Emotional Wines

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wine and emotionWe call wines elegant, simple,sexy, sophisticated, brooding, lively, rustic, authentic, and subtle. These terms are already a routine part of the wine lexicon. So why not describe wines as joyful, angry, melancholic, cheerful, nervous or rowdy? Our ability to describe the individuality of wines would be greatly enhanced by a vocabulary that included the full range of human emotions and personality traits.

Instead of a winemaker making a wine intended to be lively or sexy, why not make a wine that is cheerful or angry?

What matters is whether describing wines in this way would make sense of our experience of them. Does it help us to understand the wine? For such a practice to be worthwhile, our descriptions would have to be more then imaginative flights of fancy. They would have to be anchored in features of the wine.

But it seems to me good wines have the complexity and perceived movement characteristics to anchor such ascriptions. And by doing so we would be able to dig deeper into the uniqueness of each wine and the capacity of a wine to affect us.

After all we interpret specific brush strokes on a canvas and specific notes and rhythms in a musical piece as evocative and expressive of human personality traits or emotions. Why would aromas, textures, and their transformations be less evocative than lines, shapes or sounds?

Wine Review: Sun Red Kontozisis Vineyards Karditsa 2015

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sunIf you prefer a horseback ride through rugged terrain to the freeway, this wine is for you. From Karditsa in Central Greece, this blend of 50% Limniona and 50% Xinomavro is as rustic as a sheepfold.

The nose is simple—floral-accented cherry notes, forest floor hiding a hint of cider. The textured mouthfeel is anything but simple. From powdery, to dusty, to grainy, like a calloused hand stroking  steel wool.

The stony launch acquires a seam of satisfying midpalate juiciness, but that is ultimately squelched like a tired promise as the spare but firm tannins ripple tensely on the granular, herbal finish.

This wine is all about texture with a unique evolution in the underbelly. Very distinctive. Cold, acerbic, gritty, it comes alive with some very hard country like the Drive By Truckers “Where the Devil Don’t Stay”.

Technical Notes: Organic grapes, 30 days of skin contact, native yeasts, and aged for 9 months in old and new oak.

Score: 90

Price: $27 (find the wine here)

Alc: 13%

The Taste of Round

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roundWhen I taste and evaluate wines, one of the most readily apparent feature of the wine is the wine’s shape and the way that shape evolves on the palate. Wines can be round, chunky, sharp, angular, contorted, flat, curvaceous, sculptured, sinuous, tapered, etc.  Wine of course is a liquid; it doesn’t literally have a shape. Nevertheless these shape words really help to characterize a wine. So what is going on here? Are these just metaphors?

Perhaps. But even if they are metaphors it remains to be explained why these metaphors can be readily understood. I doubt that people with some experience tasting wine would find it difficult to understand why a ripe Pinot Noir from the Santa Lucia Highlands is described as round or a Sancerre is described as angular. Since they are readily understandable they are likely not poetic metaphors. Their accessibility suggests there must be some literal similarity between wine and shapes.

Recent research shows that all of us are capable of making these associations. Test subjects routinely are able to reliably associate, for instance, milk chocolate with round shapes and dark chocolate with more angular shapes.

Interestingly, these cross-sensory associations appear to be transitive, that is, they extend to other associations with sounds and names (see Figure 3): Meaningless words like ‘maluma’ (Köhler 1929, 1947; Usnadze 1924, 1927) and ‘bouba’ (Bremner et al. 2013; Ramachandran and Hubbard 2001b) are matched both with more rounded shapes and, in Western populations at least, with milk chocolate. Meanwhile, angular shapes such as ‘takete’ or ‘kiki’ are matched with bitter-tasting foods such as dark chocolate. We would like to argue that transitivity is not a property of metaphors, but rather a property of sensory mappings and associations (e.g., Stevens 1966).

Spence and Deroy, the authors of the linked survey, hypothesize that the association is not purely linguistic and thus not metaphorical. There are actual perceptual interactions between the sense modalities of vision and taste.

Additional research seems to show that viewing shapes can influence what we taste.

Next, the participants were given a small piece of cheddar cheese to taste. Intriguingly, those participants who had just been looking at the angular shapes rated the cheese as tasting around 7% sharper than another group of participants who had just evaluated three organic shapes instead.

This research seems to show that there is a lot more going on in a wine than just fruit aromas. The area of cross-modal correspondences offers the potential for greatly expanding the expressive range of wine.

Not all Arguments Against Wine Scores are Coherent

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wine scoresI have no particular axe to grind with regard to wine scores. Consumers seem to like them because they are convenient. However, there is no doubt they over-simplify the complex topic of wine quality and give a misleading picture if used without the accompanying tasting notes.

There is however one argument against wine scores that doesn’t work. People often point to the absurdity of assigning a score to Beethoven’s 9th Symphony or Picasso’s Guernica and then argue that wine scores are absurd for similar reasons. But the cases are not at all analogous.

The difference is that the works of Beethoven and Picasso are already part of the art canon. Their iconic status was decided over a century ago and there is no serious challenge to it. Scoring their work would perform no useful function even if we could decide on what criteria to use.

In essence the work of great composers and painters from the past are no longer in a market that the public has access to. There is a market for performances of Beethoven but not the work itself. And the market for paintings by the great masters is among museums and wealthy private patrons, neither of which need scores to direct their purchases.

Notice that film and contemporary popular music do receive scores on sites like Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes. This is because, like wine, there is a publicly accessible market for them.

Furthermore, unlike paintings and the score of musical works, wines change from year to year. Vintage variation requires we have a means of tracking those changes. Wine scores are one convenient way of doing so.

They may be arbitrary or simple-minded but wine scores do satisfy a need and have a clear function.

Artisanal Winemaking is Un-American

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artisanal winemakingDuring this Covid 19 pandemic we are learning a lot about the American character in the 21st century.

We are learning that vast swaths of American society are undisciplined, impatient, and far too enamored with the idea they can manipulate reality to conform to their wishes. Even the minor discomfort of wearing a mask in public is just too much to bear, and having to endure life without salons, gyms, or restaurants is just beyond the pale.

And what about the 123,000 deaths and counting? Don’t think about that. “It’s just the sniffles”. “I don’t know anyone who died. The numbers are inflated.” “It won’t happen to me—only unhealthy people die from it.” For any obstacle there is always a rationalization that will set you free.

Yet there are redoubts in society where such infantile behavior and magical thinking is out of place (including of course the front line health care workers who know the score).

Take artisanal or natural wine making for instance. Winemakers know they are not in control and can’t make reality conform to their wishes. They know they are at the mercy of weather, geography, and all the unpredictable unknowns of the wine making process and they embrace that uncertainty

They are disciplined, knowing that, when its time to harvest, the relentless weeks of 16 hour days are just part of the job.

And they are above all patient. Wine making is about watchful waiting—waiting for the grapes to ripen, for the tannins to soften, for the volatile acidity to recede. If you want to know if that experiment with extended maceration will help your wines age, you might have to wait 10 years.

Artisanal wine making goes against the grain of the modern ethos of instant gratification—all the more reason to make sure it survives.

Why Wine?

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vineyard in proseccoWine is many things to many people. That it contains alcohol, encourages conviviality, and tastes good are surely the reasons most people drink wine. But these reasons don’t quite explain why some people are deeply devoted to wine. Neither do they explain why wine has become an iconic, culturally significant signifier of good taste and aesthetic appreciation. The great wine writer Hugh Johnson provides the most compelling explanation:

Think, for a moment, of an almost paper-white glass of liquid, just infused with greenish-gold, just tart on your tongue, full of wild flower scents and spring-water freshness. And think of a burnt-amber fluid, as smooth as syrup in the glass, as fat as butter to the smell and sea-deep with strange flavors. Both are wine. Wine is grape-juice. Every drop of liquid filling so many bottles has been drawn out of the ground by the roots of a vine. All these different drinks have at one time been sap in a twig. It is the first of many strange and some – despite modern research – mysterious circumstances which go to make wine not only the most delicious, but the most fascinating drink in the world. It would not be so fascinating if there were not so many different kinds. Although there are people who do not care for it, and who think it no more than a nuisance that a winelist has so many names on it, the whole reason that wine is worth study is its variety. (from Wine: A Life Uncorked)

Variety and variation are the keys to understanding wine’s aesthetic appeal. But it isn’t only the variations made possible by the vineyard and the sensitivity of grapes to weather and geography that matter. Cultural variations are equally important—the variety of styles, techniques, winemaker’s sensibilities,  traditions and interactions with food intersecting with those vineyard variations give wine a richness of permutation that is rivaled only by art, music, and nature.

Wine has earned its iconic status because of the way it integrates and provokes culture and nature to express endless variation.

What Counts as the Same Wine?

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bottling lineMost wines are blends, not necessarily of various varietals, but blends of grapes from various regions, vineyards, or sections of vineyards. Often the grapes from these locations are vinified separately and are aged in separate barrels and each batch will develop its own characteristics. This is especially true if native yeasts are used. The various batches may have been made with different yeast strains that produce distinct flavor profiles.

In many wineries, the winemaker will taste these separate batches and decide on a final blend. Her crew will then transfer the proper percentage from each batch to a large tank to be blended before sending to the bottling machine. If executed properly each bottle will contain the same wine.

But that isn’t always how its done. Many winemakers, especially in smaller wineries, will wait until a particular barrel is ready and bottle from that barrel. Then they move on to the next barrel when it is ready, etc. In other wineries, wines may be bottled using fixed percentages of each varietal from various batches without blending in a large tank and without regard for whether exactly the same batch mixture is used for each bottling run. In these cases it’s the same vintage, the same varietals, the same vineyard sources but the bottle variation may be significant.

Does each bottle contain the same wine?

It has also been shown that individual bottles differ in how much oxygen enters the wine at bottling even using the same bottling line on the same day. This too will change the properties of the wine as it absorbs that oxygen.

Even before we get to the issue of storage conditions and differences in how wines develop over time in the bottle, the adage that there are no great wines only great bottles may apply.

Review: Wine Insiders

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wine insidersI typically pay little attention to wine clubs or membership sites but Wine Insiders gave me the opportunity to sample their wines so I decided to see what kind of quality and selection was available from them. They have been around for many years and their introductory offer to get you to sign up (12 wines for $89 plus 3 bonus wines and free shipping) is outstanding. Their business model is to offer a limited selection of curated wines in the $10-$20 dollar range from California, France, Spain, Italy, Chile, and South Africa.

These are obviously high production wines and you won’t be finding Wine Spector 90+ wines in your shipment. But the diversity on offer is better than most supermarkets and their prices seem to be in the mid-range for the wines I checked. The club is designed for casual wine drinkers who want to explore the wine world a bit without having to confront the wine wall at the supermarket or the tyranny of choice at Total Wines or Wine.com.

I should emphasize that I have no basis for an assessment of their customer service, shipping practices, or typical selections in the quarterly shipments, and I can evaluate only the wines they sent me. I’m sure they chose wines they thought I would like. My  evaluation is limited to the question of wine quality.

So are the wines any good? For the price, yes. With one exception they were interesting, typical of the variety and region from which they hail, and worth the listed price.

Here are the wines I sampled accompanied by brief tasting notes.

Le Vassel De Mercues Malbec Cahors France 2017     Price: $18  Score: 89

From the classic French region specializing in Malbec, the blueberry, gentle taut oak, dusty earth and black olive aromas are typical and expressive. It is rich and robust up front, with a medium plus body, and a very firm finish with some grain to the tannins. It closes with good fruit persistence and a fresh mineral seam.

Le Fiefs De Cyrano Blanc Bergerac France 2017  Price: $13  Score: 86

This is a from a lesser known region just east of Bordeaux. A white Bordeaux blend made from Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon, it has typical green grass, apple and lovely floral aromas with a hint of lemon zest. Medium body with the slight oiliness from the Semillon showing well, it features a medium body at midpalate and a very tart finish.

IAGO Verdicchio Castelli di Jesi D.O.C Italy 2018  Price: $14  Score: 87

Another classic region represented here, Verdicchio is the main white grape from the Marche region of Central Italy. A simple lemony nose with some bitter almond on the finish and an absolutely scintillating, rough-hewn texture from dry extract. The mouthfeel is worth the price of admission.

Le Petite Bilaude Cabernet/Merlot IGP France 2018  Price:  $17  Score: 85

Black cherry and stemmy, herbal notes  with faint oak emerging with aeration. Nice, rich opening on the palate, dark and toasty, with a medium plus body, but lacks fruit persistence on the finish which turns a bit tart. The tannins are powdery but present and effective. This is a mouthwatering but rustic wine, good intensity and quite active but needs a good steak to keep it in check.

Hayton Family Reserve Viognier California 2017  Price: $12  Score: 87

A very nice California Viognier. Expressive tropical fruits, pineapple, fruit cup, ripe pear, and a hint of butter. It has the viscosity you want in Viognier, a medium plus body with good acidity and a nice mineral inflection on the finish. A bit static but well balanced.

Novinophobia Cabernet Sauvignon California 2017 Price: $15  Score: 83

A closed and inexpressive nose. I thought it was corked but that is unlikely given the composite material from which the cork is made. Faint blackberry and a bit of vanilla are the dominant aromas. The palate is soft and smooth with almost no tannins and lacking fruit persistence leaving the acidity exposed on the finish. Satisfactory but dull.

Reviews based on industry samples