Wine, Oh!

Sometimes I’ll have someone say to me, ‘Krapp, you live in France: tell me everything you know about wine.’ Very well. But first, to paraphrase Rémy the rat in Ratatouille: you could fill books with the things I don’t know, and they have; that’s why you should read books. That is to say, I don’t know shit about wine. Even when I masqueraded as a connoisseur behind the counter (hint!) at a swinging organic wine bar in New York, I got by reciting to curious customers the exact same flavors listed in the menu, just in a different order. (My favorite: ‘Do you taste the barn loft aromas?’ i.e., owl droppings?) Even when I was called out, ‘You said this was bone dry and it’s not,’ I would swizzle a little in a glass, smell it, and say, ‘You’re right…*sniff*… this is not as dry as usual. Would you like to try a different glass.’ Aside from the occasional royal asshole, most people would decline and drink the rest of their glass in peace. Don’t worry, lady: it will still get you drunk.

That wine discourse is largely malarkey (as well as the assumption that price is an infallible indication of quality) is readily admitted, even among professionals. Certain wines are better paired with a certain meals or occasions (heavy vs. light); otherwise (it’s been shown), you’re mood and preconception of the quality of the wine are all that matter. Still, there are some bottles of wine you never want to drink. My freshman year of college, my friend Theo and I chugged (in three minutes, I counted) a bottle of Walnut Crest Merlot ($7) in a campus cafeteria bathroom. Despite my fondness for that memory, I never want to have to drink Walnut Crest again, or Charles Shaw ($3) for that matter. My friend Dennis has a penchant for Andre Brut sparkling wine ($6). (Which we usually follow with, ‘From concentrate.’) The French equivalent to these American abominations is something called Vieux Papes ($5), which, if you bring it to a party, will only be opened after every other species of liquor on the premises has been consumed, and even then only the desperate partake.

Loving booze, being poor and opposed to drinking revolting wine only when practical, I’ve gathered a few tips from those who know better how to distinguish the (relative) wheat from the chaff when browsing budget bottles. Some of these terms are given in their French version, although I assume that every country has a near equivalent and I’ve tried to provide them where possible.

1. Indented bottom. An Arab wine clerk taught me this one. No one knows for sure why wine bottles have these indentions, or punts. It might be for balance or strength, to aid the server, to isolate the sediment or simply a vestige of glass-blowing techniques immemorial. Some of my French friends consider this tip nonsense. Yet, I have never had a good bottle of wine without a punt. In fact, most flat-bottomed bottles won’t even dare to identify themselves as wine; ‘wine product’ is a common alternative. Avoid these at all cost(s).

2. Appellation d’origine contrôlée, A.O.C. This is a designation the French government grants to ensure certain quality criteria are met, somewhat like the USDA sticker you’ll see on organic foods, but the A.O.C. is specific to wine- and cheese-producing regions. There are hundreds in France. (Spain, Germany, South Africa, Switzerland and Portugal all have their own classifications.) The name of the region replaces d’origine, so you’ll get Appelation Languedoc-Rousillon contrôlée, Appelation Haut-Médoc contrôlée (yum!). Right now I’m drinking an Appelation Côtes du Castillon contrôlée, a lesser Bordeaux. This is the tip I’m least confident about, because I assume that some rogue vineyard has produced an excellent wine that doesn’t meet the specifications. Still, when shopping for French wines, the better bottles will display their region under the name of the château where they were produced. Which brings us to. . .

3. Mis en bouteille. This translates literally as, ‘Put in bottle,’ and it tells you who bottled the wine and where they did it. The best bottles are bottled at the château where the wine was produced, so mis en bouteille au château is what you’re looking for. Acceptable wines can be bottled by the owner of the vineyard (par propriétaire), meaning a wine baron might send his various yields to be bottled at the same bottling plant. Inferior wines are bottled by a bottling company and the worst bottles are afraid to tell you just how the wine made it into the bottle. Some lurking wine snob will probably come out of the woodwork to correct me, but if you know nothing about a wine, it’s a safe bet to buy it if it was mis en bouteille au château.

4. Récoltant. I just learned this a few days ago from pote, gourmand and bon vivant Jonas, but it just might be the holy grail of cheap wine consumption. ‘Récolter‘ is French for ‘to harvest,’ and if you see the word récoltant on the top of the cork of your bottle, that means (as far as I can tell) your bottle was been made with at least 95% of grapes from the grower’s own vineyard. I couldn’t tell you why a mixture of foreign grapes produces an inferior wine (especially when so many great wines are miscegenations of different kinds of grapes) but perhaps a ‘continuity of flavor’ emerges that a composite wine lacks. Who knows?

Well, I wouldn’t go into business or anything, but this should be enough information to get your fix. (Honestly, I usually just tell the clerk that I’m a student and ask for the best wine under whatever is left of my daily budget and whether or not I’m going to be drinking it with a meal.) A few other notes: just because a wine has a screw top or a non-cork stopper, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the wine is bad. Still, most good wines will have a traditional cork. Also, if you want to cook with wine, don’t a waste a good one. I saw an interview with Francis Bacon where he claimed to have drunkenly poured a bottle of Petrus (starting at $800) into a stew he was making. Yes, it might have been impulsive, but it was, ‘the best bloody stew [he’d] ever had.’ Cheers.

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~ by ohkrapp on May 14, 2008.

4 Responses to “Wine, Oh!”

  1. Darling darling darling,
    my poor English impedes me to understand what you mean by “recoltant: the holy grail of cheap wine consumption.” recoltant is always better than the little “N” you can see on the top of the cork. “N” meaning “négociant” (the one who sells the bottle just have several vineyards to mix the grapes). If you see a “N” just avoid this bottle… According to my father (who has really good taste for the wine – he has SO MUCH experience on this subject ; ) ) Recoltant is a “gage de qualité”.
    But maybe I din’t get the meaning of your sentence and and the holy grail of cheap wine consumption is in fact: Jonas…
    J.

  2. Dope write up…probably my favorite of Krapp’s articles to date. I’m digging the new look too. Me needs to move over to WordPress (this was MY idea!) when the time is right (i.e. when I am in a place for more than 48 hours with a computer at hand).

    America is weird, Krapp. Come hang out.

  3. woahwoahwoah…have you always been on WordPress? You have archives…a brother is confused. Help a brother out….

  4. Julie: no no, that was a little unclear. jonas is the holy grail of SOMETHING, but here i meant that ‘recoltant’ might be THE best way to identify superior wines… thanks for the info on “N.” i’ll add it to the post.

    Denver: you need to get on that IMPORT tip. wordpress lets you move the entire contents of your old blog to their site, archives, tags, comments and everything. it will not keep your links, however, which is why i deleted a lot of obvious HOT LINKZ, like, ‘NEWS, eh? WELL, here’s the NEW YORK TIMES HOME PAGE’ … also, you have less template choices and i had to make my own graphic (if you want a graphic), which took like an hour (and it’s still off-center) but whatever.

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