Red wines with character

There’s an old joke among people who don’t like red wine: The reason they don’t like it is because all red wine tastes the same.

There’s an old joke among people who don’t like red wine: The reason they don’t like it is because all red wine tastes the same.

These days, that’s become less joke and more truth. For any number of reasons, American red wine is becoming blander. There’s less varietal character in the wine and more of a one-size-fits-all style, where merlot tastes like cabernet sauvignon, and pinot noir tastes like syrah.

I noticed this when putting together the 2011 $10 Hall of Fame. Too many wines, particularly those from California and particularly if they were red, were flabby and dull. That’s also eminent wine writer Dan Berger’s conclusion, and he has written extensively about this change.

“It’s about playing it safe,” Berger says, “and about wholesalers and retailers needing to sell wine. It’s about getting that 85 as a score, which is like manna from heaven if you’re trying to sell wine.”

So what do you do if you want wines to taste like what they’re supposed to taste like? Try these, which are good examples of wine with varietal character:

Most inexpensive Italian wines, which still taste like they came from Italy. Consider the Falesco Vitiano Rosso (about $12), a red blend.

Pinot noir from Oregon. This can be pricey, but is usually worth the cost. I especially like King Estate’s Signature pinot (about $30).

Many French producers, faced with too much wine to sell, have really improved the quality of their products. Look for La Vieille Ferme Rouge (about $8), which not that long ago wasn’t all that well-made. These days, though, it’s a red blend that tastes like it was made from the grapes used to make it.

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Ask the Wine Guy

What is “spicy”, which I hear used to describe wines? How can something made with grapes be spicy?

Spicy includes flavors and aromas such as pepper and cinnamon. These flavors can come from the grapes (mostly red) used to make the wine, and the winemaker brings them out during the winemaking process. But many spicy flavors are also imparted from the oak used to age the wine.

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Cornish hens with lemon and balsamic vinegar

This is about as simple as dinner gets, and uses the balsamic vinegar that most of us have, but have forgotten about. Cutting the hen’s backbone is much easier than it sounds, and the broiler in a toaster oven works well. The hens and a well-made pinot noir, like the King Estate, are a nice match.

Serves four, 30-40 minutes (adapted from Mark Bittman)

2 Cornish hens
2 lemons
2 Tbsp best quality balsamic vinegar
salt and pepper to taste

1. Preheat a broiler and adjust a rack so it’s 4 inches from the heat source.

2. Use a sturdy pair of scissors, and cut the hen at the backbone. It should cut without any trouble at all. Flatten each hen and put them in a broiling or roasting pan, skin side down. Liberally sprinkle the exposed surfaces with salt and pepper. Slice one of the lemons as thinly as possible, and put the slices on the hens.

3. Broil for 10 minutes or until the lemon is browned and the hens appear cooked (they’ll start to brown). Flip the birds over (including the lemon slices) and season the skin side with salt and pepper. Return to the broiler and cook for 10 minutes until the skin is nicely browned.

4. Pull the hens out. Slice the remaining lemon, and put it on the hens. Put it back under the broiler, and cook five minutes until the lemons start to brown. Drizzle with the balsamic and serve.


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