Fine Wine Writing by Jonathon Alsop

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Le Bistro: or, In Praise of Cheap Wine
March 2000

What makes a wine a "bistro" wine has more to do with the circumstances surrounding the meal than the wine itself. Wines at the bistro level are traditionally not about the wine, but about the drinking.

Traditionally. This whole discussion should be prefaced with the word "traditionally..." because the real bistros, tabernas and bottegas of Europe would never sell lamb shanks for $27 (50,000 lire? you must be kidding!) nor the wine to go with it for another $27. The essence of bistro cooking is generosity of flavor and abundance of value. The wines must follow suit, and most of what you'll drink in European bistros is either red (called "The Red") or white ("The White") stored in some large modern amphora and sold very cheap by the liter. As charming as we Americans find this "cheap and easy" wine attitude overseas, at home we won't drink anything in a restaurant but a proper bottle, and that's never going to be cheap. Consequently, most of the bistro-style wines we drink are at home on a Tuesday night when no one can hear us say, "This is the best $4 bottle of wine EVER!"

Bistro wine is wine you're drinking every single day, so it's a challenge to make it great and keep it affordable. Pay $27, and anybody can get a good wine. Find a good bottle for $6, and that's true love. One of my favorite super-value wines is the 1998 CAVIT Pinot Grigio, about $12 for a magnum (double-bottle size) that's bright and fresh but with more body that you expect from an Italian white. Perfect to serve before dinner or with antipasto. 1999 Penfold's Koonunga Hill Semillon-Chardonnay is only about $7.50 and has always knocked me out with big oak flavors and a rich layer of ripe semillon fruit that's 100 percent Australia. Great match with seafood and citrus sauces, best not too cold. 1998 Mirassou Pinot Blanc from California brushes into the red zone of the bistro-meter at $10, but sometimes it's on sale. The impression I always get is of supremely ripe pears in the sun, and it's very good with roast chicken or pork. All three of these wines are widely distributed, and should be available almost everywhere.

Great wines stand like towers at a meal, above it all -- bistro wines have to get along with everybody. My experience with bistro cuisine is that it expresses a real take-it-or-leave-it style of cooking, very flavorful and rich, down to earth, but opportunistic in that you get what you get based on what's available, and that's it. Sure, the cantaloupe is a little over-ripe, everybody only gets two trout because there's not enough, and the meat grille is high in kidney, but slosh a load of juicy Beaujolais all over it, and you'll think you're eating like a king. In fact, you MUST do this if you want to think you're eating like a king, and the Europeans comply at almost every meal. Better safe than sorry.

Bistro wines must be rough and ready for anything that comes out of the oven, from a crispy herbed roast chicken to a dense potato gratin with delicious burnt cheese edges. When you're matching up wine, what exactly goes great with burnt cheese edges? But without the wine, it's really just burnt cheese, isn't it?

Beaujolais is probably the prototypical bistro red: very soft fruity juice, not too much tannin, moderate to low alcohol, and very compliant with almost all kinds of food. Beaujolais is so easy-going, you can serve it chilled like a white wine or room temperature like a red. Right now, in the bargain basement of Brookline Liquor Mart in Allston, there's so much great and cheap Beaujolais, it looks like the SS DuBoeuf ran aground. Some of the wines are older than younger, and that's not great, but they are $3.50, $4.50 and $5, and well worth that. Just be careful to avoid the old Nouveau that's down there.

1998 Sordo Giovanni Dolcetto is another good juicy red for about $7.50 at Best Cellars and others. 1996 Copertino Riserva is amazingly about $7 at Trader Joe's and others, especially considering the layers of wood and smoke the wine shows. 1998 Domaine de la Guicharde Cotes du Rhone is about $9 at Brookline Liquor Mart and others. It's on the lighter side of the spectrum, but just about anything in the 1998 vintage is going to be tasty.

My two favorite bistros around Boston are only ten minutes away from each other, which means you always have a choice. UVA on Comm. Ave. in Allston is a place where the wine really comes first in an authentic way. Taberna de Haro on Beacon St. in Brookline whips up real tapas with a great spread of Spanish wines by the bottle and glass, as well as sangria, a Spanish bistro staple that Americans blush to make. Les Zygomates on South St. near South Station is a classic French bistro with a vast selection of great wines.

Finally, the true wine lover feels so at home in the bistro and with bistro cooking because the wine is as necessary as the meat or cheese course, or any other part of the meal. Because of that philosophy, the whole bistro meal is almost always greater that the simple sum of its parts, which is about the best you could hope for on any given day in any kitchen anywhere in the world.

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