The first samples – mostly Austrians and Champagnes – will start reaching me in a month or so. Tasting will begin toot sweet. The ol’ sensorium will be cranked up again. So let’s get some basics in place.
Long-time readers will perhaps already know what I’m fixin’ to write here, but for the benefit of any newbies to my antic world, I want to explain who I am as a taster, so that I’m not entirely useless to you.
I do not think there is such a thing as an “objective” taster. The concept stands somewhere between irrelevant and bogus, and it is rather sad watching people wrenching themselves into conniptions of “objectivity” by dint of some protocol or other. To the degree it works, if indeed it works at all, it exacts a high price in context, and therefore in depth. The word “fatuous” exists to depict exactly such absurdities.
A reviewer of any kind, regardless of the medium being reviewed, does owe something to her readers. In place of the spurious objectivities we worship falsely, I believe we all owe you a consistent, visible and explicable subjectivity. We need to explain our criteria, our innate preferences, even our foibles; in essence we must construct a frame of reference so that anyone trying to understand (or use) us doesn’t have to guess at what we like and dislike, doesn’t have to infer where we’re strong or weak, and never should have to ask “I wonder what he means by this?”
Into the breach I go. First the white wines….
I have a kind of First Principle for all wines, but it’s especially pertinent to the whites. It is clarity of flavor, because without that basic property, it becomes harder to glean all the other properties that follow upon it. So I instinctively favor clear wines; you could also describe them as articulate, or transparent. Using language itself as a metaphor, I like wines with diction and clear syntax, so that you read the “sentence” and don’t have to wonder “Does he mean this or that?”
But that doesn’t always mean explicitness. Most Rieslings are indeed explicit, and many Grüner Veltliners are too, but most Chenins (and Furmints, among others) are more allusive, more inferential, they show more umami. Yet even so, this personality trait can clearly be seen. If a Chenin Blanc seems more analogue compared to Riesling, if it shows a delicate softening of the focus, if it is more pliant, all of those things should be visible and discernible. Otherwise the wine is merely blurry, inarticulate; it doesn’t have a lot to say, or can only speak in mumbles and fragments.
So: clarity first, always for me. I’m well aware that a wine can be muted for any number of reasons, but even then it’s clear that this bottle is dozing and will wake up slowly, if at all. I’m aware of travel-sickness, I’m painfully aware of the concussions that often follow disgorgement of sparkling wines, and usually I can tell when a bottle’s not “showing.”
If I’m not sure, I’ll tell you I’m not sure.
With clarity in place we can think about every other impression we’re receiving. First I’ll tell you what I respond less to, or don’t respond to at all, or respond negatively.
I object to levels of alcohol that some of you wouldn’t mind. For most white wines, especially sleek, vertical types with little to zero oak, alcohol levels north of 14% taste scorched to me. Acrid, medicinal, oafish, clumsy – bothersome. If you object that my 14% level is arbitrary, I’d agree, only pointing out that any given level would also be arbitrary, and 14% represents an empirical pivot-point wherein wines that exceed it are far less likely to please me.
I object to oak when it feels plastered on. A little oak, properly used, can be a pleasing nuance if it supports the fruit rather than seeking to supplant it. (See Dönnhoff, Von Winning, Raveneau, etc.)
I object to every kind of dirtiness. No argument in favor of “natural-ness” will persuade me otherwise. That said, I’m happily responsive to quirks and idiosyncracies, if they are inherent (such as the angularity of Scheurebe), but not when I sense the grower is “showing off” in some way. This one’s a case-by-case judgment. But basic cleanliness, basic competence; these I insist on. If you like “funky” wines you’ll be tempted by exactly the wines that put me off. (See? Even when we don’t agree you can still use me.)
I like wines that are holistically proportioned, where the flavor tells a complete story, where all the notes belong in the chord. The “chord” doesn’t have to be pretty, but I don’t like off-notes and I’m wary of dissonance. For me, “proportion” also means that no single flavor (or structural) element is blatant. If I’m feeling acidity (which is caustic) then there’s too much of it. If a wine seems sugary then it’s too sweet. Quoting a wise sage of wine, it’s better when the whole chorus sings than when one or two voices shout.
I have low tolerance for bitterness.
I think I have higher-than-average tolerance for sweetness. Some wines that strike me as barely sweet are too sweet for others. I want sweetness to be an invisible component – hence my conviction that “Feinherb” is the golden chamber for many German Rieslings – but what’s “invisible” to me may be obtrusive to you. So take my musings over sugar with a grain of salt.
Among the many facets of (let’s call them) northern white wines, the one I cherish most is minerality. I don’t care if you interpret this actually or metaphorically, because we agree on the actual flavors. It is the thing we taste, explicitly and definitely, that isn’t fruity or floral or herbal or spicy or driven-by-acid or underripeness – it is the big thing that is none of those other things. And I adore it.
I don’t see fruit or floweriness or herbals or spices in normative terms. I like them or I don’t, according to each wine. I don’t remember when I’ve tasted a wine with too much fruit (when it’s honest fruit) but I’ve tasted a slew with too little. That said, a wine with little discernible fruit as such can be quite ravishing if it’s rapturously mineral and fruit is not conspicuously absent.
I once wrote that “the idea of “forest” is different from the notion of “a lot of trees,” and that means I tend to taste each wine as a Whole and not as an agglomeration of pieces. Curiously, I have learned that those wines that do present a Whole are often those most articulate about their nuances and capillaries and threads of flavor. It’s tempting to try to freeze the wine so as to identify and name every nuance, every little smidge of articulation, but if you love that kind of tasting note then I may frustrate you. Sometimes I’ll do it, but more often when I’m doing it I get a queasy sense it’s not about the wine any more, it’s about me showing off how acute my palate is. Phooey on that. I’ll dive into the thickets of intricacy when the spirit moves me, but usually I’ll ask you to accept that if I say a wine is many-faceted or intricate, that should suffice. The laundry-list of named-items of flavor don’t seem to pertain. Would you really buy a wine because a writer said it had a nuance of “physalis?” I like licorice, so I’m sure I’ll really like a wine that has a licorice taste! is a rarely-uttered syllogism, I suppose.
I’m totally into deliciousness. And charm, grace, timbre. But we don’t talk enough about deliciousness, and I plan to make up for that.
Most of the wines I’ll be tasting are young, which means primary flavors. I love primary flavors, so no problem, but we have to remember that the wines that really rattle the soul are wines with tertiary flavors, which normally arrive with age.
We’ve been talking about the how-ness of wine, but we also have to talk about the much-ness of wine, all those words and ideas that describe impact. Words like power, strength, intensity, concentration….words that are almost always misused.
These, to my mind, are merely descriptive terms. They have little to no bearing on the quality of a wine. Consider placing any of them after the clause “an excess of…” and then consider doing the same with words like “delicacy,” “grace,” or “finesse.” A wine can certainly have an excess of intensity. Many wines do. But can a wine have an excess of grace? “This wine is too damned graceful!” is a thing one is unlikely to hear.
It’s helpful to know where a wine might fall on a continuum of power. No one wants a feeble wine. And concentration? No one wants a diluted wine. (Though many seem to want deluded wines…) So I will tell you if a wine is marked by a deficiency of impact, or by an excess of impact. But if its impact isn’t noteworthy, I won’t note it. For me, this entire sensibility is only indirectly germane to the matter at hand – evaluating wine. How good is it? That implies aesthetic judgments, whereas describing a wines power is just passing along data. That is because of a simple axiom I have formed; the way a wine tastes is far more important than its force. Beauty, in other words (mine!) is more important than impact.
To a large degree this applies also to sparkling wines, where the only new area of assessment is the quality of the mousse, which in turn bears upon texture, an element I find highly salient. Yet I have no great preferences among textures. I like creamy wines, I like snappy wines, I like everything in between, depending on what’s right for that particular wine. Only in sparkling wines do I find reason to evaluate texture as a determinant of quality. An aggressive mousse is inimical to the elegance I want bubblies to display.
For red wines, texture is more important to me, and that is because my palate is oversensitive to tannin. You will find me objecting to tannin levels you might barely remark upon. I’m aware of this quirk of my nature, and I try to allow for it, but you should bear it in mind if I describe a red wine as “brooding” or “opaque” or “shrouded” by tannin. (I feel much the same about phenolics in white wines also. I don’t like them, and fail to see the point.). It’s often said that Pinot Noir is to reds what Riesling is to whites, but I don’t completely agree. I think Blaufränkisch is the red wine most analogous to Riesling, and find Pinot Noir to be closer to Chenin Blanc in its timbre and registers. My paradigms for great red wine are connected closely to age. I love old Nebbiolo (and am cool to it until it’s mature enough) and I love old Rioja, and I love old Burgundy, yet Burgundy is more forgiving in its youth. As a reviewer you will find me most sensitive to fruit and texture in reds. I like a lot of fruit, and I like textures that stop short of gravelly – but not very short. I think a certain nubbiness, a brush of dustiness, are helpful elements in giving contour and structure to red wines.
But I’m not reviewing Burgundy or Barolo or Rioja; I’m writing about Zweigelt and St. Laurent and Blaufränkisch (and the occasional outlier like Darting’s Pinot Meunier), and so my starting-out point for those wines is deliciousness. If the wine offers a tangible structure to undergird its pleasures of fruit, then I am very happy. You may find such wines simple, but I will argue they are neither mundane nor trivial. Simplicity isn’t always simple.
Finally, as a taster I am sensitive to elements of shape, contour and motion. Shape is simply alluded to as a descriptor, but I think contour and motion are more evaluative, and both contribute to length, which of course is very important. Some wines can depict really fascinating arcs of “narrative”, they can carry you along, and deposit you in a different place than you started from. Some wines can leap at you on first impact, then retire demurely, only to return with a deeper thing they aren’t sure you heard the first time. I’m in a thrall to wines like those.
There is more to this – much more, but I’ll pause here to get this text onto the blog. It will continue with an explanation of how I use language to engage with wine. I’ll also remind you of my tasting protocols for this series. Please stay tuned.