By Richard Jones, PQ Monthly
If your taste in literature runs to tales of 1800 Barons, Counts, Dukes and Earls, you can envision bitterly cold winds scouring the moors and a huge, dark castle. Within, a roaring fireplace warms the bones of a chubby old geezer digesting his 13-course dinner. He sits alone, absorbing heat as he methodically knocks down an after dinner bottle of fortified wine, usually a 20-year-old Porto.
You will also envision that the old curmudgeon, most likely a peer of the throne, has both feet propped up on a padded foot stool. Walk? It hurts just to sit. This sort of Charles Dickens scene suggests at least three things: (a) that drinking high alcohol beverages warms the blood, and (b) drinking too much often leads to gout, a fate that you would not wish upon your least favorite Member of Congress. (c)? Ah, yes, (c)! Charles Dickens, I am quite certain, invented Mr. Burns. (“Excellent, my good fellow!”)
Ways Alcohol Hurts
Alcohol has different effects on different people. Indeed, some good folks go up in flames simply by hearing the word pronounced in excess of 40 decibels. For those who insist on consuming alcohol in industrial quantities…well, go visit the Salvation Army some evening. At this point, we must note that all wine contains alcohol. (Is non-alcoholic wine really wine?) However, not all wines contain the same degrees.
Most American (North, South and possibly Middle) wines contain 13.5 to 14.5 percent alcohol. Most French wines run in the 12.5 to 13.5 range—or so it seems to my non-scientific eyeball count. Many German wines run from 8.0 to 9.0 percent alcohol. A fair number of California red wines run from 14.5 to 15.5 percent alcohol. Fortified wines (wines kicked in the butt by distilled wine) run in the 19.5 to 20.5 alcohol levels.
One evening, many decades ago, I organized a port tasting (including one real Porto) with six bottles to evaluate. I have never considered replicating that evening. Yes, some Porto is stunning, but enjoy it in moderation—or a little less. What does all this mean to you and why should you give a good dog-gone?
Sugar and Acid
The basic game plan of wine is that grapes, in Mother Nature’s wisdom, contain both sugar and acidity. The riper the grape becomes the higher the sugar rises and the lower the percent of acid falls. So what is the optimum sugar to acid ratio? That depends largely on the winemaker. To some, any perceptible acid is intolerable. To others, any hint of residual sugar puts it into the Kool-Aid category. My personal opinion? When the balance of residual sugar and acid makes the main course taste better and the goose bumps begin to dance on your arms, then you’ve struck gold.
The riper the grape becomes in very hot regions, the lower the acid falls. Many wine mag folks swear by California red wines that run up to 16.0 percent alcohol. I think wine that reach might go well with pizza, but I can’t swear to it. After most of us pony up $60 for a 16.0 Cabernet, who can afford the pizza?
On the other extreme, many grapes in Germany don’t reach full ripening. To balance matters, most German winemakers stop the fermentation, leaving a good shot of residual sugar to hide the high acidity. Call it balance from a different direction. Served in summer, you could call a good Riesling a sneak preview of Heaven.
So for January and February, consider serving red wines with 14.0 to 14.5 alcohol. And, yes, sweet foods can ruin virtually any serious red wine. As for Porto, if you don’t want to contract gout (a swollen big toe with an extremely bad attitude) mount a statue on your table that says, “Moderation”.
A Few Producers with Winter Wines
With some thousand wineries in the Northwest (Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and British Columbia) here is a small sampling of red wines to consider for cold weather dining. Your local wine merchant can suggest dozens more.
Walla Walla Cabernets
Abeja (killer lodging to boot), Amavi (moderate prices), Dunham, Pepper Bridge, Reininger, Russell Creek, Three Rivers (moderate prices), Woodward Canyon
Willamette Valley Pinot Noirs
Archery Summit, Beaux Freres, Brick House, Dusty Goose, Patricia Green, Stoller
Southern Oregon reds
Abacela (a range of sturdy, red wines)
If you start buying wines in the $30 to $90 range and begin raising eyebrows at your bank, you might want to back off. Scout the bottom shelf and look for Washington wines priced at $10 or less. While not thrilling, they are pleasant. Attention! Many of these wines will improve with five or ten years. You want to try them now to see if you want to buy a case. If so, decant them 30 minutes or an hour before mealtime to soften them up a bit.
Just remember, most heavy-hitters in the Cabernet family need a few years to show their potentials! Bear in mind that a two year old Cabernet is not likely mature. Remember that his teachers thought Albert Einstein was a bit retarded. He got back at them by showing mechanics how to split atoms. The moral: don’t go around insulting young red wines.