As usual, Matt Kramer’s essay “Why the Fundamentals Matter”, in which he compares wine to the 5 fundamental ballet positions that every aspiring dancer must learn and practice, is interesting. But the analogy I think breaks down immediately. No ballet dancer can succeed without knowing the 5 fundamental positions. But wine quality is not so cut and dried. I have an allergy to any complex activity, including wine appreciation, being described in terms of rules. And I think each of Kramer’s “rules” are too fraught with exceptions to “prove the rule”.
Here are Kramer’s 5 rules of wine quality:
1. Expression of a place is a wine’s highest calling.
2. A wine has got to be clean.
3. A perfect sphere is the ideal. (Meaning overall harmony is the ideal)
4. Originality, not replication.
5. Greatness can come from places not previously recognized as great.
I’ll focus on (1) today and cover the rest of Kramer’s rules in subsequent posts.
I agree that expression of place is central to an explanation of wine’s appeal. Wine succeeds at expressing place perhaps more than any other food or beverage and that general characteristic is in part why we love wine. But it isn’t always the ideal for which great wines aim. For instance, Vega Sicilia Unico, the great Spanish wine from Ribera Del Duero is a blend of grapes from 85 geographically dispersed vineyards that are vinified separately and then blended. The aim of this wine could not be an expression of a particular place. The same is true of many of the Premier Crus Chateau of Bordeaux whose wines are made from vineyards scattered throughout their respective regions. Granted in all these cases the wine reflects characteristics of the broader region but they achieve their originality through blending that will obscure the influence of particular vineyards.
Furthermore, a wine can express a sense of place, showing a flavor and texture profile typical of a site, but nevertheless be rather simple in its flavor profile. Why would such a wine be inherently superior to a wine with complexity that lacks a sense of place, especially if it shows originality? In fact as noted above, complexity is often achieved by blending away characteristics of particular vineyards.
Surely complexity is a characteristic of great wines, but that is often in tension with terroir expression.
Most of the great wines of the world are made by using extreme sorting methods with trained workers picking grapes by hand and then using optical sorters to eliminate grapes that look good but have machine-detectable flaws. So what goes into the wine are perfect berries. But do “perfect berries” express a sense of place better than just the mix of grapes that a vineyard gives you in a particular vintage, flaws and all? Some winemakers think that having some diversity in the crop, including some over-ripe and some under-ripe berries, adds interest and complexity to a wine.
I’m no terroir skeptic but I doubt that the expression of terroir is always the fundamental aim of a great wine.