Muhammad Ali had no problem being pretty, what about your red wine?

April 12, 2011 § Leave a comment

From Portland Press Herald, 13 April 2011

Rosé is delicious twelve months of the year, but the bulk of it is drunk from May to September. Although the past few years have seen a remarkable increase in wine drinkers’ willingness to appreciate pink wine, and the 2010 vintages are coming into stores and restaurants now, the critical mass won’t start buying for another month or so.

Consequently, let’s call this the season of pretty red wines. Pretty red wines are an easy segue into pink wine and the increased white-wine-drinking that summer brings. Pretty red wines unapologetically emphasize prettiness, which I’ll define as a tilt toward softness, smooth-edged integration of flavors, tannins in the background if anywhere, prominence of flowers and red fruit (cherries, cranberries, strawberries, certain kinds of plums; no dark plums, no blueberries) over earth and mammals.

Pretty reds are what many wine drinkers at least claim they don’t want, because as serious, substantial people they of course prefer “hearty reds” or “dry reds”. Anyone who lives in a cold climate, has adult responsibilities, eats (maybe also kills) meat and knows how to change their own oil must, of course, drink deep, dark red wine. The coffee is French roast, the flannel is thick, the boots are mud-caked, the driveway is shoveled, so the wine is dark red and bellows: The tannins are rip-snorting, the mouthfeel is Big-League-Chew, the blackberries and cocoa land their kidney punch.

To which a part of me says, Grow up, sunshine. Or at least, lighten up. It’s mid-April and aren’t we ready for something a little different? Anyway, I can’t tell you how many self-professed hearty/dry-red-wine drinkers I’ve seen taste a more supple red wine and absolutely swoon; it’s as if their souls, imprisoned by a Dostoyevsky-narrated-tale of what they’re supposed to prefer, can fly free in the honest air of joy, delicacy and grace. Some of these people even manage to crack smiles.

Here’s how you know a pretty wine: You taste the wine and all those muscles spending all that hard-earned energy “holding everything together” realize they could work half as hard and nothing bad will happen. These muscles are in your jaw, your face, your neck and shoulders; let them go.

Another way of knowing a pretty wine is when you taste it you say, “Wow, that’s just so…pretty!” And then you feel slightly ashamed, because “pretty” is one of those words our culture has come to frown on; who wants to sound like a parody of a second-grade art teacher? But it is pretty. It’s charming. Given the aggressive, overly fierce culture we find ourselves in, that smile — that connection with charm — is important. It’s not a secondary quality, it’s a kind of radical political act.

Pretty reds are, naturally, food wines, when the food is likewise unconcerned with grandstanding. The wines’ delicacy, harmony and grace come into finest focus when paired with simple, light, straightforward foods that springtime calls for: suppers made out of salads, or sandwiches; roast chicken or a simply grilled piece of fish; vegetables touched only by olive oil, salt and lemon; pasta with fresh tomatoes; soft, plainspoken cheeses.

Which grapes make pretty red wines? No iron-clad rules apply, but there are some reasonable guidelines. Pinot noir is an obvious place to start, though for the most part Pinot from France, Germany or Oregon is going to fit the profile better than California or Argentina. Gamay is often very pretty, and Sangiovese can be pretty if the winemaker knows how to tone down the sour-cherry aspect; ditto for Bonarda. Here are some recommendations, but please treat them only as starting-points for your own — smiley, charming — search:

Domaine Grand Côtes du Jura Trousseau 2009, France ($15, Devenish). This is the prettiest wine I’ve tasted in a long time, and the reason I wrote this column. Beautiful ripe fruit, soft as a baby from start to finish. (The grape is Trousseau, native to the Jura.)

Senda 66 Tempranillo 2008, Spain ($10, Mariner). Fuller-bodied than other pretty reds; let’s call it a gateway drug for those of you still skeptical. Succulent dried cherries, dried cranberries, dried roses, a little spice at the end. Gulpable, fun, playful.

Von Schleinitz Pinot Noir 2008, Germany ($22, SoPo). An amazing wine, which were it from Burgundy would cost twice as much. Mineral-rich, indeed as stony as a red wine can be and still be pretty. The cherries are the star here. Soon Von Schleinitz’s 2010 rosé will be available, and there simply are no words for how beautiful that wine is; for now, please splurge and drink this wine.

Château Bianca Pinot Noir 2009, Oregon ($14, Wicked). Perfectly supple mouthfeel, and wild strawberries dance on the tongue. What we talk about when we talk about Oregon.

Culpeo Pinot Noir 2010, Chile ($9, SoPo). Such a refreshing surprise because I don’t ordinarily associate Chilean wines with delicacy. Not complicated or even resonant, the Culpeo still expresses the softness and balance that much louder (and more expensive) wines fail to find.

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