Back to School Wines
Remember those college wine and cheese parties of the late sixties and seventies, where almost no one cared about vintage or varietal? Where hearty Burgundy, Chablis, and cold duck were better known than Cabernet, Chardonnay, and Merlot, and names like Mateus, Ingelnook, and Almaden were more familiar than Mondavi, Beringer, and Caymus? Where screw caps were more popular than corks–except for straw- covered Chianti flasks, which were prized more for use as candleholders than for their contents.
Of course there was the food: cubes of Swiss, cheddar, and Gouda were mandatory, as were Triscuits and Ritz crackers. For fancier affairs, we may have splurged on port wine cheese in a crock or in nut-encrusted balls, and perhaps we even took out the Carrs and the Stone Wheats.
During these “unenlightened” years, our only sources for wine information were the glossy holiday liquor store catalogs that also served as bartenders guides and maybe an article in Esquire or Playboy, but even those were a stretch. Somehow we all sort of knew that one drank reds with meat and whites with fish. Possibly, when affecting more sophistication and daring to spend five or six dollars for a bottle of French wine, we followed the maxim “even years were better for reds” (or was it odd years?).
Well, thats how I remember my happy days and, having just turned fifty, I find myself waxing nostalgic for the “care-free” years of young sophistication–before 100 point scores from the Wine Spectator and amuse gueules from Martha Stewart. So recently, while reminiscing with some graduate school friends, I thought why not attempt to recreate one of those parties and bring our now well-trained palates and more sensitive noses to the wines of yore.
Finding the wines was easier than I thought it would be. I went to a local wine super store on the highway (was I subconsciously embarrassed to purchase these selections from my regular wine merchant?) and there they were. The Almaden stood proud in its uniquely shaped half gallon jug and the Gallo Hearty Burgundy, once available only in jugs, now came in 750ml bottles. Close by I found an Inglenook Chablis (which now also comes in a “lite” style). Mateus and Lancers shared the same shelf with other sparklers. The “Wide World of Wines” aisle housed the German trio of Liebfraumilch, Zeller Schwartze Katz, and Blue Nun (newly habited in a blue bottle) as well as the Spanish Sangre de Toro, still sporting its miniature plastic bull around its neck.
I must say that I approached this tasting with an open mind. After all, I usually did enjoy myself at these parties and went through my share of plastic wine glasses. As did my friends. So here are my tasting notes and at the end of this piece Ill attempt to offer some conclusions.
We began the tasting with N.V. Mateus Rose ($9.49/1.5L). Its unique pale coral color seemed almost familiar as did its light citrus nose. On entry, theres mild effervescence followed by light fruity flavors with nuances of peach. The consensus was “refreshing.” The wine, however, is thin bodied with very little acid, making it suitable for only the lightest food. Nonetheless, we all preferred it to the more pretentious blush wines and sparklers that are around. Take a bottle on your next picnic with some cold roast chicken followed by strawberries and brie.
N.V. Lancers ($8.99/1.5L) was the next sparkling wine. Garnet in color with a faint cherry nose, its effervescence vanishes before you pick up the glass. The wine is sweet without any distinguishable flavor (remember the gum that came with baseball cards?). Not good. One tasters comment summed it perfectly: “Yuck.”
The next flight comprised our three German selections. 1996 Liebfraumilch Qualitatswein ($5.99/750ml). Pale straw color and a muscat nose, the wine is sweet on the tongue followed by thin vegetal flavors with hints of asparagus. Too sweet for this crowd.
That a Liebfraumilch by any other name would be as sweet proved too true as we tasted the next wine:1996 Sichel Blue Nun Qualitatswein ($6.99). (The name “Blue Nun” is a marketing device of Peter Sichel; a major exporter of German wine, who thought foreigners would find it easier to pronounce.) Straw colored with a pleasant muscat bouquet, this wine was fuller bodied than the first Liebfraumilch, but still somewhat thin. Its refreshing flavor was also more palatable. One taster thought it would be perfect for splashing on a fruit salad.
1996 Zeller Schwarze Katz Riesling Mosel-Saar-Ruwer ($8.99/750ml) was the final wine in this group. There are nuances of orange blossoms on the nose. The body is thin and the taste, although less fruity than the two Liebfraumilchs, has a sweetness reminiscent of clear rock candy. A simple wine. For me, this wine was a personal disappointment, since I still have fond recollections of drinking it in a small German restaurant with veal shanks on New Yorks upper East Side (in a section known as Yorkville). Who knows; if I were in that same restaurant today with the same friends, I probably would enjoy it just as much.
Two Chablis were our next wines. Note that both are American Chablis, which are typically bulk white wines made from a variety of grapes; they should not be confused with the true Burgundian Chablis made totally from Chardonnay. The first was N.V. Paul Masson, Premium California Chablis ($5.99 1L). Perhaps the best thing about this wine is its “California Carafe” container that seems to show up in almost every diner that serves wine. The wine is pale straw with a “new sneakers” nose. On the palate, its thin, watery, with citrusy flavors that just seem to linger. The back label recommends serving this wine well chilled. I wonder why. Perhaps if its cold enough, you might not taste it.
Next came the N.V. Inglenook California Chablis ($5.99/1.5L). The wine is pale straw in color with a “mushy” nose that one taster characterized as “chemically induced eau de wine.” It is thin bodied and quite dry with nondescript flavors. As with the Paul Masson, chillingeven icehelps this wine.
Our final white for the evening was the N.V. Almaden Mountain Rhine California Table Wine ($9.99/4L). It has a distinct “spent firecracker” nose. The wine is watery thin and cloyingly sweet. Said one taster while emptying his glass in the sink: “Sweets to the sweet”
We concluded this tasting with two reds. The first was a 1995 Torres Sangre de Toro ($4.99/750ml). This wine from one of Spains major wine producers was a pleasure to drink. Deep ruby in color, the wine has a lovely bouquet of cherries and blackberries with hints of spice, mostly black pepper. Smooth on entry and a little thin, its a blend of dry and fruity with beefy flavors. A little tannic, the wine has a tobacco-like aftertaste that might not please every palate. However, I highly recommend this wine for spaghetti, pizza, or picnics. Given its price, its a steal.
We concluded with N.V. Ernest & Julio Gallo Vineyards California Hearty Burgundy ($6.49/750ml). This wine, which once only came in jugs, now appears in respectable and quite attractive modified hour-glass shaped bottles as well. This is a classic California jug wine that uses the name “burgundy” loosely to suggest a full bodied red that is a far cry from the classic 100% pinot noir French burgundy. Nonetheless, it delivers. The wine is ruby colored with cherries and strawberries on the nose. Full-bodied and jammy with layers of berries and bell peppers on the palate, it is dry and black peppery with just enough acidity to stand up to food. An adequate finish as well. We gulped this wine and enjoyed it thoroughly. Its perfect for pizza or any informal dinner. Looking for an every day wine? Try some.
After revisiting these ten wines from our past, we were happy to discover that at least some of them, like the Gallo, Torres, and Mateus, stood up to our better trained palates. Those that fell short still brought back fond memories of walking around with plastic cups, discussing books, or arguing politics or just getting happy.
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