‘My glass was filled with a light red wine poured from a pitcher, left on the table. I was relaxed, carefree and happy. Oh, how ruby bright that wine was; it gleamed in the sunlight. I remember clearly its enticing aroma – youthful but with a refinement that surprised me. The wine was sweetly exotic: lively on my tongue, perfectly balanced, and with a long glossy finish. It was the sort of wine that Omar Khayyam might have in mind for his desert tryst. The young woman who had poured it for me was amused when I asked what it was. It was, she said, vino rosso.’ —Remembrance of Wines Past, Gerald Asher
Over time we began to identify certain organoleptic similarities between our favourite wines. Displaying lightness and purity of the fruit and exalted levels of acidity, these were nutritious wines that skated lightly and brightly across the palate as opposed to the mesomorphic, lignified, indigestible specimens designed to acquire trinkets at tastings. In an age where wines were naturally reaching high levels of alcohol, we were discovering that some wines could be lean, fresh, mineral and utterly satisfying, and that certain growers, by using plot-by-plot knowledge of their vineyards and by having an acute awareness of their diverse microclimatic subtleties, could produce gentle, restrained, expressive wines no matter how difficult the vintage. The true grower was also one who would restrict or eliminate invasive interventions in the winery and we increasingly identified with vignerons who would use oak sparingly (or not at all).
What is deliciousness? Can one quantify something that is essentially impressionistic, a subjective sensation? It is oft said that the best bottle of wine is the empty bottle… Delicious wine is instantly appealing, encourages us to unfurl our tongues and encourage the flavours silkily slide across our palates without analysis, what the French call gouleyant – easy to drink, quaffable. We could appreciate the following quote from Steppenwolf: “I am not fond, for everyday at least, of racy, heady wines that diffuse a potent charm and have their own particular flavour. What I like best is a clean, light, modest country vintage of no special name. One can carry plenty of it and it has a good and homely flavour of the land, and of the earth and sky and woods”.
Putting our oak chips on the table, wines that appeal to us have to be well-made, earthy, mineral, not necessarily commercial, yet certainly more-ish, sapid, refreshing, digestible, and capable of accompanying food. In the words of Hubert de Montille in Mondovino we like “chiselled wines”. A wine should offer pleasure from the first sniff to the draining of the final dregs, although that pleasure may evolve according to the complexity of the liquid in the glass. The pleasure, of course, is personal. We each bring something to what is there in the glass and interpret the result differently. Over-analysis is invidious in that you frequently end up criticising a wine for what it is not, rather than accepting it for what it is.
In the wine trade we seem to be in thrall to notions of correctness. We even say things like: “That is a perfectly correct Sauvignon”. Criticism like this becomes an end in itself; we are not responding to the wine per se, but to a platonic notion of correctness. This is the zero defect culture which ignores the “deliciousness” of the wine. We cannot see the whole for deconstructing the minutiae, and we lose respect for the wine. We never mention enjoyment, so we neglect enjoyment. This reminds me of the American fad for highbrow literary criticism, imbued with a sense of its own importance. Wine is as a poem written for the pleasure of others, not a textual conundrum to be unpicked in a corridor of mirrors in the halls of academia. If the path be beautiful, let us not ask where it leads.
And why should wine be consistent? There are too many confected wines that unveil everything and yet reveal nothing. The requirement for homogeneity reduces wine to an alcoholic version of coca-cola. Restaurants, for example, are perhaps too hung up on what they think customers think. Patrick Matthews in his book “The Wild Bunch” quotes Telmo Rodriguez, a top grower in Rioja Alavesa. “We were the first to try to produce the expression of terroir, but people didn’t like the way it changed the wine… The consumer always wants to have the same wine; the trouble is if you have a bad consumer, you’ll have a bad wine.” And, of course, if you push wines that are bland and commercial, then the public will continue to drink bland and commercial wines.
But more on this in part 2, ‘The Stepford Wines’…