BY JUSTIN DILLON
Learning about wine is a relationship. Like any relationship, it takes work. And like any relationship, sometimes you have to cheat.
Why cheat? Because no one knows everything about wine, and in certain situations you have to do your best with limited information. If you’re on a recruiting dinner or in a wine store — maybe trying to pick out a good bottle for a date or to bring to someone’s house — you’re usually faced with an intimidating array of choices and may have little idea about what to do. Hence, this column. You don’t have to be a wine geek to know the following three “cheats”; you just have to want to drink good wine.
Keep in mind, of course, that these “cheats” are not foolproof. Rather, they’re intended to help you make a slightly more informed choice than you might otherwise be able to do. In the process, they might make navigating your next wine list or wine store slightly less intimidating.
Wine cheat #1: A few good vintages. A wine’s “vintage” is the year it was made. (The 1997 vintage, for example, comprises all wines made in 1997.) Vintages vary according to a variety of factors, the most important of which is weather. A year of heavy rains, for example, can lead to wines that lack concentration and taste watered-down. In top years, even mediocre winemakers can make great wine. In bad years, by contrast, even the best winemakers can have trouble producing top-notch wines. One way to navigate a wine list, then, is to know some good years and pick wines from them.
Here are a few cheats: 1999 was a very good year almost everywhere in the world, while 1998, due to El Niño, was often mediocre. (A notable exception to 1998’s lackluster performance is in the Rhone Valley — where Cotes du Rhone and Chateauneuf du Pape come from.) For Californian and Italian wines — especially those from Italy’s Chianti region–1997 is also a good bet. I have rarely tasted a ’97 Chianti that wasn’t great, and good Chianti tends to be a fruit-filled crowd-pleaser.
Wine cheat #2: A few good importers. This cheat, while one of my favorites, is useful only when you can see the bottle — which means it’s useful in wine shops but not in most restaurants (unless they have a section you can browse). You can usually find the importer’s name on the back of the bottle — often in the form of “A [Importer’s Name] Selection” or “Imported by [Importer’s Name].” Importers tend to focus on particular regions, which I have listed parenthetically after the importer’s name.
My best bets for importers are: Leonardo Locascio (Italy), Mark de Grazia (Italy), Terry Thiese (Germany), Kermit Lynch (France) and Eric Solomon (Europe). If you look for the importer’s name on the back of American wines, people will probably make fun of you.
Wine cheat #3: A (single) good wine store. Finding a store that has good prices, a wide selection and people you can trust is probably the easiest way to drink wine you’ll like. For me, it’s Marty’s, which is on Harvard Street in the Allston/Brighton area. If you go there, ask for Brent Clayton, whose judgment is impeccable. He’s also a down-to-earth guy with the rare gift of being able to talk to people about wine without talking down to them.
Perhaps the most reliable red wine bargain in the world is Falesco’s Vitiano, whose 2000 vintage was just released. With massive fruit and astonishing complexity, it’s hard to find a better wine for the price. Robert M. Parker, perhaps the world’s best and most influential wine critic, gave it 91 points and called it “a fabulous achievement that must be tasted to be believed.” I paid $11.99 for it at Marty’s.
Almost as good — and for only $8.99 at Marty’s — is Argiolas’s Perdera 1999, which tasted of roasted fruits and might best be described as “gulpable.” It is the best red under-$10 wine I have ever had. I drank it while splitting pizza with a friend, and it was gone before we knew it …
… which meant we were forced to crack the Paringa Shiraz 2000, which cost $11.99 and also came from Marty’s. It tasted like candied fruit; drinking it was like drinking blackberry jam. It lacked the complexity of the previous two wines and was almost too jammy for my tastes, but it’s a safe, crowd-pleasing choice that most people will like.
Finally, a white that will make for great drinking while it’s still warm outside: Picpoul de Pinet 2000, from Hugues Beaulieu, which I bought at Marty’s for $6.99. A light, minerally quaffer that would go well with most foods — I drank it with pork and sautéed onions — it’s a hard bargain to beat. Be warned, though, that if you’re used to heavy California chardonnays, you might find it a bit too light at first.