Most of the world colors wine red, particularly wine for everyday drinking. But in energy-extravagant America, with large refrigerators in every home and wine shop and cold-fermentation tanks standard equipment at most major wineries, jugs of white wine find their way to home tables as readily as red. Furthermore, cynics say, Americans are addicted to cold beverages and demand their wine chilled to the point where they really can't taste it.
With all the respect due the magnificient whites of Burgundy, California and other regions, the most memorable moments are spent with red wines. As Hugh Johnson points out in "Wine," reds are more complex than whites.
Reds are made from the whole grape-the skin as well as the juice, while the whites generally utilize only the juice. The natural sugar in the juice, which ferments into alcohol, and the color pigments and tannic acid from the skins all contribute to the characters of a red wine. If it lacks tannin, as Johnson points out, a red is "flat and dull to drink." But fine red wines, usually aged in wood, have an excess of tannin in their youth-making them taste raw and harsh. Only as they mature over several years do the wines' true qualities emerge. Whites evolve, but in a much more linear fashion.
But we are not concerned here with great wines. The series of tasting reports that begins today will explore the range of "ordinary" red table wines for sale locally in outsized bottles or "jugs." It will follow a format similar to that used in appraising white jug wines earlier this year. Today's tasting focused on imported wines from France, Italy and Argentina. (Spain exports jug wines as well, but none were found in the 1.5 liter size.) The next one will be exclusively domestic. The six top-rated wines in each will be brought together for a third comparison, a taste-off to determine the overall favorites.
Ten tasters, representing a spectrum of wine expertise, gathered for the first session. The wines were presented in identical carafes and a "doubleblind" system of marking was used so that no taster knew which was which until the resulsts had been tabulated and comments recorded. The scores in the accompanying chart represent an average of the individual scores. Ratings were made on a scale that awards 20 points to a "perfect" wine.
The comments represent a distillation of opinions, some of which may be somewhat contradictory. Such is the nature of wine tasting. Absolute truth is found only in books. The truths reported here are relative and valid within that context. In general, the scores were disparties in price, however, and (in some cases) in bottle size. Anyone trying to make a buying decision should factor in these two elements.
The raison d'etre of jug wines is, as Alexis Bespaloff put it, "to provide pleasant wine at a good price." Some of the wines we tried suceeded in being neither pleasant nor economical. Others managed to do both. All the wines were purchased from the shelves of local retail stores.
There were extreme variations in color and apparent age. Some had a look and feebleness of aroma and taste that is very unbecoming in wines that should be young and fresh to be appealing. Some smelled distinctly off form. By contrast, two or three displayed enough character to suggest that they might benefit from additinal aging.
Unlike the whites-where degree of sweetness plays a crucial role in determining a wine's palatability-tannic acid, degree of alcohol and apparent age were the key variables with the reds. The dominance of the French appeared, in part at least, to be due to the freshness and balance of their wines.
The wines were served at room temperature both because it is traditional to do so with red wine and because chilling tends to mask a wine's defects. It is entirely appropriate, however, to serve a red jug wine at a temperature of about 60 degrees.
There is a tendency to speak of jug wine as vin ordinaire . But in quality these imported wines are a good notch (and sometimes two or three notches) above the nameless carafe wines served in European restaurants. When they fail to satisfy, it is not a matter of cheating or adulteration of the wine. Insted it may reflect a lack of skill on the part of the winemaker, deficiencies in the grapes, neglect in handling and shipping, or greed.This last may lead a producer to ship more wine of lesser quality under a label that has made a successfull entry into the U.S. market. Another factor that must be considered is inflation. It costs more for grapes in Europe today. It costs more to produce wine. Those who try to hold firm on price may feel forced to compromise quality.
It should be noted as well that a wine of character isn't always welcome. Those purchasing jug wines to serve in restaurants or to guests at home often seek something neutral in hopes of offending no one. As one of the panel put it, "They don't want a wine that will-interrupt conversation."
This was not a goal of the panel in its selections. CAPTION: Picture, no caption; Chart, 17 Imported Jug Reds