Red wine, please
Hold the cream and sugar


I was pouring one white and three red Bordeaux at Central Bottle on  a Friday night a few years ago with the idea of playing a little catch-up on a neglected category. I’d noticed that the only attention the little Bordeaux corner got was from French speakers and a few people of – shall we say – mature years.  My boss Liz Vilardi pretty much summed up the problem in her teze for the event in the morning email newsletter: Bordeaux. Bor-d. Eaux. Bor-ing. Irritatingly expensive.

She went on to say that she thought the tide was turning, although my sense was and is that this is optimistic. The reaction of visitors to the tasting table that night, particularly the younger ones, bore this out:  namely, a sip followed by either no reaction or a frankly puzzled look. After a couple of hours of this, I decided I needed some simple way of explaining red Bordeaux, since it didn’t seem to be explaining itself. I tried the old trick of suggesting these were wines that would come into their own taken alongside the right food (no less true for being a cliché, by the way).

Then, while chatting with a 20-something Chinese couple who were clearly interested in the subject but not appreciative of what they were tasting I tried this gambit: “Bordeaux,” I said, “is a cup of black coffee.”

By way of explanation I noted that black coffee isn’t something we like straightaway.  If we get interested in coffee as youngsters it’s typically because it’s been made into something more in tune with immature tastes by being lightened with milk or cream and sugar – familiar flavors children know and instinctively like.  It’s only later, if ever, that we learn to appreciate coffee taken straight-up, with no fat or sweetness added to mitigate its strength and bitterness.

Black coffee is a frankly adult taste; it bypasses all the usual pleasure receptors and rings a bell deep in our most grown-up part.  I can’t say what part this is exactly, except that it may be the same one that takes pleasure in hard work or in solving a knotty problem.

I decided I needed some simple way of explaining red Bordeaux, since it didn’t seem to be explaining itself.

This resonated with the young couple, so I started using it whenever anyone was wondering why they should consider Bordeaux when so many other wines offer more gratifying fruit and less chafing tannins.  I explain that even the Brits – who had long been the primary market for the wines of BDX — were already defecting in favor of Australian and Chilean lollipop wines in the 1980’s.

Part of the fault for this can be laid at the door of younger drinkers with untrained palates, but the Bordelais need to shoulder some blame for not caring as much about the quality of the coffee they were brewing.  It may be that the growing interest in ‘mineral expression’ and in the low and no-sulfur production methods that result in drier, more savory wines will gradually put a new generation of young wine drinkers in a position to more readily appreciate classical Bordeaux style.

Let’s hope so.  A region with so glorious a past, one that has contributed so much via its classed growths to the notion of wine as an elite, civilizing beverage, shouldn’t be allowed to sink into obscurity — on any grounds.

Stephen Meuse can be reached at

How to speak wine bar now

I’ll admit to
I’ll admit to being a little in love with the analytic tool known as the the semantic square.   There’s seduction in the way it gives clarity to certain kinds of ideas one struggles to achieve by other means.  A neatly designed square is particularly good at illuminating how perceptions shift as you move from one position to another along notional axes.

The one below is a result of my interest in a phenomenon we’ve been watching for several years now: the fashion among younger wine enthusiasts and the retail shops and sommeliers who cater to them away from well-known wine producing regions and international varietals toward lesser known regions, hyper-local cultivars, and naturalist approaches to winemaking.

It’s been clear for some time that what once was a modest outpost of wine counter-culture has migrated toward the normative –  not at your local Capital Grille maybe, but in smaller, independent, mostly urban restos/wine bars with a claim to have their fingers on the pulse.  Today the epitome of cool is the wine bar where you don’t recognize a thing on the list and everything came into being with as little winemaker intervention as possible.

As in all fashion systems, the goal seems to be for insiders to distinguish themselves sharply from outsiders by creating barriers to comprehension. In other words, you can’t join the club without understanding the code.  What follows attempts to show how the code operates in this particular instance. It also suggests how reflecting on the means we use to conceptualize wine can offer insights into what we choose to drink and why.

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Memoirs of a wine lover
Casanovas aren't what they used be. Neither is their wine.

“After that we went from one casino to another, not intending to commit any debauchery, but for want of something better to do.”  

History of My Life (Volumes 1 3729_bIn the field of playing the field, Giacomo Casanova (1725-1798) was a giant who gave his name to generations of comparative midgets – guys who couldn’t pretend to attain the lofty standard he set for both quality and quantity.  For The Original, the highly intelligent, well-educated offspring of an Italian actor and actress, no effort, ingenuity, or gold was to be spared in pursuit of a date – or “asssignation” as it was then styled.

Casanovas aren’t what they used to be.  Such is the conclusion I’ve arrived at as I near the end of volume 2 (of 12!) of the work, one of the authentic literary monuments of the eighteenth century and a real trove of detail about the pursuits, politics, clothing, domestic arrangements, and, of course, gender relations of the Europeans who lived it. Food and wine figure prominently here either as accompaniments to seduction or the actual instruments thereof. Remind me to tell you the one about Emilie, Armelline, and the one hundred Venice oysters.

With the aid of an electronic version of the memoirs (courtesy of Project Gutenberg) I was able to note each instance of wine mentioned in its 2679 pages.

Many are likely to be familiar to the 21st century reader, namely: refosco, muscatel, muscat, Champagne (lots of this), red and white Burgundy including Chambertin (“Truly Chambertin and Roquefort are excellent things to restore an old love and to ripen a young one.”), Bordeaux, Malaga, Tokay, Rhine (or Rhenish), alicante, Cape (South Africa), La Mancha, Montepulciano, Montefiascone, Languedoc (as Beziers), Orvieto, Hermitage, Gatta, Neuchatel, aleatico (as “Oleatico”).

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About that first drink . . .
Which came first - beer or wine?

6000 year-old winemaking site recently discovered in Armenia.
Credit: Gregory Areshian

I’m often asked to weigh in on the question of which alcoholic beverage first passed our greedy lips – beer or wine.  Since it’s not a case of needing to have one before you can have the other, the first-drink problem isn’t as daunting as the chicken/egg conundrum – but it does seem to linger.

I don’t think there’s actually much of a contest here (I’ll tell you what I think decides the issue in a moment), but noodling the question has made me think about the number of ways in which viniculture and brewing differ and how these differences affect how we use and think about these beverages.

The main distinction, it seems to me isn’t so much in the raw materials as in their relative durability.  Grapes are supremely perishable. Once ripe, their sugars ferment spontaneously and they can’t be kept for long without deteriorating.

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Ali-Frazier it ain’t
But the Bordeaux-Burgundy rivalry is one for the ages

Sketch by Lorraine Emerson


Question to noted wine expert: “Ever mistaken Burgundy for Bordeaux?”

Expert’s answer: “Not since lunch.”

Along with Champagne, Bordeaux and Burgundy may be the most well-known words in the wine world. Even people with no wine experience at all know these names and with good reason.  Each began its wine-obsessed life shortly after the Roman conquest of what is today France; each is mainly famous for its red wine; each is a prime object of interest to connoisseurs and collectors.

It’s nice to know your Burgundy from your Bordeaux, but it is even better to understand that these two famous regions take quite different approaches to the question of how good wine should be made. They serve as models for two different approaches to winemaking wherever in the world it’s undertaken.

From the beginning, Bordeaux, sited along the French Atlantic coast within easy seagoing reach of lucrative English markets, took an aggressively commercial approach to the making and marketing of wine. Anglo merchants set up on the Bordeaux wharves where they could collect the wine they bought from smallholders in the high country upriver, quickly blend it into the generic light-bodied red wine the British knew as claret (better not to inquire too closely into their technique), barrel it up, and ship it in the nick of time for Christmas.

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