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Never Waste A Good Wine Bar

12 August 2011

Every once in a while, I’ll be in a wine bar perusing a carefully edited wine list laden with exciting selections, and then I’ll overhear someone say something like, “Well, I’ll just have what I always have: Pinot Grigio.” Now, when faced with a range of potentially delicious but unknown wines, this person chickened out and failed to venture forth from their comfort zone.

Wine bars are the perfect places to experiment. You don’t have to commit to a whole bottle, the staff will likely be able to offer knowledgeable and friendly guidance, and the selection will hopefully include a few types of wines you’ve never tried before. Then later, you can confidently order that Washington State Blaufränkisch, knowing it will impress your date. (Ordering Pinot Grigio, incidentally, almost certainly will not impress your date.)

I recently met my cousin at Avec for some dinner and drinks, and we had a great time trying new things from their ever-fascinating wine list. She wanted something light and crisp, and I had my eye on a 2009 Companhia das Quintas “Prova Regia” from Bucelas, Portugal — an Arinto. I was unfamiliar with the Arinto varietal, so we asked our server what she thought of it. Her description fit the bill, and my cousin found it most satisfying. “Sharp and clean,” she remarked, and indeed it was. What it lacked in bouquet it made up for with freshness and minerality.

My eye went straight to the 2009 Jané Ventura “15 Vinyes” from Spain’s Penedes region. The blend of Xarel·lo, Muscat, Chardonnay and Malvasia de Sitges sounded intriguing, and, perhaps more influentially, it was the cheapest thing on the menu. “And how is this one?” I asked our server.

“It’s pleasant,” she said, somewhat unhelpfully. “I drank it, and I thought, this is nice and easy to drink.”

Despite this suspiciously non-committal description, I ordered a glass. It smelled rich and fruity, with aromas of pear and honey. I thought it would be sweet, but the flavor had almost nothing to do with the smell. Fascinating! It tasted green and a bit tart, with juicy acids. I can’t remember the last time I tasted something with such strictly compartmentalized aromas and flavors.

Finally we split a little carafe of 2007 Pago Florentino Cencibel from Spain’s La Mancha region. It was a bit pricey at $15, but I couldn’t resist trying some Cencibel, a varietal I had never encountered before. A deep, opaque purple, this wine smelled of dark fruit and oak and tasted like chocolate with a bit of spice. It was a voluptuous delight.

Later I looked up Cencibel in my Oxford Companion to Wine, and discovered that it’s nothing but a La Mancha synonym for Tempranillo, that most ubiquitous of Spanish grapes.

I love learning little secrets like this. Now I know, and you know, that we can order a Cencibel, safe in the knowledge we’ll get a Tempranillo. But our dates, meanwhile, will surely be impressed by our easy, confident demeanor as we say, “Yes, I have made a choice: the Cencibel. It’s the only sensible thing to order.” Our sommeliers will nod approvingly, our dates will titter, and we’ll all get laid.

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