Thursday, March 25, 2010

Spring Wine Talk

I’ll never forget my first bottle of Two-Buck Chuck. Not that the wine was so good. It was the setting. We were camping in the Anza-Borrego desert of southern California with our friend Betty Sword; she had brought a few logs from a camphor tree she’d cut down recently in her yard, and also the top to a garbage can, to serve as a fire-pit. (Don’t want to scar up the desert, you know.) I scrounged a few dead trees (three feet tall) just as the sun was going down to make a tripod. I don’t remember what we cooked, but I remember we had a bottle of Charles Shaw Cabernet. Two Buck Chuck. It suited the occasion.

In Minnesota Charles Shaw is often called Three Buck Chuck because that’s what it costs here at Trader Joe’s—the only place where you can get it. I most often find myself buying the chardonnay, which is tasty and no more cloying than many other chardonnays that cost four times the price. Some wine-drinkers, I know, eschew chardonnay altogether, due to its almost overpowering weirdness, which has been compared to furniture polish laced with honey. Yet chardonnay is still the most popular white wine grape in the world, and there’s a reason. Though it can be cloying, it’s also more rich and flavorful than other grape varieties, generally speaking. Nearly all of the great white wines of the world are made from chardonnay grapes—though almost all of them also come from Burgundy and cost a fortune. The bargain-bin white wine enthusiast thus spends his or her oenological career bouncing like a pinball back and forth between chardonnays and everything else—alboriños, torrontes, pinot grigio, pinot blanc, sauvignon blanc, sylvaner.

The middle ground is taken up by those wines we can’t afford, the French chardonnays that have famous hyphenated names and more acidity, a touch of minerality, clarity, balance. In this category, the lowly Macon-Village is the champion of working-class consumers like me, though it often disappoints.

Yet the other day, I noticed a bottle of Macon-Village on the bottom shelf at Trader Joe’s from a negociant I’d never heard of—Michel Picard. I was almost shocked to discover that it had a hint of the complexity we seek out in Burgundian whites, and none of the mentholated overtones we fear to encounter in their California counterparts. Googling the brand on-line I came up with this report from a wine review blog:

Michel Picard is a negociant house in Burgundy that specializes in regional French wines at bargain prices. And they are pretty good. So who says you can't drink French on a budget? Bargains to look for from Burgundy include the 2006 Macon-Villages Chardonnay ($9.99) and the 2006 Beaujolais-Villages ($8.99) and a lovely 2006 Vouvray ($9.99) from the Loire Valley.

Trader Joe’s Price? $3.99.

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