Hitching the world
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How do knowledge and memory elevate wine tasting?
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My friend Rajat Parr, winemaker and former sommelier, performs astonishing feats of wine tasting. For instance, once, when given a glass containing just two ounces of a red wine, he smelled it for a few seconds and then tasted it, swishing a sip gently in his mouth before swallowing. “Hmm,” he said, nodding his head from right to left as he pondered. “1998 Volnay? From Lafarge, maybe. Clos du Château?”
He was exactly right, naming the region in France (Burgundy), the producer and the vintage. He even called the exact 1.4-acre plot of land on which are planted vines that, in 1998, produced grapes that were then crushed and fermented into wine, which was then aged, bottled, placed on trucks and a ship, transported across the Atlantic, placed on more trucks—and of which, finally, one bottle made it into our hands more than a decade later. That’s a precise bit of tasting, and I’d call it a fluke if he didn’t do this kind of thing all the time. (He’s also co-author on our 2011 book, Secrets of the Sommeliers.)
What qualifies as art?
Oenophiles often talk about “the Art of Tasting” in reference to the basic process of physically analyzing wine. But what makes it an art? If it requires, as Parr has, the preternatural power to identify unknown wines, then it’s an art available to only a handful of people on Earth. Yet it’s not just learning how to taste. Any basic wine book can run you through the mechanics of tasting.
So what does it mean to be a truly artful taster? For me, the art is about understanding wine at a deeper level—not just how it tastes but what it means, what its value is, how to select it, how and when to enjoy it and with what. The right wine at the right time can make for an indelible memory; the wrong wine can cause things to fall flat.
As with any art, some practice and study is involved. You don’t need an encyclopedic knowledge of wine but a certain level of fundamental knowledge and an understanding of how to use your tools. In the case of wine, the tools are the eyes, the nose, the tongue and—most of all—the mind in terms of its memories, emotions and connections. First and foremost, it’s crucial to be mindful, to be open to your feelings and associations.
You should know something of the basics, from Chardonnay to Zinfandel, from Bordeaux to Wachau, and something of niche wines like sherry, port and Madeira. As you make connections with these wines, you’ll start understanding their personalities. Magical connections will follow.
Which skills are involved?
Before you can elevate wine drinking to an art, you have to master a few of the basic skills. First, develop an extensive catalog of aromas. We will appreciate more if we expand our olfactory vocabulary. How to do this? It’s easy. As Parr often says, “Smell everything.” When you go to the market or to dine in a restaurant, he says, “Remember to smell things before you throw them in your cart or put them in your mouth.” And then make a mental note.
Besides knowing the aroma of a Meyer lemon from a conventional lemon, however, you must understand some common wine scents—notably, the smell of oak. Generally, if your attention is drawn to it, it hasn’t been well applied. There are other wine scents, usually associated with flaws that you should also know: corkiness, reduction (which can smell like burnt rubber or gunsmoke), volatile acidity, and alcohol. Understanding these help you assess the wine and determine its place (down your throat or down the drain?).
The mouth, of course, plays a huge role in the art of tasting wine but one that’s more difficult to discuss. We have very few useful words to describe what we experience there—the sensations of texture and structure. The former, everyone knows: grippy, silky, fine-grained. (We have some words, just not enough.) The latter, structure, is a more difficult proposition. It refers to the complex way the wine’s chemical elements—such as acid, tannin, alcohol, glycerol—interact and the way we experience them in the mouth. Are we sensing things on the tip of the tongue or the back? Is the wine grippy on the finish or in the mid palate? Describing these ephemeral sensations is much more challenging than simply remarking, “It tastes like dried cherries.” Yet these structural and textural perceptions are huge factors in the way we regard the wine. Often I gravitate toward wines that feel better in my mouth, even if they’re not as spectacularly flavored as another wine on the table.
Do guidelines exist?
Once you’ve spent some time paying attention to the basics of tasting wine, you can begin to work on the art of drinking it. This is the fun part, but it has a few important rules. First, don’t be shy in sampling. Yes, this means a glass, if not a bottle, when you feel like it and don’t have to drive. Obviously, white wine is a good call here. In the early evenings, it means understanding the category of aperitif wines, from dry sherry to Lambrusco (the brilliant sparkling red from Italy) to light whites like vinho verde from Portugal. No random Tuesday night was ever the worse for having been kicked off with an icy bottle of Champagne. On to dinner. With fish, always remember your German and Austrian whites—stout, flavorful wines that will add integrity to any meal.
A second rule: Know which wines are appropriate at what moment. A big Napa Cabernet on a hot summer afternoon is always a bad idea. Likewise, bringing a cheap commercial brand to a friend’s dinner party shows lack of thought and effort. However, popping that Champagne at 11 p.m. after a night of red meat and red wines might be an excellent call. Also, always remember: Price is never an indication of quality and the more expensive wine is not necessarily the better or preferable selection. Case in point: all Cru Beaujolais, a red wine that is almost always appropriate…and delightful.
The third rule: Be ever generous. The greatest way to make any wine taste better is to share it with others, even if it’s an expensive bottle and they know nothing about wine. Putting a revelatory wine in the glass of an neophyte might change their life. If it enchants that person, you will share in their pleasure. When buying wine that you know is good, buy by the case, six-pack or magnum. Make sure you have enough so there is plenty to share.
More of these truths become more apparent as you practice the art of drinking wine. You’ll become more attentive to how certain wines make you feel, what you’d like to eat with them, what a fair price is, when to drink it. The skills to recognize these are gained simply through memory: studying, paying attention and enjoying. And that brings us to the greatest thing about the developing the art of tasting: repetition.