Smooth, I think, is an adjective people who drink a lot of poorly-made wine use when they find a wine that isn’t too tannic or too acidic. Too often, it’s a backhanded compliment.
Instead, I look for several other criteria:
• Is the wine flawed? It is corked or oxidized or dirty or out of balance, or any of the countless faults that can creep in?
• Is it varietally correct? If it’s chardonnay, does it taste like chardonnay? This is the most difficult criteria, oddly enough, since wine styles are ever changing. What was considered pinot noir 10 years ago is not necessarily considered pinot noir today, and I have to take that into account.
• Did the winemaker accomplish what he or she wanted to do? Does the wine taste like the winemaker wanted it to taste? This is not always as easy as it seems.
• Can I appreciate the wine even if I don’t like the style? I’ve noted many times how I feel about merlot, yet a merlot made the Hall of Fame in 2009 and 2010. I was able to put my prejudices aside and taste the wine for what it was, not what I thought it should be. (Note to wine snobs: Do this the next time you drink riesling.) This is the most difficult thing to do in wine, and it doesn’t matter if you’ve been drinking wine as long as I have or if you’re just starting.
• Is the wine honest? Yes, this is probably subjective, but I think it’s crucial to determining quality. Think about how many $10 red wines, regardless of producer, taste more or less the same, full of fruit and without much acid or tannin, and the cabernet tastes like merlot and the merlot tastes like shiraz. In this, they’re made to appeal to a specific demographic, and the idea was not to make quality wine, but to make adequate wine. And who needs adequate wine? Adjectives like interesting or intriguing are hallmarks of honest wine, because honest wine offers some characteristic that adequate wine doesn’t.
Because, in the end, it’s about finding wine that I like — and, hopefully, that you will too.
Second, enjoy sparkling wine more than once a year. Please? The Wine Curmudgeon has never understood why Americans drink such nice wine once a year. It's food friendly, which should not be surprising since most of it is made with chardonnay and pinot noir, perhaps the two most food-friendly grapes. It's fun to drink, what with all those wonderful bubbles, and it tastes good. And how often do I say something tastes good? More, after the jump:
? Eric Asimov likes sparkling wine: The New York Times wine columnist, in his holiday rundown, notes that “Unless the object of your largesse is seriously misanthropic, Champagne is always ? I repeat, always ? welcome. …” His choices? Charles Heidsieck Brut R serve and Camille Sav s Carte Blanche. Asimov, as always, has impeccable taste (and the wines aren’t ridiculously expensive.)