Ambiguity and Wine Tasting

wine taster 112Andrew Jeffords writes about a comment from a reader who wonders how wine writers judge wines they don’t like. The reader dislikes:

  • wines that are oaky (but makes an exception for Rioja or too-young-to-drink Bordeaux)
  • high acid wines unless the fruit is ripe and juicy
  • raisiny wines, especially those high in alcohol
  • and smooth reds that lack tannins or have excessively fine, powdery tannins

Jeffords rightly takes exception to any such list:

I have laid out the parameters above as if they were binary – but they aren’t. They are sliding scales of nuanced hue. A ‘tightly wound’ 12.5% warm-climate Chardonnay may be the result of different picking portions rather than a single early pick; it may in reality be closer to 13.5% than 12.5%; it may come from a mature, propitiously sited vineyard and have attractively creamy lees notes from barrel fermentation. Then I’d warm somewhat; then I might tiptoe into a second glass. Ditto for a red with some raisiny fruit… if it had a generous tannic profile, little or no palpable oak, and the raisin notes were mingled with sensual bramble fruits and an appealing earthiness on the finish. It all depends.

This is an important point that is not mentioned often enough, especially in wine education classes. We have lists of characteristics that define the taste profile of a varietal or wines from a particular region. We learn to describe wines by using predicates that sort them into various style categories and criticize wines if they don’t fit neatly into those boxes.

But these categories and the vocabulary we use to describe wines give us a false sense of precision. Everything pertaining to wine tasting is about degrees, dosage, and shadings. One category subtly blends into another. Any characteristic is part of a gradient field rather than a concept with clear boundaries. A clear fault in one wine can be a glorious nuance in another. An observation is true in one case but less true in a similar case. Press too hard on any “truth” in the wine world and it will disappear.

This is not a defect or something to be overcome. It is what makes wine interesting. Every wine is a new mystery, a new puzzle to be solved.

Lists of characteristics help focus our attention. They are the beginning of tasting, not the end, to be discarded when we discover a wine contains multitudes.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.