Choosing Fine Wine
Good News Magazine
September 1981
Volume: Vol XXVIII, No. 8
Issue: ISSN 0432-0816
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Choosing Fine Wine
Jeff Calkins  

   During the Feast of Tabernacles, God gives us the opportunity to afford some really fine food and drink, including wine.
   There is a right use of wine, and during this season we should demonstrate that right use, primarily at the many dinners we will be eating with one another.
   And why not? No other beverage is as closely identified with the Feast of Tabernacles as wine.
   Deuteronomy 14:26 expressly lists wine as one of the pleasures for which the festival tithe is bestowed; Isaiah 25:6 describes the Millennium (typified by the Feast) as "a feast of wines on the lees."
   But what is fine wine? Is it just a matter of taste, like chocolate versus vanilla ice cream? What separates truly fine wine or champagne from plonk? Is it just the price? Are the most expensive wines always the best?

What makes for fine wine?

   Fascinatingly enough, the prime attribute that makes for good wine is the same attribute that gauges a person's spiritual condition — character. Wine buffs talk endlessly about "varietal character," meaning: Does the wine taste and smell like the variety of grape it is supposed to?
   After some experience, you learn to tell whether wine from a particular kind of grape, say the chardonnay, embodies qualities that characterize the chardonnay, or whether those tastes and aromas and bouquets are muted or lacking.
   Complexity is another highly valued quality. Wines considered among the world's best are "complex" in that they have several layers of tastes: When you sip them, you must really think about what you're tasting in order to fully appreciate them.
   Other qualities that determine truly fine wine include a full body (best described as "the mouth-filling quality") and brilliant color.
   The best wine comes from low yielding varieties of grapes, such as the cabernet sauvignon and the pinot noir. And not only is the yield per acre lower for such grapes, but the grapes themselves are small. This is because wine receives its taste and color from the grape skin, and smaller grapes mean a higher proportion of skin to juice. With wine, as with many other things in life, quantity tends to degrade quality.
   Thus quality wines come from only a few select varieties of grapes among the many thousands of kinds of grapes in existence.
   These select few grapes can be counted on one hand: among reds, the cabernet sauvignon and the pinot noir; and among whites, the chardonnay and the riesling.
   Other kinds of grapes (see chart), of course, can also produce extremely fine wine, but these few are the varieties that have been traditionally regarded as the world's foremost.
   Finding wine made from such grapes is easy if the wine is from California — it will say so on the label. Finding French wines made of such grapes will depend on the region from which the wine comes.

The very best

   Some French vineyards have been growing grapes since New Testament times. Matching soil to grape is itself a science, and the French have had centuries to perfect it.
   For this reason French wine, unlike Californian, is not sold by grape variety, but by geographical location. A particular place produces a particular wine. California wineries, not having had such a long time to match grape and soil, often produce several different varieties of wines. But California wines are every whit the equal of the French and, as a general rule, more reasonably priced.
   What, then, are the best wines?
   In California, certain wineries have premier reputations and should be mentioned: Robert Mondavi, Beaulieu, Stag's Leap, Heitz, Chateau Monetlena, Sterling, Ridge, Callaway and Freemark Abbey.
   Of course, other wineries also make excellent wine. The easiest rule to remember, however, is that almost any California cabernet sauvignon (and, to a degree, zinfandel, a grape variety unique to California but that can taste quite similar to cabernet sauvignon) from the Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino, Lake or Santa Clara counties should be Feast-quality wine.
   The corresponding Bordeaux wines are those that were listed on the famous (or notorious) "classification of 1855."
   Actually, this classification was merely a ranking of 65 Bordeaux wineries into five categories by price. Nevertheless, the list must have had something to do with quality, since the list has survived for more than a century and a quarter.
   These 65 chateau are the Bordeaux wines with the best reputations (and, at the very top, probably the best quality). The very top ones are: Chateau Latour, Chateau Lafite Rothschild, Chateau Haut Brion and Chateau Mouton Rothschild.
   Burgundy, the other premier wine region in France, produces much less wine than the Bordeaux by quantity, so less of it is likely to be available at the Feast. As a general rule, Burgundy is subdivided in myriads of small vineyards, most of which sell their wine to various shippers.
   The greatest wines of Burgundy, of course, are from certain specific vineyards, such as Chambertin (Napoleon's favorite wine). As a rule, the smaller the geographic area covered by the label, the better the wine. Red Burgundy is generally made from the pinot noir grape, white Burgundy from the chardonnay.

What about rose?

   A wine's color is determined by the color of the grape's skin, not its juice. Thus it is possible to make a white wine from a red grape (but not vice versa), because wine juice is generally white and by taking away the skins from wine juice prematurely, pink wine — rose — is produced.
   Generally, roses from both California and France vary from pleasantly light and dry to, more usually, something akin to soda pop.
   While it is often said that rose is a nice compromise at a restaurant because it goes with anything, the fact is it is often an unsatisfactory compromise: a little too sweet for red meat, a little too heavy for fish.
   Ordering red or white wine by the glass, or in half bottles, seems the wiser course. There are no really great roses, and finding a good one is a hit-and-miss proposition.
   This article has emphasized California and Bordeaux wines, partly because they will be most available to the majority of brethren at the Feast, and partly because the author does not want to stray too far beyond his own experience. But great Wines come from elsewhere in the world, primarily Germany, Italy, South Africa and Australia.

A fine art

   Wine is appropriate to the Feast of Tabernacles because it represents such qualities as patience, hard work, thoughtfulness and cleanliness. The small bit of astringency in dry table wine can make our food taste better. Having a glass of wine with a meal tends to slow down the pace of the meal so there is more time for fellowship.
   Wine, like all alcoholic beverages, however, is subject to abuse. Wine is not drunk for its alcoholic content and should never be drunk for any effect the alcohol might have. Wine is an aid to digestion (I Tim. 5:23) and a part of the meal. Beyond that, wine involves the conscious appreciation of an art form, and appreciation means you never drink so much that it in any way affects your judgment.
   And that is why we can have wine with our meals at the Feast, appreciate it and still strive to be moderate.

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Good News MagazineSeptember 1981Vol XXVIII, No. 8ISSN 0432-0816