‘Primer wines.’ I’ve been using that term a lot recently, and it’s time to delve into what the heck it might mean, and whether there’s any legitimacy to the notion it embodies. I’m not even sure the term exists in the wine lexicons of others, or if I just came up with it on my own.
But what I mean by a primer is this: sometimes, in order to get the most out of a wine, it’s a good idea to wake up your palate with something else — another wine — before you get to the wine you really want to enjoy.
There are two schools of thought when it comes to priming. Well, actually, that’s not true. There’s one school of thought about primer wines. The other non-school-of-thought is that the concept of primer wines is complete and utter hogwash. But more on that in a moment.
Anyway, the premise of the pro-primer wine camp, as stated, is that the first sip of the day, while it’s often delicious, can sometimes be a shock to a person’s taste buds. They’re not quite ready for wine yet. They need to be awakened, flexed and made ready to truly appreciate what’s to follow.
So before you tear into a sublime bottle of Chablis, you might want a part-glass of a delicate Pinot Grigio just to get your senses ready to absorb all the joys the more intense wine has to offer.
Or before cracking open a splendidly smooth Cabernet Sauvignon (such as the 2010 J. Lohr Seven Oaks from California — $20.48 — redolent with berry flavours with the barest hint of oak), you might want a few sips of something similar but a little less gutsy, say a mid-market Merlot (perhaps the impressive Open 2007 from the Okanagan — $12.49 — which is a tad edgy and full of red fruit and black pepper) to make your taste buds sit up and pay attention. And then, primed by the Open, when you move on to the J. Lohr, you’ll appreciate its depth, roundness and refinement even more.
I’ve actually gotten to the point now where I really like a glass of white prior to a meal. I never used to mix my wines — that is, if I was having steak for supper and knew I’d be drinking red wine (with steak, almost always a Cabernet), I’d have red wine all throughout pre-dinner and dinner. Same with chicken or fish white all the way.
But after being introduced by friends to a glass of white as an aperitif, I totally changed my approach. I enjoyed the white ahead of time because it seemed to serve a triple purpose — it cleansed my palate to some degree, it woke up or warmed up said palate, and because my taste buds were then raring to go, it made the red wine that followed taste even better. Or at least the red wine seemed fresh and new and different, which, of course, it was.
The approach is pretty much moot when I stick to white wine all the way through, because I usually sip the same beverage while preparing and eating dinner. But there’s been the odd time where I’ve had, say, a part-glass of the surprising and unpretentious Wily Jack Chardonnay, a California product ($11.99) with a bit of oak, and notes of apple, citrus and pineapple, and then moved on to something more impressive like the Luis Felipe Edwards 2011 Chard from Chile ($17.95). Having been roused by the cheap Chard, it was easy to find the LFE even more crisp and intensely flavoured. Its peach and pear tones, with hints of lemon and orange blossom fairly sang out, just begging me to take another sip. (Really, not much begging is usually necessary for me to take another sip of wine, but you get what I mean.)
Anyway, that’s been my experience. Whether or not the wine following the primer actually tasted better or not is beside the point. To me, it seemed as though it did, which is all that matters.
However, as mentioned earlier, there’s an opposing position, which suggests that with any indulgence in wine (or other alcohol), one’s palate starts to dull, and one’s ability to taste is begins to be — and, if one continues to drink, is further — compromised. So those in this camp advocate starting with the very best and enjoying it while your senses are still pretty much intact. If you begin with lesser beverages and then move to the good stuff, they contend you won’t be able to fully appreciate the attributes of what should be the more upscale wine.
So whichever approach appeals to you, by all means, indulge in it. There’s no right or wrong here. Just some options. And because there are no rules, you may choose to switch back and forth between these methods as circumstances dictate, and with whatever beverage you choose.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition November 10, 2012