By | January 28 2016
This is not a series of prescriptions for quality in wine today, nor does it pretend to be a ‘scientific’ paper – I am not a scientist. It is an empirically based attempt to clarify a few ideas on how to think about, and how to articulate, quality and qualities in wine by considering some related aspects of perception, language and aesthetic values. These are ideas I have been considering for a while, mainly in order to try to find a more consistent, rational approach in my own day-to-day work of describing and assessing wine.
That such a detailed discussion of a beverage makes any sense at all is due on the one hand to the fact that our palate and olfactory system can perceive an extraordinary range of tastes and textures, and on the other to the very particular properties of wine. Wine is demonstrably a product whose composition is highly complex, with multiple, often individually discernible, sensations and an infinite number of taste combinations. And, crucially for this discussion, its transparent, liquid nature allows us to scrutinise it easily over a period of time, enabling us to perceive, separate, savour and consider its individual elements in a way that is not possible with anything else that we eat or drink.
Wine is an artefact whose production is very largely guided by the taste of the winemaker. The method by which any grape juice is turned into wine is just one interpretation among a host of options open to the winemaker. Options limited by the nature and the quality of the must, certainly, but options that will affect both quality and style.
Musical performance is a useful analogy. Musical notes on paper and grape juice are both ‘mute’, so to speak, until transformed respectively into music or wine. This transformation is always but one of many possible interpretations of the potential in the notes or in the must. And this interpretation relies on two elements: a technical skill and know-how (the ability to play the notes, to manage the vinification), and an aesthetic taste that gives direction to one’s technical ability. Technical skills are a question of understanding and practice – they are easily learned. But by themselves they won’t produce a good result; for that, the guiding principle of taste is necessary.
While it is clearly impossible to play an instrument, or make wine, without the necessary technical skills, it is possible to do both with the requisite technical skills but without, or with very little sense of, aesthetic taste. Put more simply, technique is a prerequisite, good taste is not. And because good taste is not a necessity, we perhaps feel little need to cultivate it, if only because we all tend to think we are born with good taste. Not so. Good taste is something that also needs to be learned.
Taste presupposes tasting. And tasting consists of two basic phases: perception (that is, reading the wine) followed by judgment. For perception to be successful, the taster needs to know which sensations to look for and how to identify them – he has to be able to recognise the signs, to ‘read’ the wine, like reading a score. This is the mechanical side of tasting. If he doesn’t already know the signs he is looking for (according to the type of wine in question), it is more difficult to perceive them, and without having perceived them, impossible to assess them. A good taster has first to be a good reader, because a limited reading necessarily implies a limited judgment. This is true as much for the wine drinker as for the winemaker. But it matters more where the winemaker is concerned because it is the only means he has of guiding his winemaking decisions.
The second phase of tasting, judgment, is where the taster organises and evaluates what he has noticed according to various criteria, which I will come to shortly. And it is here that good taste comes into play – that aesthetic sense that guides the hand of the winemaker during vinification and, later on, guides the critical palate of the consumer.
These two phases, reading and assessment, are equally important, but it seems to me that there are many opinions on wine today that are of limited value because one feels the initial perception, the reading of the wine’s signals, has been incomplete – the taster simply hasn’t noticed what there is to notice.
Neither perception, nor judgment, nor our aesthetic sensibility can exist, at least not in communicable form, without language. The relationship between words and perception is a crucial one. Until we identify with a word or a name what we have perceived, it is but partially perceived and likely to be elusive. And without the words to describe an experience, it is not only difficult to think about it in the first place, it is clearly impossible to discuss it. Words help us notice things, they help ‘reveal’ sensations, literally ‘drawing back the veil’ from them. Once acquired and linked to particular sensations, they help us locate and identify them subsequently – they make perception more efficient by clarifying our awareness. When we taste with a wide vocabulary, an active search of the mind generates the words, which in turn capture and crystalise the sensations, which we can then utilise to articulate our descriptions of style, our appreciation of quality. This is why enlarging and maintaining an active vocabulary is so important for a good wine ‘reader’.
Having suggested that the basis of good tasting is the ability to ‘read’ a wine well, for which you first need a good vocabulary, how can we then give what we call ‘quality’ a more rational basis? Wine quality tends to be a subject packed with prejudice and subjectivity, often without any reference to criteria appropriate to particular wines. It is certainly a subject full of woolly thinking.
What is clear is that there is no single set of criteria that apply to all wines. The criteria one uses have to be appropriate to the wines one is judging. Our specific expectations of a good peach are very different from those of a good apple, though both are fruit, and we obviously want both to be ripe and ready to eat. With wine too we need to use a variety of values, some general, some very specific to the ‘kind’, the ‘species’ of wine in question.
Good quality is not the preserve of fine or expensive wines. Wines of good quality exist at all levels, good above all in the sense that they give pleasure as a drink. My wife Monika and I are currently enjoying an excellent 2001 village Chablis, a wine with a clean, direct, crisply ripe green-apple fruit, appetising and almost thirst-quenchingly fresh. When I first tasted it my reaction was simply: ‘Wow, this is good!’ And there are many others like it. Such wines, relatively simple and inexpensive, are judged – as they should be – by relatively modest criteria. But they give real pleasure. And the pleasure principle is fundamental. However, we don’t all like the same wines, and as soon as we need to discuss disagreement, more challenging questions of value arise.
The long and long of it
Are there, to make matters easier, universal quality criteria? There is, I think, one: length. The criterion is simple: the more prolonged the sensations, the better the wine. It is sufficiently concrete – without being absolutely so – to be easily measurable by our senses, and since it can be applied relatively objectively to all types of wine, it comes close to being a universal measure of excellence. (Length as a positive quality assumes the wine is well balanced for its type and attractive to taste. Length can be misleading, as a quality indicator, where any of wine’s three potentially strongest aspects is present in excess – acid, tannin or alcohol. A distractingly dominant persistence of any one of these is clearly undesirable.)
There are two sorts of length. Length of finish or aftertaste – those sensations we continue to perceive after swallowing and/or spitting; this is the tail end of our tasting (hence the French term caudalie for finish, from the latin cauda meaning tail). And length in the mouth, that period when we consider how the flavour characteristics develop and endure while we explore the wine in the mouth, prior to the finish.
Length of finish is the one we recognise most easily, and it is the easiest to articulate, comprising the flavour sensations that seem to reach right back into your throat in the case of a long wine – a literal linear length of finish – and how long in time the presence of these flavours and their associated aromas linger as a resonance, perfuming your mouth – a temporal length of finish, which one can measure in seconds.
Then there is length in the mouth (length across the palate/mid-palate length). This is perceived partly as a sensation of the linear span, the physical reach just mentioned (the flavours of short wines seem barely to reach the back of your tongue before they fade); but much more significantly mid-palate length is a chronological tenacity of flavour while you keep the wine in your mouth, before you swallow or spit. Here you consider the temporal span across which the wine continues to hold your attention, to stimulate your taste buds; how long it seems to maintain an inner energy and drive while you explore, while you ‘read’ what it has to offer. With the finest wines, you exhaust the liquid on your palate before you exhaust its possibilities. The ‘energy current’ of lesser wines weakens much more rapidly in the mouth.
You can easily demonstrate this to yourself by tasting, for example, a village Puligny-Montrachet next to a premier cru Puligny from the same year and producer, or a second wine next to its respective grand vin in Bordeaux. See how the finer wine demands to be considered and savoured longer as you gently work and aerate it in the mouth: it has more scope, more tenacity (the French word tenure), it speaks to you for longer. Going back to the lesser wine for comparison will show that its flavours hold up less well, for a briefer time, its ‘energy current’ weakens much more rapidly in the mouth, even before you get to the finish.
Why should we consider this an important aspect of quality? Because wines that are long in the mouth, long across the palate, are precisely those that make the most of the unique property of wine that I have already mentioned, its capacity to be scrutinized and enjoyed by our senses over a period of time. These are wines that, as a result, prolong our sensual pleasure at the very least, as well as, at the very highest level, also offering the opportunity to challenge and satisfy our intellect as we search for words to grasp, describe and thus articulate what they have to offer.
For me this is an absolutely key measure for discerning quality, whether as a winemaker, consumer or critic, and one that I think is inadequately taught in the teaching of tasting and, furthermore, seems to be inadequately used in tasting commentaries. I stress it because I feel many wines today are judged primarily by their ‘vertical’ parameters, so to speak – their density and concentration – rather than their horizontal ones. And obviously that tends to favour deeply coloured red wines of marked extract. The beauty of the mid-palate length as a quality criterion, this tenacity of flavour prior to the finish, is that it reveals a significant aspect of quality whatever the style of wine – powerful or delicate. It relates to duration rather than strength.
This necessarily has implications for how you judge wine, particularly in respect of how long you keep the wine in your mouth and how long you need to complete your assessment. As a result, the criterion of mid-palate length sits uncomfortably in the context of large comparative tastings. Its essence is temporal after all, so that you necessarily have to keep the wine(s) longer in your mouth as you consider this aspect. Which in turn leads to greater alcohol fatigue. But it does allow a fairer assessment of lighter styles of wine, those that tend to lose out to sheer force at the tasting table.
Beyond length of taste, a quality measure specific to wines and spirits, we can also use a more general range of aesthetic criteria when judging wine – criteria that we apply to our impressions of beauty, form, proportion and performance in other spheres of life.
Complexity: a multiplicity of individually perceptible scents and flavours – the audiophile’s ‘information rich’, and something we prefer to simplicity, especially in more expensive wines.
Clarity: we value clear impressions in contrast to blurred ones. Like sharp focus and definition in photography, or separation of detail in recorded music that allows us better to discern its individual strands.
Power: a fashionable quality today. Of course we enjoy having our senses overwhelmed, particularly when we begin to explore wine, but what is impressive at the tasting bench is often tiring at the table.
Finesse: in contrast to power this is, not surprisingly, easy to underestimate. It talks less loudly, is less immediate and requires more of an effort of attention. Frequently mistaken for weakness or dilution, it is not the same thing at all. Nor are finesse, delicacy and subtlety incompatible with intensity of sensation. We all know the intense pleasure to be had from a delicate caress…
Fruit in contrast to aroma: we all relish a rich charge of fruit at the heart of a red wine. It is easily perceived and easy to appreciate. But some wines stress aroma and scent rather than fruit as such. They are none the worse for that, just different.
Effortlessness: the finest wines, in whatever style and whatever proportions, impress by their natural harmony, a perfect balance of their constituent parts. An immediate feeling that their performance, in their category, is absolutely ‘right’. Like the performances of a great athlete or musician, they seem to be achieved with a total ease and absence of effort. So many wines today are hard work, both to taste and, even more, to drink. Quite the opposite of effortlessness and often the result of overambitious winemaking that seeks to satisfy a market perceived as liking this style. I say perceived because I am by no means persuaded that this is really the case.
Texture: the lining of our mouth is remarkably sensitive to tactile impressions, an issue mainly in red wines. Here a certain astringency is agreeable, but a marked excess of tannin, whether from overextraction of the grapes or from too much new wood, is a distraction that is unpleasant per se, as well as detracting from the wine’s real flavour – just as an excess of seasoning in a dish.
Along with these general aesthetic criteria there are, for many wines, more specific criteria. These relate to characteristics of taste, aroma and proportion, which are linked historically to particular locations, terroirs, to the grapes that flourish there and to styles and conventions that have developed over generations – usually a perfecting of what experiment and experience have proved that they do both naturally and well. These qualities and attributes are relatively independent of vintage, assuming that viticulture and winemaking practices are moderate rather than extreme. And even if there are now changes in these practices, as a result of new techniques and changes in taste, this is not necessarily a bad thing, providing the changes are not pushed too far and that one retains a clear sense of the original, that which speaks of its origin. It is perhaps worth remembering that these local (that is linked to a locale) styles are ‘natural’ in the sense that they developed largely without the pressure of international market forces and guru influences that are so significant today.
Best is worse
A consequence of these forces is a sort of ‘new’ super-measure of excellence: the superlative, where everything must be ‘the best’. Always attempting to do better, to improve, is one thing – excellence is a natural human pursuit. Trying to do ‘the best’ is not quite the same thing; and if the motives are laudable, the results are not always to be encouraged: the darkest, deepest, strongest, most intense, that which will impress most in comparative tastings. The danger is that in trying to make ‘the best’, the superlative, the winemaker so often risks masking precisely what he or she is trying to perfect, those very particular, often subtle, characteristics that speak of an origin, those properties that many drinkers have come to appreciate both as unique features in their own right, and as qualities that distinguish ‘this’ from ‘other’ wines.
There is an increasing tendency towards making ‘the best’ precisely because it attempts to ‘maximise’ (notice the word, with its connotations of size, intensity, extremity). This tendency rarely looks for finesse, subtlety or those very aspects of wine that make it a pleasure to actually drink: a flowing, refreshing quality, one that asks for the glass to be replenished, rather than left half full. And if the fashion for scoring wines is now inescapable, we have to remember that the true wine lover doesn’t drink competitively or numerically.
To what extent one uses any or all of these criteria depends naturally on the wine. Typically we use – we should use – a variety of combinations of these in order to asses wines of very diverse styles and qualities. And of course with practice, as for any complex skill, it takes rather less time actually to do than to analyse in words, as I have done here!
One final measure of quality, above all for what we call ‘fine’ wine, is the capacity to improve in scent, texture and subtlety with bottle age. This is one of its most striking characteristics. And one of the problems that confronts us when trying to judge the recent ‘new-wave’ fine red wines is that they have little track record so far. My feeling at the moment is that for many of them the prospects are not very promising. If only because of what I see as an imbalance between their considerable concentration of flavour and strongly tannic structure (the result of very low yields, a pronounced extraction from the skins during winemaking, and a very high proportion of new oak during ageing) and their expression of fruit, aroma, potential subtleties and possible sense of origin. But we really don’t know yet.
The criteria for quality, and the way in which we perceive them, are not then very different today from how they were in the past. But I think two tendencies present a threat to what we perceive as quality. First, the fashion, almost exclusively in red wines (because you can so manipulate what you extract from their skins), for an extreme style of wine, where the winemaker imposes very personal or market-driven ideas of style and quality to the point of eccentricity. This is, of course, encouraged by that competitive culture – the ‘score’. And secondly, it seems to me (and this is part of the same problem), a lack of two things: the lack of an appreciation of the taste of wine in the past – that is, what the local heritage is, and what is worth preserving – and an insufficiently thorough understanding of how to taste, and that includes both reading a wine and understanding how to assess appropriately what you have perceived. Both would seem to be linked to a lack of a general culture of wine. How else is one to explain some of the excesses that we see so regularly today?
This is not to say that all was rosy in yesterday’s garden – far from it. And it must be said that the proportion of well-made wine today is far greater than it was, say, 20 years ago. All the more reason then to make it plain that a palpable proportion of the red wines are now so larded and overdone that the real pleasure they offer as a beverage is, in fact, diminished.
What is certain is that our expectations from a wine have a pronounced influence on our appreciation of it. These expectations may be the result of wide experience, the consequence of many years’ attentive tasting and drinking, but they may equally be based on ignorant prejudice. If the ignorance of the consumer is sad, it is at least to some extent understandable, but the professional’s ignorance of local vinous tradition and culture, if it exists, is inexcusable. That should be part of his or her basic knowledge. If we cannot impose rules of taste (and indeed we cannot and should not), those of us who do have a wide experience can at least try to help young professionals, as well as interested consumers, to think about questions of style, quality and wine culture with greater clarity.
I want to finish with a couple of quotations from outside the realm of wine but that I find appropriate to this discussion. I was (I am) a great fan of the late Alastair Cooke’s weekly BBC radio programme Letter from America. He in turn was a great fan of sport. Just prior to Wimbledon 2003 he was talking about, and deploring, today’s ‘superlative’ culture, in general, and the fashion for ‘power tennis’, in particular. He ended up by saying, ‘Pretty soon, the old, graceful, cunning game will be lost forever’, which made me think of some of the subtle, graceful wines we still enjoy but that we are also in danger of losing to the vogue for what we might call ‘power winemaking’. We need, as consumers, tasters, journalists and, above all, winemakers, to encourage the old, graceful, subtle wines too.
I would like to champion the notion of elegance in vinification. And by elegance I mean that impression of absence of effort, of ease, of wine made in a style that is natural to itself, not a forced expression of its potential. Honoré de Balzac defined it perfectly: ‘L’élégance, c’est de paraître ce que l’on est’ – that is, ‘Elegance is being oneself, being what you are’. That is a quality in wine that was and always will be worth pursuing.
(A version of this paper was delivered to the Académie Internationale du Vin in Geneva in December 2003.)