When eating out in restaurants, it is refreshing to encounter a clear focus on principal ingredients, showcasing two, perhaps three things on a plate, a dish that may be tackled with a knife and a fork (or even picked up with one’s fingers), as opposed to voguish blobs, spumes, smears, foams, jellies and blancmanges, wherein the knife and fork might easily be discarded and replaced by a teaspoon. Or a straw.This kind of fussy overwrought culinary prestidigitation favours the amorphous over the tangible, a case, literally, of style over substance. Either the diverse ingredients end up jostling for attention or there is too much separation and artful positioning, the plate itself being a canvas for geometric disposition rather than a utensil to eat off.
In dining terms, this is akin to throwing everything at the plate
Modern dining has become about putting technique to the fore and juxtaposing multifarious strong flavours. Ferments, pickling, smoking etc. may certainly all create taste detonations, but sometimes serve only to create muddled gastronomic noise. As impressive as the plate may look, smell or taste, the proof of the pudding, or main course or starter, is in how delicious and digestible it is.
And so one yearns for simple slithery pasta and a sauce – not too much – and a crafty crack of pepper, an anointment with the best olive oil and a rough scraping of salty cheese.
One can find analogous situations in the wine world. Take the oenologist, the head chef of our hypothetical cave. His or her primary role is to ensure that the product goes into the bottle without mishap, but as wine is a made thing, a product for various commercial purposes, an important part of the job description will also be about creating/manufacturing a particular style, one that is designed to excite the adulation of wine critics, which in turns helps the wine be sold at an elevated price. Thus style becomes a brand in itself. Yet, rather than be more beautiful expressions of nature, simple hymns to the raw ingredients, these meretricious wines are produced with exclusive regard for the effect they create. This affected (or even confected) showiness depends on intense extraction, the process of squeezing the grapes for all their worth, and this leads to further oenological interventions, all of which ultimately serve to create an architectonic wine, one that is larger than life – and often twice the price.
Many consumers (and critics) are desensitised to the above mentioned tropes; for them this is what wine should be. Using technique is not a negative per se, but, when it is a superimposition, it clads the wine with artifice. I have a problem (I would call it that), for instance, with the overt presence of new or cheap oak in wine. Here it is in the foreground, there again on the finish, its sweetness and toasty flavours dominating the juice. Other annoying impositions might include alcohol that overwhelms the fruit acid, tension and freshness muddled by the corsetry of extraction and clumsy tannins, and finally the sensation of sulphur overriding everything, scarring the wine. In dining terms, this is akin to throwing everything at the plate; in this example, it is making the wine as impenetrable as possible.
The lack of predictability, the mutability of the wine, is a positive quality, as the wine shifts through multiple phases, reminding you that born into a life of living yeasts, micro-organisms and oxygen, it has the capacity to be a living, dancing thing.
Again, for me this comes down to digestibility and what the heck I want to drink. Intense, monolithic wines are usually devoid of that nourishing energy that keeps me coming back for another glass. They are as thick reductions, broad wines in bold fonts with multiple exclamation marks vying constantly for my attention. The other side of the coin is what we call natural, when the wine’s purpose is pleasurable and gastronomic and it rejoices in its own lightness, brightness, transparency and unalloyed tastiness. Not having to impress opinion-formers, judges, marks-ists, liberates the vigneron and thus their wines, and makes drinking natural wines – good natural wines – a refreshing activity. Moreover, the lack of predictability, the mutability of the wine, is a positive quality, as the wine shifts through multiple phases, reminding you that born into a life of living yeasts, micro-organisms and oxygen, it has the capacity to be a living, dancing thing.
Wine can be complex, or it can be as simple as you like. When we communicate about it, we can either swallow a thesaurus, or cut to the chase. Having written plentiful overtly fruity tasting notes in my salad days and raided the lexicon for far-fetched similes and shock metaphors, I now favour pared-back descriptions. For me, a wine is like a reserved person, difficult to summarise in a single sentence. When tasting the wine, I focus on what is important to me, or moves me, and love it when it all adds up to more than words can wield the matter. I have unlearned all my WSET structured (dissective) approaches and go mostly by impressions. Equally, it surprises me to see people spend so much time constructing elaborate tasting notes for wines that scarcely merit more than a couple of words and don’t reflect more on what makes wine beautifully simple. Just as our hypothetical chef thatches the dish with lashings of garnish, so our indefatigable word-piling taster obscures, rather than illuminates, the wine being written about. In drink, as in food, less is often more.