The wine world thrives on variation. If the thousands of bottles on wine shop shelves all taste the same, there is no justification for the vast number of brands and their price differentials. Yet the modern wine world is built on processes that can dampen variation and increase homogeneity. If these processes were to gain power and prominence the culture of wine would be under threat. In my Three Quarks Daily column this month I look at some of the historical forces that have contributed to increased homogeneity.
Although we create new varietals, discover new wine regions, and develop new technologies and methods. these innovations produce minor deviations from a core concept that sometimes seems immune to radical change. There are, after all, only so many ways to ferment grape juice. Red and white still wine, sparkling wine, and fortified wine have been around for centuries and are still the main wine styles on offer. Every wine we drink is a modification of those major themes.
Nevertheless, sometimes wine styles change, often massively. In a community so bound by tradition how does that change take place? One example of a massive change in taste took place in the U.S. in the decades following WWII, where in the course of about twenty years American wine consumers changed their preference from sweet wine to dry. How did such a revolution in taste occur in such a relatively short period of time?
See my Three Quarks Daily column “The Borrowed and the New: American Wine and French Tradition” for the answer.
Although wine is a beverage that brings enjoyment because of its flavor and alcohol, for many people wine is much more than that. Many winemakers and wine growers give up lucrative careers to take on the uncertainties of making wine, and wine lovers devote countless hours to studying its every nuance and permutation.
Why? What makes wine an object of love?
I try to answer that in my latest essay at Three Quarks Daily.
In my Three Quarks column this month I argue that it is tension and contrast, not harmony, that makes great wine.
Here is an except:
Especially as wines age, the dominant fruit, floral and herbal scents are surrounded by aromas that remind us of gravel, tar, barnyard, cat pee, petroleum, musk, sweaty saddle, smoke, gunflint, and bacon fat, not to mention the less prized aromas such as band aid, nail polish remover, and rotten egg. These are not pretty and introduce elements in the wine that are disruptive, deviant, and in themselves often ugly. If we think of wine as exhibiting flavor themes, these divergent aromas are clearly in tension with the dominant fruit and herbal themes. A pretty peach-and-apple-inflected Riesling from Germany’s Mosel region that begins to develop diesel fuel aromas in the bottle is acquiring tension and conflict that adds to the impression of depth.
My Three Quarks column this month is, for the most part, a compilation of recent posts published here on Edible Arts on the aims of wine criticism. But I added an important new dimension to the argument for the Three Quarks column.
In earlier posts I argued that the purpose of wine criticism is appreciation, not necessarily evaluation or to guide purchasing decisions. In appreciation we savor what is there in the wine and seek to discover the various kinds of experiences available to someone who is fully attuned to it. This includes knowing the meaning and significance of the wine as well as savoring its sensory properties. Appreciation is open to all the properties of an object even if they have little to do with quality.
The goal of the wine critic then is to aid in the appreciation of a wine by revealing what is there to be appreciated. But wine reviews and other sorts of wine writing are often read by people who don’t have the wine in front of them, may not be able to acquire it, and thus will not be in a position to appreciate it. Why would wine writing and criticism be important for them?
Here is the argument I added to what had been previously published.
“For the wine community, knowing the meaning and significance of a wine, the kinds of experiences available when drinking it, and especially whether it represents a new trend or flavor experience is important information independently of one’s ability to experience the wine. The wine community is an aesthetic community held together by norms, standards of excellence, and especially a shared search for differences, flavor experiences that stand out for their uniqueness or originality. Thus, the job of the critic is in part discovery, a search for gems that deserve recognition. As an aesthetic system, wine appreciation thrives on differentiation. It’s the critic’s job to support that system by giving recognition to those meaningful differences. This is why it is essential to have critics with different palates who can expand the community’s capacity to discover difference and supply it with meaning. That reviews can be used for members of the community to decide what to experience is a useful service compatible with the larger aim to enhance appreciation.”
The fact that critics disagree about wine is a feature not a bug. Only a collection of critics with different tastes and preferences will be likely to discover the full range of wines that exhibit interesting differences. The day critics all agree is the day wine loses much of its appeal.
Tasting notes often attribute emotions or personality characteristics to wine. Is there a foundation for such talk or is it just nonsense? In my Three Quarks Daily column, I use recent developments in psychology to show there is in fact a foundation for describing wines as aggressive, brooding, fierce or dignified.
As you know if you’ve been reading this blog I’ve long been interested in the expressive potential of music and wine, especially regarding the expression of emotion. Because everyone knows that music is especially good at expressing emotion, explaining how it does so appears to be the more straightforward task since many people would deny that wine could express emotion at all. If we’re going to make progress on the wine/emotion question we will have solve the music/emotion question first.
It turns out that it is not so easy to explain how music expresses emotion. Philosophers have not come to any agreement about the issue. But I think I’ve found the key to both music and wine and their expressive possibilities. In my 3 Quarks column this month I show how the psychological concept of vitality forms answers the question of how music expresses emotion. I will tackle wine and emotion next month if and when I get it sorted out.
My Three Quarks column this month is not about wine exactly, but it is about beauty and some wines are beautiful. So it sort of is about wine.
I argue that the classical conception of beauty as harmony and symmetry has been misleading us for centuries. What does that say about harmonious wines?