As we move into 1986, it seems a good time to offer enthusiasts a half-dozen axioms that have become more and more self-evident as this wine critic has tasted and evaluated more and more wine. It is also a good time to offer a list of New Year's resolutions to wine consumers.
First, the axioms:
1. The price of wine is frequently not proportional to its quality. One caveat -- you generally get what you pay for below $6, but in the gigantic $6-$16 category one can find wines every bit as good as the glamorous, snobbish wines that sell for $30 to $50 a bottle. What you get in the latter category is a prestigious and/or rare label.
2. California wines, technically flawless, do not age well at all. Yes, there are a handful of exceptions when it comes to California cabernet sauvignons, but the lesson one learns over the years is that the lush, buttery chardonnays are best drunk up within 3-to-4 years of the vintage, and 9 out of 10 California cabernets should be consumed 6-to-8 years after the vintage.
3. It has long been an established rule of wine buying that French red burgundy is the wine world's greatest vinous rip-off. Yet, a handful of red burgundies offer the prospect of being the greatest and most majestic wines one could hope to drink. Prices are outrageously high, and quality so irregular that one has about as much chance of buying the proverbial pig in a poke as getting a velvety, profound, unadulterated red burgundy. Tasting hundreds of red burgundies each year has only fortified this conclusion. About 10-to-15 percent of what can be found in the marketplace can be called good and then those wines are vastly overpriced vis-a-vis what else is available from other wine regions.
4. Tasting thousands of wine a year has also left another irrefutable and indelible impression. Rho ne wines (particularly the robust reds) and Alsace wines (the whites of course) are the world's most underrated and in many cases undervalued great wines. However, their fan club is growing at a healthy clip, so values are not likely to last indefinitely.
5. For pure quality per dollar spent, there are no better values than the red wines from Spain's Rioja and Penade's regions. For less than $6, the top wines from these two areas compete most favorably with $10-$12 bottles of bordeaux and $10-$15 bottles of California cabernet. However, the best Spanish reds from Rioja and Penade's have the virtue of being mature and ready to drink when released.
6. Contrary to what you may think, critics and wine enthusiasts should look for the same things in a wine -- does it smell and taste good? Is it fruity and does it have some depth? Is it balanced by sufficient acidity? If it is bought for future drinking, does it have a backbone of tannin? Wine writers intentionally like to create a mystique about the mechanics of wine tasting. If a wine does not taste good young, it is absurd to think it will taste any better when it is old.
And now, the list of suggested resolutions for you in '86:
1. I will try to drink at least 4 red co tes du rho ne wines, refusing to pay more than $6 for any of them. (The 1981 Guigal Co tes du Rho ne is as good an example as one will ever find and should provide a valuable benchmark standard for your endeavors in this area.)
2. I will try at least two South American wines. (The 1979 Cousino Macul Antiguas Reserva for $6 should make you deliriously happy.)
3. I will drink a muscat-based wine with dessert at least once in 1986. (The Paul Jaboulet 1983 Muscat de Beaumes de Venise for about $12 is an incredibly hedonistic wine that fits this bill perfectly.)
4. I will refuse to pay the price for French red and white burgundy, particularly the outrageously overpriced pouilly-fuisse's, and concentrate on trying some of Oregon's increasingly good pinot noirs. (My substitutes, in additon to those from Oregon, for exorbitantly priced white burgundy will be Alsace pinot blancs, the chardonnays from France's Ma con-Villages region, and of course, those chardonnays from California. The 1983 pinot blancs from Sparr, Schlumberger, Willm and Lorentz, all for under $6, will do just perfectly.)
5. I will try a red and white wine from the remarkably reliable Torres firm in Penade's, Spain. (You will not pay more than $7 a bottle and will be very impressed.)
6. Instead of buying young vintage port that won't be drinkable for 10 or 15 years, I will spend $12-$15 and try a bottle of 15-year-old, velvety, mature, tawny port from Dow or Taylor. (You won't be disappointed.)
7. The next time I have fish either at home or in a restaurant, I will try a bottle of locally produced seyval blanc. (This local white wine is a perfect match for most of the area's seafood and it sells for a very reasonable $5-$6 a bottle.)
8. In the hot, humid days of next summer, I will drink a rose' wine because it is the most refreshing and sensible wine to have. (The 1984 Domaine Tempier or Domaine Ott Bandol Rose's, at about $9 each, are the finest in the world, but the 1985 Beringer White Zinfandel, which is in reality a rose', for $6 is almost as good.)
9. I will be adventurous in 1986 and try 10 types of wine I have never in my life tried before. (Some starter suggestions include an exuberant red dolcetto from Italy; a dry, crisp, refreshing vernaccia from Italy; a robust red shiraz from Australia; a stylish bordeaux-type red wine from Cahors or Bergerac; an underrated white burgundy from Rully; an underrated red burgundy from Santenay; a lush, silky dao from Portugal; a spicy, complex franken wine from Germany; a surprisingly fresh, aromatic white cha teauneuf du pape; and a pinot gris [also called tokay] from Alsace.)