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One bottle

By |  June 3 2007

Wines, we surely agree, are beautiful. To varying degrees. Where, though, do we find the most beauty? In wines with the richest accumulation of qualities? Or in wines that dispose their qualities most artfully? This is the question of the moment, for two reasons. The first is that modern viticulture and winemaking techniques allow qualities formerly only in nature’s gift to be lavished on any wine we chose. We can engineer an accumulation of qualities — by cutting yields, by pushing ripeness, by coldsoaking, by concentrating, by adjusting.

The second reason is that the rise of wine criticism in market-making has given the individual palate unparalleled significance. Any individual palate must take a position on our initial question; thousands (of people, of dollars) may follow. It’s easier to praise accumulation than disposition. Accumulation can be objectively assessed; disposition is more subjective. As a result, the hypothesis runs, we are now in an age in which wines with the richest accumulation of qualities eclipse those that dispose their qualities most artfully.

The bottle I have open in front of me is illustrative. It would struggle to merit more than 86, or 14.5, points from the majority of assessors: It simply does not have a rich enough accumulation of qualities. But it marshals its qualities with what, for me, is a magnetic charm. The same producer will have made other wines from the same vineyard in the same year with a richer accumulation of qualities, but I am almost sure I would like them less.

There are, as usual, human analogies. We don’t love only those who are beautiful or intelligent or athletic, though when we examine or judge or employ our fellow humans, these are the qualities that elevate the few above the many. Catwalk models tend to exude vacancy; the intellectually brilliant may chill or repel. Each becomes truly lovable only in their more undignified and fallible moments. It is the less-thanperfect, the speckled, the all-too-human who tug our love. Show me a wine drinker who has always meekly subscribed to the greatness of every "great" wine he or she has been served, and I will show you a label drinker. The truth is that "great" wines, many burdened by an accumulation of qualities, are not always beautiful, whereas little wines (finely disposed) can touch perfection with momentary ease.

The one-word summary of the dilemma is Kabinett. This wine is a Kabinett: the 2001 Bernkasteler Badstube from Dr H Thanisch (Erben Müller-Burggraef). Kabinett for me is a magic word. What I feel when I approach a good or great Kabinett, corkscrew in hand, is akin to stepping into woodland after a month in the city. Suddenly, the great burden of the unnecessary is lifted; suddenly, I am in a place of birdsong and rustling leaves. I acknowledge the vineyard efforts and risks that mean that Spätlese and Auslese wines must be more expensive than their Kabinett siblings, but in this case I usually prefer less to more. Partly it is practicality: In the früchtig styles, Kabinett’s lower sugar levels make it more food-friendly than Auslese; and in the drier styles, its tempered alcohol levels have the same effect. Kabinett wines are, happily, the cheapest of the QmP brotherhood (this wine cost me between £6 and £7). But, most importantly, it is aesthetics: Everything that I love most passionately about German wine is exemplified by a great Kabinett.

This wine, first of all, contains just 8.5% alcohol. All wine is a drug, but this is less of a drug than almost any other bottle I own. There is something about German wine’s reluctance to befuddle its drinker that gives it a unique kinship with great music and great poetry — with works of art, in other words, whose sensual pull is drenched in meaning and significance, and where the trance and the rapture involves thought at the highest levels rather than mere physical appeal. The mind can travel unencumbered through a glass of Kabinett, like a ghost passing through glass.

It is as much green as yellow. It smells of orchards and brooks; it tastes of apples and limes and stones. It almost seems to have the weight of water on the tongue; it is as quick and lively as a mill race. When I’ve swallowed, the print it leaves is dry. It’s impossible not to sip again; it is a beckoning wine. The next sip, inevitably larger than the first one, brings a little more fruit to the table; the stone becomes slate: hot, dusty.

The stone, indeed, makes the wine unfruity again: balance! Duty calls, and I begin to analyze the acidity, the traces of residual sugar: more balance, taut, like the cables on a bridge. Then the next sip has overtaken me, and I feel almost ashamed of that tiresomely analytical impulse; now I am reveling in its spriteliness, its sherbet tongue-tip tingle. Should I use the word sherbet? This wine is so evidently a part of the natural world that it is easy to fantasize that it made itself and that confection has no place in it. Nonsense, naturally. But (sipping further) I reflect that Germany’s wine culture in a way means that it has made itself. The duty of the vintage called, and making this Kabinett would simply have been a station on the road of precedent; this wine was the correct thing to do with that part of the crop at that stage. It was not a wine that required thought or decisions: It is, in that sense, nature speaking, though the language borrowed by nature is that of German wine culture. And now I’m a quarter of the way into the bottle, and still thinking of copse-strewn valleys where you can hear a dog bark 5 miles away through the dusk, and the cool night air slipping off the hillsides, and mist among the apple trees, and how the folk poems that constitute Knaben Wunderhorn seem so facile but leave one moved nonetheless.

A Kabinett moment: pure pleasure, mind and mouth alike. Little accumulation; all disposition.

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