IN PRAISE OF DIFFICULT WINES
In wine, I have often extolled the virtues of charm and deliciousness. We don’t pay enough attention to those virtues.
“Charm” I suspect is something we don’t really understand. We experience it only sporadically in social situations, because there aren’t that many charming people. As much as I find charm to be eminent among the virtues, I have a hard time defining it. But let me try.
With people, we are charmed in two ways. The simpler one is, we observe another person and find them delightful; we are drawn to them. They are “attractive” but also more than merely attractive. They offer a compelling sweetness, usually entailing some combination of wit, comeliness , a sense of mischief and a promise of warmth. The more complex kinds of charm are particularly directed at you. It is a quality of attention; this person seems to be absorbed by you, and the fixity of his interest and the aptness of her responses create the feeling that an oddly appealing new person approves of you in just the way you always wanted.
People can act out a facsimile of charm, but it won’t fool us for long. True charm germinates in something authentic – which may be why it doesn’t come around so often.
So, how does a wine charm us? It is, among other things, addictively accommodating. It entails deliciousness but goes further. It shows a kind of tenderness; you feel that it likes you. Of course this is imprecise as a description (though extremely vivid as a felt sense), and if we’re stuck at the level of describingwine by deconstructions and associations, charm doesn’t play a part. I think that’s why we don’t see it so often in wine writing. Too bad.
Deliciousness is easier to grasp, yet somehow it seems to be pooh-poohed as insufficiently sophisticated in terms of tasting notes. I first heard the word “drinky” used by Caroline Diel though I don’t know if she coined it. It seems to be more acceptable than “delicious” to describe a wine that just slides on down and makes you thirsty for more. That seems to me to be a noble purpose. Life is hard enough; let’s let ourselves be delighted.
So I have emphasized deliciousness and charm in my various writings, and will go on doing so. But not today. Today I want to talk about a wine I found charmless and by no means “delicious” and yet I found it interesting and worthwhile and was glad of its company that evening.
It was Fontaine-Gagnard’s 2013 Volnay Clos des Chênes. If Volnay has a “masculine” side, this was it, and the thready lightness of 2013 seemed to suppress any furtive impulse the wine may have had toward deliciousness. Yet I enjoyed it, for all that. And afterwards I found myself considering: why?
We had a lamb shoulder to roast, with potatoes and haricot verts, and we did it super-simple and drank this wine with it. It was one of those evenings when you know summer’s back has been broken (even if it gets warm again, as in fact it did), and we celebrate the return of freshness and crispness and waking up from summer’s sultry stupor. So, red wine, Burgundy but nothing too sumptuous or serious, something with sinew and pepper.
It began (after thirty minutes in a carafe) markedly tannic and aloof in aroma. We had it from a “Jancis Glass” (see an earlier blog-post for a dive into those) alongside a basic Spiegelau “red wine” glass, and at first the more analogue nature of the latter was good for the wine, tamping down its gravelly grip and splashing a little juice on this diffident critter. But it was more detailed and articulate from “Jancis,” and we went back and forth. As the aromas emerged – quite deliberately – there was much to appreciate; pepper, resinous herbs, underripe blackberries, and a gently admonishing coolness expressing the basic northerliness of Burgundy, at least in those cool vintages we see so rarely any more. As the palate softened I started to take considerable interest in the wines explications; its seemed to want to explain rather than seduce.
It was seamless with our dinner. No surprise! It’s always those standoffish wines that really blossom at the table, as they’re meant to be used. But it never bloomed into something I’d call “sensual” or “tasty;” it remained professorial and calm. It never came near to clamoring. If you bent your ear to its voice it would explain that sometimes it needed to be rocky and even a tiny bit sour. That was the truth of its nature. It was introverted, and the perquisites of hedonism would not affix to it.
I admired the wine. I found much to appreciate about it. I’m glad I got to know it. Yet I wonder whether I’d actually say I enjoyed it in any hedonic sense. It didn’t pull me in. We sat across the table and conversed. It was a nice talk and then we went our separate ways.
I wonder what a “beginner” would make of a wine like this. I really wonder whether “sophisticated taste” is a prerequisite for approaching such a wine. I don’t think it is, but this kind of wine yields more of itself up to an experienced imbiber. It’s the kind of “80-something-point” wine that’s damned with faint praise by the awarders-of-points, but I feel that a case can be made for it.
It is, you could say, the yin by which we perceive the yang. It’s a wine that celebrates its very normal-ness in an almost reflective, pensive way. It wouldn’t know how to pander. It is the backdrop that lets us appreciate the great in context, with the stage-setting that’s necessary for the great to express its greatness. But our Volnay isn’t merely a backdrop; the wine has plenty to say but nothing in the form of speechmaking. It’s a sweet calm chat with a good mind.
And look, it’s not like I never want to be charmed or delighted again. I love how those things feel! Yet behind the happy tingle of pleasure when a wine is really“drinky,” there lies an awareness that I’m placing myself in the center of that experience. Something is happening to me. A wine is putting itself out to make me happy. It’s good, and I’m grateful for it, but I must say, I admire the serene repose of wines that don’t actually give much of a shit how I might respond. They shrug their cordial shoulders as if to say Well, this is who I am and you can take me or leave me. Don’t you envy that self possession, even a little?
I’m looking at the empty bottle of that Volnay and wanting to say thank you for simply showing up and not ingratiating yourself with whatever dance you thought I wanted. I admire your sobriety and candor. I respect your feline remove. I’ll wager you make an excellent friend, for anyone lucky enough to have you as one.