Thursday, January 30, 2014

Hints of honeysuckle and olive paste, with aristocratic structure and a bony finish

I had been blogging for about six weeks when I realized that wine descriptors sound pretty goofy -- except when you kind of need to use them yourself.

I am beginning to be convinced that descriptions of the way a wine tastes -- "peach and mango notes, a hint of lychee, cream, and ginger" and so on -- are almost useless, and are one of the first things we should all throw out as we begin our adventures in enjoying wine. There is no way that another person's tasting notes are going to be of the slightest use to me, unless they encourage me to slow down and treat the wine as the sensuous, "foodie" experience it is. Wine does have lovely color and delicious smells; it is much more than fermented grape juice. When I take the time to smell, taste, and think for a moment or two about what a wine reminds me of, I find I do remember it, and I do take more pleasure in it than I might otherwise have done.

But no one can have someone else's tasting experiences, and so the trouble with all those little paragraphs in magazines, or even on the label of the wine bottle, describing wine in all that precisely flowery language, is that first of all they do sound ridiculous -- how can something taste like acacia (isn't that a tree)? -- and second, they discourage people from trying wine because they seem like tests that the newcomer has to pass before he can go on. If the back of even an inexpensive bottle of Gallo tells you that this wine has flavors of boysenberry, chocolate, and anise, and is "decadent" and "silky," what if you don't taste all that? Does that mean you don't understand wine, and should therefore stop trying it? Moving on to the really white-tie-and-tails professionals, here is a tasting note about a Vouvray, from the March 31, 2007 issue of Wine Spectator (p. 158):
"Taut and nervy, with a bony frame carrying fig, quince, and persimmon notes through the chiseled, minerally finish. Fine balance and length. Very precise. Best from 2008 through 2015. 2,295 cases made." (And by the way, wine professionals do chortle at examples like these themselves.)

The price of this Vouvray is $27, which isn't outrageous for a good French wine. (Note how many cases they've got to sell. Quite a few. It isn't as though they've only produced ten, and so have to sell each bottle for $500.) And Vouvrays are good. They are made from the chenin blanc grape, and are white wines of a very pleasant, part-sweet, part-acid flavor -- sweet and acid is the combination of soda pop, after all -- with a sort of lightly rich, nearly bubbly creaminess in the mouth. I wouldn't know what figs, quinces, or persimmons taste like, but the last part of the description, "best through 2015," tells us that this wine will still be good in eight more years. That's an important piece of information: a wine which can be aged that long is, you might say, the real deal, well made by experienced people who are looking ahead and planning to provide you with a nice return on your $27 investment in 2015. Or sooner, if you prefer.

This brings us to our third trouble with sensuous wine descriptions in magazines and on labels. They sound pretentious, they discourage newcomers, but they do represent somebody trying to convey information about quality in a beverage that is, to be fair, more complex and interesting than water, coffee, or diet Coke. Wines can be entrancing or disappointing or just plain weird for a reason, or for many reasons going back to the weather in the vineyard that year, or to the winemaker trying out a new grape clone whose characteristics turned out to be not what he expected. "Balance" and "taut" and "nervy" are all words that the wine writer is grabbing at, to try to express this. (Okay ... maybe he should have known he was going nowhere with "nervy.")

So wine descriptions are, for better or worse, probably going to be with us for a while. Someone, and I wish I could remember who it was and where I read it, pointed out that centuries ago wines were simply described as either "noble" or "well-bred" or not. By the mid-20th century, wines were described as either masculine or feminine. It has only been since the 1960s -- when the grape variety became the thing, and not the place of the wine's making -- that wines have been compared to fruit and flowers. And everything else. Wine Spectator boasts "More than 1,100 wines rated" in this issue alone.

We return to the problem that other people's descriptions of wine can never be yours. My suggestion would be not to try to make them yours. If nothing else (complaint number four, I think), the precision of all this wine-language makes wine seem as if it should be a cocktail, every one as recognizable and as different from the next as a Tom Collins is different from a Bloody Mary. Perhaps ( ...ssshh .....) that was never the case, and was understood not to be, back when our winebibbing ancestors merely classed wine as "noble" or "feminine." Perhaps it was all meant to be normal, good, and everyday, which is simplicity itself.

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