Which wine is best? It depends on the situation

Tasting a wine for evaluation is something wine professionals are compelled to do. But it’s not the best way to assess a wine. It’s a compromise.

Critics for consumer wine magazines, judges in wine competitions, and sommeliers in restaurants must evaluate dozens of bottles in a sitting, and to actually drink that much wine poses obvious challenges. The solution is to take a sip of wine, taste and swirl, take its measure, then spit it out.

It’s not a perfect system, for many reasons. But tastings are the only way to get a sense of many wines in a sitting without keeling over from alcohol poisoning. It’s the method we use at our wine panel tastings.

Nonetheless, the tasting often fails to give a complete picture of a wine. It eliminates the context that allows a wine to show its best, truest self, often revealed with food and company, and in the spirit of a gathering.

Taking that away places wine in an often unnatural role, as the center of attention. Professionals generally try to make up for that by imagining how a wine would fare in more appropriate circumstances. But that is not always easy, especially when tasting a series of possibly very disparate wines.

In such tastings, the more boisterous, assertive wines often dominate quieter bottles.

I was thinking about this as I tasted the wines we have been focusing on in Wine School over the last few weeks. Yes, I know. One of our precepts is that we drink wine, we don’t taste it. And I do drink it, every time.

But I habitually taste the wines, too, before serving them with a meal. The idea is to see how they change over time and as new elements are added.

As usual in Wine School, I recommended three bottles in a particular genre and invited readers to drink them and to share their thoughts in the comments.

The subject over the last month has been the red wines of Montsant, from the Catalonian region of northeastern Spain. It’s an often underrated wine, which tends to be overshadowed by those of Priorat, a neighboring region with wines that are generally bigger and more majestic.

Montsant and Priorat are like Gigondas and Châteauneuf-du-Pape in the southern Rhône valley of France, in that Gigondas is often thought to be a diminutive and cheaper version of the grander Châteauneuf. But though Gigondas and Châteauneuf have much in common, and are made of a similar set of grapes, the grapes are grown in different soils in different places, and so make different wines, each with its role at the table.

Similarly, Montsant and Priorat are Catalonian neighbors. Both are made historically with the garnacha and cariñena grapes, better known in English as grenache and carignan, though nowadays they are often supplemented with international varieties like cabernet sauvignon, merlot, syrah and tempranillo.

But as the soils and microclimates of Montsant vary from their neighbor, the wines of Montsant are better understood without the reflex comparison. They are very much their own wines and can be excellent.

The three bottles I recommended were Orto Vins 2013 Pedra Roja, Celler de Capçanes 2014 Peraj Petita and Venus La Universal’s 2014 Dido.

As I tasted the three wines, one of them, the Peraj Petita, seemed diminished compared with the other two. At first, it seemed a bit tight, with a slightly funky aroma. But with exposure to air, the funkiness disappeared, leaving a meaty, herbal aroma. On the palate, it was earthy with notes of red fruits and flowers, but it still seemed a bit subdued and reticent.

The Dido offered some of the same earthy, herbal, floral qualities, but it was more exuberant, with flavors that seemed exotic and juicy. The Pedra Roja, too, was more vibrant, with a stony earthiness, floral notes and ripe, enticing flavors of red fruits.

I liked them all. But had I stopped there, I would have judged the Peraj Petita to be the least of the three wines. With a simple meal, though, of salt-and-pepper sausages with sautéed onions and peppers and a big green salad, the wine came to life.

No longer was it reticent. It was now deliciously complementary. A bite of the sausage, peppers and onions followed by a sip of the wine synthesized into a whole greater than the sum of the parts.

By contrast, the other two wines did not integrate as well with the meal. They were each individually delicious — the Pedra Roja a bit more complete than the Dido — but the Peraj Petita was the better character actor.

Which wine was the best? It’s hard to answer that question in a simple way. The best with this meal? Or the best in some sort of abstract sense?

If these wines were part of a larger mass tasting, and if these were scored, say, on the popular 100-point scale used by so many wine publications, it would be easy to see that the Peraj Petita would not have been the highest rated. Yet with my meal, it gave me the most pleasure.

You can see the paradox. The best-rated wine of a group can turn out to be the worst choice.

This is one of the most fascinating things about wine: It cannot be defined by ratings. There is no such thing as a single “best.” With a bottle that has the potential to age for decades, for example, people often agonize over when to open it, not wanting to miss that moment when it is at its best.

Yet no point in a wine’s arc of evolution can be singled out as the best. It will have many great moments, which will show a particular side of the wine and will appeal to differing tastes, though admittedly some occasions will be better than others.

Similarly, there is no best wine with leg of lamb, pizza, oysters or Peking duck. Many wines will be great.

The point is that while it is important to learn about the characteristics of many wines, how they evolve and pair with various foods, it’s just as important to understand your own tastes, and how they, too, will change and evolve and differ in certain situations.

I find it reassuring that in a world increasingly drawn to simple solutions, so long as they are emphatically stated, wine remains intractable and beautiful in its complexity.

Most readers found these wines to be unpretentious and enjoyable. Boris of Seattle called them “playful and happy,” while Dan Barron of New York found them “easygoing and accessible,” and Joseph in France said they were “just plain fun to drink.”

Like me, George Erdle of Charlotte, North Carolina, noted how a wine behaved differently on its own and with food, though he had an opposite experience. He found the Peraj Petita delicious on its own but lacking when paired with a dish of cannellini beans and ham. And he loved the Pedra Roja with duck confit.

One reader, Miquel Hudin in Priorat, took me to task for choosing entry-level wines, which he believes were simple and did little to indicate the great strides in the region over the last decade. I took his criticism seriously, as Hudin, formerly a sommelier in California, wrote the book “Vinologue Montsant: A Regional Guide to Enotourism in Catalonia.”

He was correct: I could have sought out more profound examples from Montsant. But those bottles would have been even harder to find than the three I selected, which were not easy, and they would have been much more expensive.

Price is not the final consideration for Wine School, though it is a factor. More important is that these bottles inspire curiosity. If you liked these wines, perhaps you will seek out even better examples from Montsant.

That is the ultimate goal of Wine School. Dry facts about a wine or a region are widely available, but the spirit of exploration is too often in short supply. If any of the wines we’ve tasted encourage you to dig deeper on your own, you won’t need me to give you extra credit. The satisfaction will be right there in the bottles.

— Your Next Lesson: Juicy Piedmont Reds

In past months, we’ve sampled nebbiolos and barberas from the Piedmont region of northwestern Italy. Next, we’ll turn to the last of the three leading Piedmont red grapes, dolcetto.

If you ever visit the rolling hills around Alba in the Piedmont, you can learn a lot by looking at the vineyards. Nebbiolo is the most difficult of the grapes to ripen, and so it will have the warmest, sunniest places in the vineyard. Barbera doesn’t need quite as much heat or light, while dolcetto will ripen quite happily just about anywhere.

That’s true in the Alba region, where many leading Barolo producers also make excellent barberas and dolcettos. But in Dogliani, to the south of Alba, dolcetto takes pride of place. It produces only dolcetto, so dolcetto gets all the best places in the vineyard. For that reason, Dolcetto di Dogliani is often thought to be bigger and riper than Dolcetto d’Alba.

That’s the theory, anyway. In practice, even from Dogliani, dolcetto is a juicy, earthy, sometimes tannic wine that makes for superb early drinking.

In many ways, dolcetto is an excellent counterpoint to barbera. It has ample tannins but low acidity, while barbera has buzz saw acidity but is not tannic. They are both accessible early and can be enjoyed while waiting for the nebbiolo to mature. It’s the jigsaw puzzle of Piemontese wine life. Here are the three wines I recommend:

Bartolo Mascarello Dolcetto d’Alba 2015 (Rare Wine Company, Brisbane, California) $33

Roagna Dolcetto d’Alba 2014 (Polaner Selections, Mount Kisco, New York) $18

Luigi Einaudi Dolcetto di Dogliani 2014 (Empson USA, Alexandria, Virginia) $17;

Each of these producers makes excellent Barolo (or Barbaresco). That can often be a guide to finding good dolcetto, though not always, as some producers who specialize in Dolcetto di Dogliani, like Anna Maria Abbona, may not make a nebbiolo wine.

Other names to look for include Aldo Conterno, Massolino, Pira, Prunotto, Francesco Rinaldi, Brovia, Cappellano, Bruno Giacosa, De Forville, Chionetti, Schiavenza and many others. Look for recent vintages, and if you can compare dolcettos from Alba and Dogliani, that would be great.

Dolcetto will pair well with many foods, and its light tannins make it especially congenial with salumi, sausages, pastas with mushrooms or meat sauces and pizzas. You can also try it with burgers, ribs and roast chicken.

Reader Comments

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