The Wine Critic’s Job (part 2): Tracking Variation

romanee conti vineyardIn my last post in this series on wine criticism I argued that the job of the wine critic is to make readers aware of a wine’s features,  communicate the kinds of responses available because of those features, and what the reasons are for those responses.

Which features of a wine are the most important to mention in a review? Obviously how the wine smells and tastes must be the focus along with any information that might explain why the wine tastes as it does. Most importantly, the critic must convey what’s noticeable about a wine that calls us to respond to it. A list of aroma notes isn’t sufficient. What the reader needs to know is why those aroma notes or textures are worth mentioning.

Which leads me to the most important feature of any wine that appreciation depends on—the degree to which a wine is distinctive. By “distinctive” I mean variation that carries with it value or high quality. For a wine to be distinctive it must be different from its competitors.

Variation is the life blood of the culture of wine. What makes Barolo (or Bordeaux, Rioja, etc.) important as a region is that the wines made there are distinctive. There is no other location in the world that makes wine that tastes like Barolo. The top wine regions in the world are recognized as such because  their products show significant variation from lesser regions with less distinctive products. In fact the whole appellation system depends on the idea of variation. To qualify as a distinct appellation, they must show there is something distinctive about the geography of the region that warrants the implication of individuality that comes with the appellation designation.

Furthermore, within Barolo, the prestige and price of, for instance, Giacomo Conterno Monfortino, is in part a result of the wine being distinctively different from other producers in the region, and particular vineyards are valued because the grapes they produce variations that are highly valued.

Wine appreciation also includes an appreciation of vintage variation. Much of the excitement of a new vintage for enthusiasts results from the expectation that each vintage will show distinct characteristics that can be compared and contrasted with earlier vintages. And the process of aging wines is interesting precisely because each bottle ages as an individual and thus can show variations that surprise (or disappoint) when opened.

Without variation as a dominant value, wine would be as uninteresting as orange juice or milk and there would be no reason for the vast number of brands and the price differentials that distinguish them. It is variation that makes wine the cultural icon it has become.

Thus, because of the importance of variation, it’s the primary job of the wine critic to track variation and report it to her readers. The ability to recognize and put into words how a wine varies from its competition is the most important ability a wine critic needs to be successful.

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