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Tasting and Understanding Wine

When one reads tasting notes from the likes of Robert Parker, James Molesworth, James Suckling or many of the professional wine tasters whose publications we can buy or subscribe to on the internet, it can be quite intimidating, even while oftentimes being reasonably accurate and informative. The ability to discern specific flavours is definitely an acquired skill that comes from years of practice and often specific training. I know people who can tell you grape type, country of origin and even tell the percentages of a blend consisting of four to five grape types. Yes, such people do exist and their skill is often quite profound.

For the vast majority of wine drinkers, wine appreciation often goes no further than “I like it” or “I don’t like it.” There is absolutely no shame in that and the best wine in the world is the one you like best, regardless of its price or what some ‘expert’ or ‘connoisseur’ thinks of it.

For regular wine drinkers—those who may have some wine with their dinner every evening or several times a week, we do develop preferences and with experience comes a degree of discernment. We may find that we like drier wines or sweeter wines, wines with more or less tannin, or more or less oak. We also develop likings for specific grape types, such as Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot, Syrah or Pinot Noir, Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc, etc, etc. The wines we prefer today may not be the same a year or two from now or those we preferred a year or two ago. We may even develop preferences for certain styles of wine or wines from certain countries or regions.

I spent several years quite fixated on Italian wines, trying as many different ones as I could find. I even once explained to a friend who asked about my obsession with all those Italian wines that it was like learning about Italy through the different wines from the different regions. You can taste the differences in soil, climate and even culture. Even today when I sip a glass of Morellino I can recall the scents and smells of the region, which is located on the western coast of Tuscany.

I have never been able to develop much of a skill of identifying specific flavours in wine—at least not past the very basic elements of citrus or berries, etc—even after 30 years of wine tasting. My daughter is far better at it with almost no experience. She can separate raspberries from strawberries, peaches from apricots and even identify different floral scents. I think there must be some in-born talent for that skill (and she clearly did not inherit it from me). Robert Parker is perhaps the most renowned for it—when you read a note such as, “with sweet mulberry, black currant and cherry notes intermixed with tobacco leaf, cedar, resin, and licorice,” you can understand what I mean. He can also recall any of the over 10,000 wines he has tasted with a photographic memory. No wonder his sense of smell is insured for millions of dollars. It is one thing to be able to detect different flavours but quite another to be able to say precisely what they are.

For my own part, having tasted thousands of wines from all over the world for over 30 years I have developed my own system for evaluating wines and one I think is very useful and accessible to us ‘normal’ people. I think it is a reliable guide to the intrinsic quality of wine—regardless of whether one happens to like the particular flavours or not.

The system applies to all the steps of wine tasting and evaluation, from the initial smelling to the aftertaste. The elements of the system consist of ‘complexity’, ‘balance’ and ‘finesse’. Of these, balance is the most vital as it is the first and foremost characteristic of well-made wine. Balance refers to fruit, alcohol and tannin and how these three essential characteristics come together. When evaluating a wine we are usually looking for obvious flaws. Once there are no obvious flaws we can move on to other characteristics.

On the nose wines differ in the complexity of their smell. If you can detect several scents as opposed to just one it suggests the wine has some depth of character. Likewise on the palate. There is nothing wrong with a straightforward wine—in fact that may be exactly what you are looking for when choosing a wine to go with simple food like pizza or pasta or stewed chicken. However, straightforward wines should not command big bucks. When you spend ample dollars on a wine you expect the wine to have some complexity, something to keep your interest and make you want to sip it again and again.

Complexity however cannot stand by itself. It is only a marker of quality when it also has finesse, which is when the multiple flavours make up a satisfying whole.

When these characteristics come together in a wine it is usually accompanied by a long and delicious finish, an aftertaste that is pleasant and satisfying and one which appeals as much to one’s intellect and emotions as to one’s taste buds.

So without getting too technical or academic, those are my markers of a fine wine. When I refer to a wine as sexy, ‘luxurious’ or ’emotional’, you can be sure it has touched more than my taste buds. Such wines are not for drinking every day but they can and do make special occasions very special indeed.

Making Sense of Terroir

“Knowing in part may make a fine tale,
but wisdom comes from seeing the whole.”—Asian Proverb

And so it is with the concept of ‘terroir’, that hazy, intellectually-appealing notion that a plot of soil plays the determining factor in a wine’s character. The French are the world’s most obsessed people regarding the issue of terroir. And why not? Many of that country’s most renowned vineyards are part of an elabourate hierarchy of quality based on their soil and exposition. And the French would have everyone believe that no one on planet Earth can equal the quality of their Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Cabernet, Syrah, etc. because their privileged terroir is unequaled. One of France’s most celebrated wine regions, Burgundy, is often cited as the best place to search for the fullest expression of terroir. Followers of terroir (the terroirists) argue that a particular piece of ground and its contribution to what is grown there give its product a character that is distinctive and apart from that same product grown on different soils and slopes. Burgundy, with its classifications of grand cru and premier cru vineyards, village vineyards and generic viticultural areas, is the terroirists ‘raison d’etre’.

Lamentably, terroir has become such a politically-correct buzzword that in some circles it is an egregious error not to utter some profound comments about finding ‘a sense of somewhereness’ when tasting a Vosne-Romanée-Les Malconsorts or a Latricières-Chambertin. Leading ‘terroirists’ such as wine producer Lalou Bize-Leroy, Burgundy wine broker Becky Wasserman, and author Matt Kramer make a persuasive and often eloquent case about the necessity of finding, as Kramer puts it, “the true voice of the land” in order for a wine to be legitimised.

Yet like so many things about wine, especially tasting it, there is no scientific basis for anything Bize, Wasserman, or Kramer propose. What they argue is what most Burgundians and owners of France’s finest vineyards give lip service to—that for a wine to be authentic and noble it must speak of its terroir.

Terrior Only One Factor of Wine Character

On the other side of this issue are the ‘realists’, or should I call them modernists. They suggest that terroir is merely one of many factors that influence the style of a wine. The realists argue that a multitude of factors determine a wine’s style, quality, and character. Soil, exposition, and microclimate (terroir) most certainly impart an influence, but so do the following:

  1. Rootstock: Is it designed to produce prolific or small crop levels?
  2. Yeasts: Does the winemaker use the vineyard’s wild yeasts or are commercial yeasts employed? Every yeast, wild or commercial, will give a wine a different set of aromatics, flavor, and texture.
  3. Yields and Vine Age: High yields from perennial overcroppers result in diluted wine. Low yields, usually less than two tons per acre or 35-40 hectoliters per hectare, result in wines with much more concentration and personality. Additionally, young vines have a tendency to overproduce, whereas old vines produce small berries and less wine. Crop thinning is often employed with younger vineyards to increase the level of concentration.
  4. Harvest Philosophy: Is the fruit picked underripe to preserve more acidity, or fully ripe to emphasise the lushness and opulence of a given varietal?
  5. Vinification Techniques and Equipment: There are an amazing number of techniques that can change the wine’s aromas and flavors. Moreover, equipment choice (different presses, destemmers, etc.) can have a profound influence on the final wine.
  6. Élévage (or the wine’s upbringing): Is the wine brought up in oak barrels, concrete vats, stainless steel, or large oak vats (which the French call foudres)? What is the percentage of new oak? All of these elements exert a strong influence on the wine’s character. Additionally, transferring wine (racking) from one container to another has an immense impact on a wine’s bouquet and flavor. Is the wine allowed to remain in long contact with its lees (believed to give the wine more aromatic complexity and fullness)? Or is it racked frequently for fear of picking up an undesirable lees smell?
  7. Fining and Filtration: Even the most concentrated and profound wines that terroirists consider quintessential examples of the soil can be eviscerated and stripped of their personality and richness by excessive fining and filtering. Does the winemaker treat the wine with kid gloves, or is the winemaker a manufacturer/processor bent on sculpturing the wine?
  8. Bottling Date: Does the winemaker bottle early to preserve as much fruit as possible, or does he bottle later to give the wine a more mellow, aged character? Undoubtedly, the philosophy of when to bottle can radically alter the character of a wine.
  9. Cellar Temperature and Sanitary Conditions: Some wine cellars are cold and others are warm. Different wines emerge from cold cellars (development is slower and the wines are less prone to oxidation) than from warm cellars (the maturation of aromas and flavours is more rapid and the wines are quicker to oxidise). Additionally, are the wine cellars clean or dirty?

These are just a handful of factors that can have extraordinary impact on the style, quality, and personality of a wine. As the modernists claim, the choices that man himself makes, even when they are unquestionably in pursuit of the highest quality, can contribute far more to a wine’s character than the vineyard’s terroir. If one listens to Robert Kacher, a realist, or to Matt Kramer, a terroirist, it is easy to conclude they inhabit different worlds. But the irony is that in most cases, they tend to agree as to the Burgundy producers making the finest wines.

Distinctive Style

If you are wondering where I stand on terroir, I do believe it is an important component in the production of fine wine. However, I would argue that the most persuasive examples of terroir do not arise from Burgundy, but rather, from Alsace. If one is going to argue terroir, the wine has to be made from exceptionally low yields, fermented with only the wild yeasts that inhabit the vineyard, brought up in a neutral medium, such as old barrels, cement tanks, or stainless steel, given minimal cellar treatment, and bottled with little or no fining or filtration.

For example, if I were to take up the cause of the terroirists, I would use one of Alsace’s greatest domaines, that of Leonard and Olivier Humbrecht, to make a modest case for terroir. The Humbrechts do everything to emphasise the differences in their vineyard holdings. Yet in a blind tasting, why is it so easy to identify the wines of Zind-Humbrecht? Certainly their Hengst-Riesling tastes different than their Riesling from Clos St.-Urbain. The question is, is one tasting the terroir, or the winemaker’s signature? Zind-Humbrecht’s wines, when matched against other Alsatian wines, are more powerful, richer, and intense. Zind-Humbrecht’s yields are lower and they do not filter the wine at bottling. Yet this is a case where the wines not only possess an identifiable winemaker’s signature, but also a distinctive vineyard character.

Lalou Bize-Leroy of the Domaine Leroy is often cited as the pre-eminent terroirist. She is a persuasive woman and talks a mighty game when it comes to how her vineyard parcels impart specific characteristics to her wines. But when Bize’s wines are evaluated in blind tastings, the obvious conclusion is that she fashions more concentrated and ageworthy red burgundies than her peers. Once a taster is familiar with the style of her wines (there are subtle differences) Leroy’s wines can be easily identified in a blind tasting because of their power, purity, richness, and exceptional intensity rather than by any particular terroir characteristic. The same can be said for many of Burgundy’s finest producers. Anyone who is familiar with the style of the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti can usually pick a DRC wine out of a blind tasting because of the singular style of its winemaking. Winemaker Jacques Seysses, a producer who received a five-star rating in my book on Burgundy, and someone I admire tremendously, runs up the terroir flag as fast as any Frenchman, saying, “man can destroy, not create.” Seysses, who utilises 100% new oak for all of his grand crus, produces wines of extraordinary finesse and elegance. However, when tasted, his wines are dominated by his own winemaking autograph and can be picked out, not because they emanate from vineyards such as Clos de la Roche, Clos St.-Denis, or Bonnes Mares, but because of his distinctive style.

Terroir, as used by many of its proponents, is often a convenient excuse for upholding the status quo. If one accepts the fact that terroir is everything, and is essential to legitimise a wine, how should consumers evaluate the wines from Burgundy’s most famous grand cru vineyard, Chambertin? This thirty-two acre vineyard boasts twenty-three different proprietors. But only a handful of them appear committed to producing an extraordinary wine. Everyone agrees this is a hallowed piece of ground, but I can think of only a few producers – Domaine Leroy, Domaine Ponsot, Domaine Rousseau, Domaine des Chézeaux (Ponsot makes the wine for Chézeaux) – that produce wines that merit the stratospheric reputation of this vineyard. Yet the Chambertins of three of these producers, Leroy, Ponsot, and Rousseau, are completely different in style. The Ponsot wine is the most elegant, supple, and round, Leroy’s is the most tannic, backward, concentrated, and meaty, and Rousseau’s is the darkest-colored, most dominated by new oak, and most modern in style, taste, and texture. Among the other eighteen or twenty producers (and I am not even thinking about the various negociant offerings) what Burgundy wine enthusiasts are likely to encounter on retailers’ shelves ranges from mediocre to appallingly thin and insipid. What wine, may I ask, speaks for the soil of Chambertin? Is it the wine of Leroy, the wine of Ponsot, the wine of Rousseau?

Arguments such as this can be made with virtually any significant Burgundy vineyard. Consider Corton-Charlemagne and the products of four of its most celebrated producers. The firm of Faiveley owns the most prized parcel atop this famous hill, and they make a compellingly elegant Corton-Charlemagne. Stylistically, it is the antithesis of the super-concentrated, lavishly oaky, broadly flavored, alcoholic Corton-Charlemagne made by Louis Latour. Again, Domaine Leroy makes a backward, hard, tough Corton-Charlemagne that resembles a tannic red more than a white wine. Domaine Coche-Dury makes a wine with extraordinary mineral components, as well as remarkable richness, unctuosity, and opulence where the oak takes a back seat to the wine’s fruit and texture. Which of these Corton-Charlemagnes has that notion of “somewhereness” that is raised by the terroirists to validate the quality of a vineyard?

Are terroirists kindergarten intellectuals who should be doing more tasting and less talking? Of course not. But they can be accused of naively swallowing the tallest tale in Burgundy. On the other hand, the realists should recognise that no matter how intense and concentrated a wine can be from a modest vineyard in Givry, it will never have the sheer complexity and class of a Vosne-Romanée grand cru from a conscientious producer.

In conclusion, think of terroir as you do salt, pepper, and garlic. In many dishes they can represent an invaluable component, imparting wonderful aromas and flavours. But if consumed alone, they are usually difficult to swallow. Moreover, all the hyperventilation over terroir obscures the most important issue of all – identifying and discovering those producers who make wines worth drinking and savouring!

How to Really Taste Wine

1. Complexity

The single greatest standard used in assessing the quality of a wine is complexity. The more times you can return to a glass of wine and find something different in it—in the bouquet, in the taste—the more complex the wine. The very greatest wines are not so much overpowering as they are seemingly limitless.

Complexity is not an arbitrary standard. We are, in fact, set up to respond favorably to it. We have big brains and cortexes. We know from decades of work in experimental psychology that over a period of time, we always seek more complex stimuli.

In music, we invariably progress from the simple, or the ‘banal’ as one researcher referred to nursery rhymes, to more complex melodic patterns. It appears that we favour—relish might be a more descriptive, if less exact term—uncertainty or lack of predictability. One researcher contends that uncertainty in music is complexity. And that uncertainty gives greater “meaning” to music.

Complexity is more than multiplicity. For a wine (or a melody) to be truly satisfying, especially after repeated exposure, it must continually surprise us (uncertainty) and yet we must still be able to grasp these surprises as part of a larger and pleasing pattern.

So it is with wine. A multiplicity of flavors and aromas without some sort of cohesion becomes jarring and eventually irritating. True complexity keeps surprising us, but never fatigues us. That’s no small trick. But it’s one that the world’s greatest wines regularly pull off—and it’s why they’re so acclaimed as the greatest.

2. Texture

This is a feature of wine that too often is overlooked. Yet pay attention to texture, as it may be the most important ‘hidden’ feature of wine quality. This is especially true with white wines; one of the ‘giveaways’ to quality (and potential longevity) in dry white wines is revealed by texture.

If you have the privilege of tasting white Burgundies made in the 1950s or earlier, you will be surprised to discover how thick and dense the texture of those Chardonnay wines is. What made it so? Very low yields and small berry size. These features also were (and are) critical to longevity. Simply put, texturally thin wines are a giveaway to dilute flavors and short life span, never mind the gussying-up of a lot of new oak and showy flavours from lees stirring. Texture tells the tale.

3. Midpalate Density

Every taster has his or her go-to feature. For some it’s bouquet. For others it’s a wine’s finish, whether it’s short or long, intense or faint. For me, it’s midpalate density.

The midpalate feature is sometimes hard for tasters to recognize. The easiest way to grasp the notion is to imagine a candy with a hard, dense center. You suck on the candy and figure that it’s soon to be gone. Then you reach that hard, dense center and you discover that there’s a lot more yet to come. Voilà! Midpalate density.

For you Pilates types, think of midpalate density as core strength. Without it, a wine is weak. Wines, like trees, die from the inside out. If a wine lacks midpalate density, it will, over time, prove to be shallow and merely showy. Midpalate density comes from the vineyard, rather than from the winemaking. It’s a creation of low yields and small berries, often from old vines. I consider it absolutely essential in assessing both a wine’s probable longevity and its potential greatness.

4. Proportion

The element of proportion is easily grasped. A wine, like an attractive person, should be reasonably proportionate. It shouldn’t finish ‘short’. You should have a sense of the wine’s flavours being metered out to you in roughly equal amounts and time spans: the scent, the beginning taste, the midpalate and, critically, the finish.

Sometimes, especially with very young wines, these proportions can be skewed and later come into greater equality. But with a mature wine, you should expect reasonable proportion. If it’s not present, then the wine is either on its way out or it never had the stuffing of real quality to begin with.

5. Finesse

The feature of finesse is a favourite of mine. It’s something I look for almost obsessively. Finesse is how the flavours of a wine are delivered. Imagine a lay-up in basketball where the player drives toward the basket, gracefully leaps up and the ball rolls off his fingertips and falls effortlessly into the net. That’s finesse. That’s how wines should deliver themselves to you. Without finesse, wines are clunky, never mind how much complexity they might have. Finesse, like good manners, is essential to refinement.

6. Balance

The concept of balance means different things to different tasters. It’s one of those classic you-know-it-when-you-see-it qualities. At its most basic, balance refers to an equilibrium created by roughly equal amounts of fruitiness and acidity in wine (and sweetness in a sweet wine).

Balance is essential in that it makes a wine invigorating to us. A wine that lacks balance palls very quickly. We sense it almost from the first sip. It’s not easily measurable and it’s far from exact. A wine, unlike a ballerina, is not either in balance or out. There’s always a range in what constitutes balance for every person.

In recent years, as wines have become more alcoholic as a result of grapes picked at high ripeness levels, the concept of balance has come to include a wine’s ability to ‘balance out’ its alcohol level with buffering fruit density. This is why balance has become such a prominent term in today’s wine vocabulary.

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