Food » The Soul of Wine

Why light red wines should steal the spotlight



What is the very best wine to drink? There is an answer to that question: a light-bodied red wine.

White is wonderful, but there's something about red's warm, decisive, completing presence at the table that even the best white struggles to bring. Also, in a group of diners, red is usually the majority choice. And while seafood can usually handle red (it's sometimes better with it, in fact), red meat tends to clash with white.

Heavy reds—colossal Cabernets, showy Shirazes, Italion Stallions—have their place, but seldom at the dinner table. Also, big wines can command big money—not, however, because they're unique. On the contrary, they suffer from predictability: fruit-fisted, oak-clad, alcohol-laced. Anyone getting into wine must discover that the respected cognoscenti (or snobs) have a disdainful term for these wines: "spoof," comparable to purple prose, fake boobs and luxury cars. They're overwrought, overweening and overpriced, and they don't age well.

No, the best wine to drink with dinner—the most flexible, accommodating, interesting and affordable—is a light red: the solution to every problem, the right tool for every job, the guest who never wears out a welcome. Nor is it merely utilitarian, or a compromise. Light reds offer some of the most unusual, inimitable wines, and also the most direct and honest—translucency of hue demands transparency in winemaking.

It's in that spirit of transparency that I give you this month's column. The technical term wine thief refers to a pipette used to take a sample of wine from a cask, tank or other large container. But I use it here quite literally.

Many years ago, in an upscale supermarket owned by a giant regional chain, I loaded up a mixed case of wine, as is my wont. It's nice to have bottles at hand at home, and most stores offer a case discount.

I put the case on the lower chassis of my shopping cart. At checkout, it became clear that the cashier wasn't going to notice the case unless I pointed it out to her.

So I didn't.

My next theft, a month or so later, was premeditated. The first, probably a $120 haul, had been modest, because I had little money and no plan. This time, I chose 10 expensive wines and two cheap ones. Plan B was to pull the two cheap bottles from the middle of the case and declare six of each.

Unnoticed, thus unnecessary. I made off with about $700 worth of wine that day.

Shameful! But not for the thievery itself, which targeted a megacorp that probably loses or wastes $700 of product by mid-morning daily. Moral righteousness has no place in amoebic capitalism. Moreover, I derived life-altering enlightenment from the heist, a resolve and rectitude about wine that had broader implications for my thievery. Retailers, you are safe—from me, anyway.

No, my crime that day was my thoughtlessness. I had no idea what I was stealing, indiscriminately attracted to labels and prices rather than wine. I have no memory of most of them now, making them worthless. I recall a $75 Cote Rotie, which I drank soon afterward, i.e. far too young—in my ignorance was more shame. And there was Chateau Quinault L'Enclos 1998, which retailed for $140: spoof. Its purple prose and fake boobs wowed me. Later, I discovered it to be a project of the controversial wine consultant Michel Rolland, despised by the cognoscenti for his crass, homogenizing wine manipulation and marketing.

In fact, it was a much cheaper wine that changed everything for me.

Sancerre is a superstar in the large, diverse wine constellation of France's Loire Valley, which is studded with great wines and famous winemakers. A beacon at the Loire's eastern end, Sancerre stands out for its sauvignon blancs, which are among the world's best. I didn't know, though, that Sancerre also produces reds from pinot noir. The one I stole was about $25. I can't remember the name of the producer. I do remember the bottle's stylish, minimalist labeling, which is probably what attracted my eyes and thieving fingers.

We had a long, cold winter that year, and when the weather finally warmed in April I planted a little kitchen garden on a beautiful Saturday. A glass of wine was in order while turning soil and sowing seeds. I opened the Sancerre Rouge.

It was pinkish, almost as light as rosé. On the nose: soil, gravel, pepper, cherry pits. This was unlike every wine I had ever encountered. I was putting in tomatoes, and like the ethereal scent of tomato stalks, there was something fragrantly vegetal about the Sancerre Rouge. There was fruit, yes, but as support for a green, loamy, savory bouquet. It smelled like the garden I was planting.

When I drank it, the wine was as light and reviving as a springtime after a hard winter. Graceful and elegant it was, unhidden as a sunny day yet restrained, not so much balanced as suspended—to my disbelief—between earthiness and airiness, warm and cool, levity and gravitas. There was something bewitching in the wine's unexpected depth, which seemed almost sleight-of-hand—a kind of stolen beauty. Above all, it had the ineffable but undeniable element of every wine with soul: surprise.

And so that Sancerre Rouge changed my ways.

This article appeared in print with the headline "The wine thief."

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