Fine Wine Writing by Jonathon Alsop

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What I Drank On My Summer Vacation
by Jonathon Alsop
September 2000

Memories of Miss Ott, my second grade teacher, come back to me on the 35th anniversary of the first time I wrote some variation on this essay. September 1965: her scary cat's eye glasses peer over my shoulder from history and southern Ohio, demanding words on paper. "I know all of you learned how to write in first grade," she said, "so write down what you did on your summer vacation." Miss Ott made it sound so easy, never imagining the kid-irony of writing an essay about what you did while you weren't really doing anything.

Wines of summer are easygoing and carefree and apparently easy to say good-bye to. By October, people are looking for wines that go with roast goose and venison, and summer's gone for good. September isn't the end of summer, but you can see it from here: let's just enjoy it while it lasts.

Rhone On The River
Summer 2000 will go down in memory as the first season of the great red wines from the 1998 Rhone vintage, and you could easily expand that to take in all of southern France. In addition to drinking up a fair share of the vintage right now, I'm buying and keeping the better specimens for wintertime consumption. It's a way of capturing a bit of summer and saving it for later. Domaine Brusset Cotes du Rhone "Cairanne" is a bottle full of sunny, ripe fruit that's a steal at about $13. Guigal Cotes du Rhone delivers a solid and traditional smoky red that's beautiful with food and about the same money. Domaine Saint-Jean Coteaux du Languedoc is unpedigreed but delicious, rich and woody, also about $13. More excellent southern French 1998s should continue to come on to the market in Massachusetts through the winter.

The Next Big Thing
Wine is often as much about fashion as it is flavor, and I'm OK with that. Natural agricultural scarcity motivates wine lovers to find the next big thing in wine and start drinking it before everyone else, and I'm here to help.

Next on the horizon: New Zealand red wines, mainly pinot noir but some syrah and cab-merlot too. The beach head has been softened up by the popularity of highly-acidic, ultra-tropical Cloudy Bay-style sauvignon blanc for the last couple of years, and now they're sending over the good stuff. The quality and quantity of red wine I tasted during a visit to New Zealand eighteen months ago was amazing. Sure, there's sauvignon blanc galore, but everyone was talking about Gimblett Road, a main pinot noir thoroughfare in Hawkes Bay on the north island.

A few New Zealand reds are available around Boston, but only a few right now. Huia Pinot Noir is rich and fruit-filled, about $16, Babich "Mara Estate" Syrah has tons of ripeness and tannin, also $16, and Te Mata Cabernet-Merlot brings a trio of excellent reds to town, from $20 to near $50.

Almost As Good As Wine
People ask me all the time: do you ever drink anything besides wine? And I say, of course I do... water, coffee, a caffeine-free diet Coke Classic every now and then, did I mention water? In reality, I don't drink anything but wine and water and coffee because I've never tasted anything as interesting or as necessary. Some liquids come close: Chinotto by San Pellegrino is a bark-flavored sparkling cocktail with layers of flavor, and top-shelf Scotch expresses its geography in a way like wine, but damn few others.

This summer's new favorite is Tucher Hefe-Weizen, an unfiltered German wheat beer that seriously rivals wine in flavor and complexity. I drank this beer at Jacob Wirth in Boston's theatre district, and it was the liquid equivalent of eating half a loaf of bread with plenty of butter: rich and chewy, buttery and milky, cloudy with yeast and who knows what else. For home consumption, try the Paulaner Hefe-Weizen, about $7, in bottles. It's not wine, but it's close.

Oy Canada!
After a traveling to three very relaxed and engaging wine nations over the last couple of years -- Italy, Australia, and New Zealand -- nothing was to prepare me for the wine culture shock of this summer's international destination: Canada. Just as I was thinking the United States has the most restrictive wine laws on the planet, I found it actually can be worse, much worse, just 500 miles north of here. In typical Canadian fashion, there is no Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms that flamboyantly polices people who smoke, shoot and drink wine, but a big price tag gets the same stifling job done.

In Canada, the social policy that makes our $7 wines go up to $18 on the other side of the border is couched in the public health and safety debate, sacrosanct to the Canadian ethos and almost beyond revision. Wine culture in Canada might have been better off in the long run if wine hadn't been embraced by successive governments. Beer is expensive too, from the American perspective, but being locally produced and considered a dietary staple (Hockey Night in Canada comes immediately to mind), it's more reasonably priced, as are local Canadian wines. One of my favorite Canadian wines, Henry of Pelham Baco Noir, a deliciously big tannic red that's available around Boston for about $10 was nowhere to be found in Nova Scotia.

At any rate, an $18-plus price pretty much ends the debate: who in the True North can protest that $18 is too much to pay for a luxury like wine? More amazing and shameful is how something like this could happen in a nation where so many people think they're French.

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