Breaking Wine Down

By Jonathon Alsop

BOSTON, MA — James Brown, the godfather of soul, used to explain himself musically by saying he was “breaking the music down.” He is heard often on record urging his band to break it down, get down, get on down, and sometimes – counterintuitively – to get on up. Get up and get down where exactly, no one knows for sure, but far enough down to where things start to break. Mr. Brown was a beautiful incoherent genius, but that much we can understand.

When you start to break wine down and look at wine really hard, like it’s nothing but a thing, you see that wine on one level clearly is nothing but a thing: a thing composed roughly of 85% water, 13% alcohol, and 2% other. We can take wine into the lab, stick a probe in it, and that’s all. There’s not even room for anything else on a tangible level.

The experience that follows – from my tiny column, to what you smell and taste at home, to the widest ranging international wine trade – is based entirely on this interaction of water, alcohol, and other. Three ingredients, a million different wines, what a planet.

Most of what I’ve been tasting these days has been acid. First of all, the grill is getting its first major work out, and we’re rolling out big BBQ reds that just a few months ago we were calling big wintry reds. It’s another nice dose of tannic acid from those inky red monsters.

As the world around me transitions from winter time foods into summery cuisine, the wines naturally are changing too, and they’re getting white and zippy and crisp – high in citric acid (in citrus fruit) and malic acid (think Granny Smith apples). This trend is perfect for the weather – Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio are the lime rickey of the wine world, after all – and our summertime food, especially seafood, is perfect with Sauvignon Blanc’s lemon / lime personality.

2016 Santa Ema Sauvignon Blanc
(Maipo Valley, Chile, $8-10, should be available almost everywhere)
Big ticket wine lovers are going to be so busy looking down their noses at anything in the wine shop “two-for” bin that sadly – for them – they’re going to miss this bargain gem from Chile. This bracing white stakes out the middle between scary acidic New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc and rich round California Fume Blanc. My favorite thing about this wine – besides Santa Ema who earned her sainthood leading grueling medieval pilgrimages – is the texture. It’s got all the green, zippy, nervous, high-frequency flavors Sauvignon Blanc is famous for, but the texture is special, very soft, smooth, and full. This wine is flexible – it’s a porch pounder during the day but you can get all classy with it by night with any seafood you can imagine.

JONATHON ALSOP is founder and executive director of the Boston Wine School and author of Wine Lover’s Devotional