Such a geek

October 22, 2010 § Leave a comment

Reprinted from Portland Press Herald, August 18, 2010

One of the great tensions in American culture is found in wine culture as well: mass appeal versus individual refinement. Our democratic impulses steer us toward wanting everyone to love what we love, in the way we love it; our drive for self-realization urges us to distinguish our skills and traits from others. In wine, it’s the tale of the crowd-pleaser and the geek.

People who think about wine tend to fall (or think of themselves as falling) into the latter group. As you drive deeper into your interest, you educate your palate and cultivate finer distinctions. This pushes winemakers to stay agile and interesting by making wines that appeal to these geeks. It’s not as if that process hurts the crowd-pleasers, either; indeed, there’s often a gradual “trickle-down” effect where yesterday’s geek-pal becomes tomorrow’s standard.

This area-in-between is the fascinating one. It’s where wines with odd labels, or unfamiliar grapes, or obscure origins somehow catch people’s eye and tongue, and the spectrum of “acceptable” broadens. We could call it the Nirvana, or Arcade Fire, phenomenon. It’s even cooler when it goes in the opposite direction: Something made to offend no one ends up displaying characteristics subtle, off-beat or profound enough to draw in the hipsters/snobs. (The Bruce Springsteen phenomenon?)

I’m sure none of the producers of the following wines set out to make a niche product, nor did they have realistic dreams of hitting the big time. What emerges from them, though, is that happy middle zone where we populist/individualist Americans can maybe agree, while maybe expanding our tolerance for difference.

Blanco Nieva Verdejo 2009, Rueda, Spain, $15 (Mariner). Verdejo is a nice-guy wallflower, a pleaser in search of its crowd. But what’s not to love? This drinks like a $30 New Zealand Sauvignon blanc, flush with turbinado-sugar-sprinkled pink grapefruit. Spine-tingling acidity serves as scaffold for a fleshy middle oozing ripe white peach. Both elegant and plain-ol’ thrilling, like that guy/gal whose presence lights up a room upon entry – but who also turns out to be charming, intelligent and life-affirming in conversation later on. Next time you have friends over for fish grilled or fried, open this and everyone’s eyes will open a bit wider.

Mercuzio Chardonnay 2006, Oltrepo Pavese, Italy, $15 (Crush). What pleases crowds better than Chardonnay, right? But this is impressive, unconventional – and yes, geeky – Chardonnay. From a region in north-central Italy known for its sparkling wine, this has distinct frizzante (small, joyous bubbles) enlivening rich Golden Delicious apples, hazelnuts, and honey. If that sounds like a delicious cider or mead, right on. At once noble and earthy, it’s too provocative for a group but is ideal for conversation with intimates.

Quattro Mani [toh-kai] 2008, Goriska Brda, Slovenia, $11 (Central). Hard to imagine something geekier. Biodynamically grown 100% Tocai grapes (not to be confused with indigenous-Hungarian Tocai wine), this is, honestly, not for everyone. It’s strange, but wonderfully so, and the adventurous should flock to it. Its most prominent element is of spearmint, then melon and hay. A beautifully soft, pillowy mouthfeel morphs into an amazingly intricate finish, brightening and lengthening as it goes. The food-pairing potential is vast, pointing toward anything that has or suggests mint: tabbouleh, lamb, a melon/mint/feta salad, or – most promisingly – shrimp.

What, no reds? Not this time around; the weather’s been too perfectly mid-August for me. Next week, I’ll start looking, though tentatively, toward fall.

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