Wine World: Food wine

Vineyards in Monterey, California

Do you remember the American infatuation with those opulent, gargantuan cars of the sixties and seventies? In those far-off days, giant land-yachts roamed the highways of America, richly bedecked in chrome and vinyl, sporting whitewall tyres and powered by enormous engines. In the early 1970s, on a visit to Massachusetts I rented a Mercury Cougar, which was fun to drive, though at first it felt like navigating an aircraft carrier. But my rented Mercury was relatively modest compared to some of the Brobdingnagian Beasts of the Turnpike. The ostentatious 1975 Cadillac Coupe de Ville was almost nineteen feet long while the 1975 Buick Electra 225 was approaching twenty. Many of these leviathans were far too large for their purpose and in some photographs, the cars often dwarfed their occupants who looked like midgets squatting inside.

You may have noticed a similar trend in wine over the last couple of decades. There’s been a significant rise in the popularity of “big” full-bodied wines. Like the American cars of yesteryear, I suspect this is merely a fashion, though a somewhat persistent one. If you ask me, the much-touted “wine points” are partly, if not entirely to blame. It’s general knowledge that the most influential wine critics tend to award higher points to “bigger” wines.  The result is that many wine-makers have been driven by market pressure to produce styles of wine which will earn high points. And of course, higher points usually mean more buyers. But don’t get me wrong: most wine enthusiasts (including this one) enjoy complex and interesting wines that demand thought, consideration and appreciation. But not every day. It would be like a relentless musical diet of Wagner.

Sometimes you know, we need a decent, honest and relatively simple wine – a vin ordinaire as the French might say – to accompany everyday food. As far as most Europeans are concerned this is the main purpose of wine anyway. We need the wine to enhance food, not compete with it and while richly flavoured feasts might be well supported by equally sumptuous wines from Bordeaux or Burgundy, simpler fare demands something more modest. I am always hunting around for relatively unassuming wines that would be suitable as an everyday food wine. In our world of “big” wines, they are difficult to find.

Gravelly Ford Pinot Noir 2020 (red), California, USA. Bt 799 + VAT @ Vines to Vino, Thepprasit Rd, Pattaya.

Here’s something that really fits the bill as a basic but attractive food wine; an entry-level product which is also quite young. The company website describes Gravelly Ford wines as, “pure, honest and unadorned and a genuine reflection of the vineyard.” This one evidently comes from vineyards in the Lodi region, which lies between the San Francisco Bay and the Sierra Nevada Mountains, known locally as the “Zinfandel Capital of the World”. Zinfandel you will recall, is the black-skinned grape associated with California but has its origins in Croatia and is genetically equivalent to the Italian Primitivo.

But this is Pinot Noir (PEE-noh NWAH), an ancient grape that hails from France and has become synonymous with Burgundy. It’s thought that the word pinot comes from the fact that the small, tightly-packed grape clusters resemble a pine cone. In Burgundy, Pinot Noir makes some of the world’s finest and most expensive red wines. They are expensive partly because demand far exceeds supply. Pinot Noir is grown in many other countries including Australia and New Zealand but it can be tricky to cultivate and the yields are comparatively low.

This medium-light garnet wine has a gentle, refined aroma and slightly reminded me of an inexpensive Burgundy that you find in the local bistros of the region. The aroma brings reminders of cranberry, raspberries and hints of redcurrants which my parents used to grow in the Old Country; berries that could withstand the frigid winters and the lukewarm summers of our island home. The mouthfeel has a lovely soft texture and it’s dry with just the right amount of fruit and acidity and a long satisfying dry finish. The wine is light to medium bodied with a gentle grip of soft tannin and also some welcome hints of spicy herbs. The label states that the wine is 13.5% ABV though you’ll a magnifying glass to find it. If you swirl the wine around, you’ll see those “legs” appearing on the inside of the glass. They often appear in higher-alcohol wines and although they look reassuring, they don’t mean very much.

This is an approachable easy drinker which would enhance many everyday dishes based around beef or vegetables. It’s light enough to drink with roasted chicken, especially with mushrooms. It would also enhance simple food like burgers or sausages. Oh, and here’s an interesting thing. Although France is the world’s largest producer of Pinot Noir (76,000 acres), the USA comes second with 73,000 acres. Third place is held by Germany with 29,000 acres, where the grape is usually known as the Spätburgunder. Surprisingly, Germany grows three times more Pinot Noir than New Zealand. Who would have guessed?