A critic’s lament: why can’t we taste and judge wine with a food context?

For the most part, critics taste and evaluate wine in isolation, often “blindly” so as not to be influenced by what’s on the label, be it a winery’s name, a pretty picture or a self-serving  description of what’s in the bottle. By isolation I mean without a food context, although wines are often judged in groups – 2007  Napa Valley merlots, for example.

I started thinking again about the importance (and under-appreciation) of the food component in wine tasting the other day over lunch – a plate of chicken stew with leeks and rice. When I decided that a little wine would be nice, I reached into the hanna refrigerator to see what I had re-corked in the days before --wines that, on first tasting, didn’t capture my attention.

The wine I chose was from California, Hanna Winery’s 2008 Russian River Valley Chardonnay. Now, the night before, I had dismissed this wine as a bit too dominated by oak, at least at this stage. So back in the fridge it went in favor of something else. The next day I decided to give it another try, thinking that it might match well with the chicken and leaks and herbs and rice. In fact, I was pleasantly surprised. Here was a wine that came alive with the right food, which seemed to “tame” the oak and allow the fruit to emerge. Or, put another way, the oak blended seamlessly with the chicken and its accompaniments.

In this context, individual descriptors of the wine – the currency of wine criticism -- didn’t seem to matter so much as the fact that the food and wine had become one as each enhanced the experience of the other. And isn’t that what it’s all about? For the record, this $25 wine has notes of baked apple, a bit of pineapple, cinnamon, a touch of butterscotch, a lemony finish and, most importantly, good underlying acidity, which gave it a refreshing character with the food. As I tasted it again on the second and third day, the oak was less pronounced, reinforcing the fact that this is a young chardonnay that needs bottle age.

All of this makes me wonder, how many wines dismissed by us critics would actually end up being recommended if only they had a chance to prove themselves with a meal or could be tasted again after a day or two? (Wine received as a press sample.)

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