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The Music of Wine

By |  June 3 2008

This leads me to take the opposite view in public tastings, which in turn earns me accusations that I am refusing to share my response. Nothing could be further from my intentions. I have long been convinced that an appreciation based on a description of the nose alone is meaningless when it comes to educating the public about wine. What would you think of a Titian expert who was content to show you one of the great master’s paintings and say, "There is blue in the left-hand corner and yellow on the right-a lovely, perfectly pure yellow that is brought out by the sublime red at the heart of the composition"? Or a musician who went into raptures over an array of flat chords in a piece by Beethoven? The "prodigious nose" is likewise missing the point. He or she may well detect 33 different aromas in a 1990 Chambertin,

each described in nauseating detail-from Russian leather, to Madagascan pepper, not forgetting roses of Isfahan and licorice sticks from Pithiviers. What they are overlooking, however, is the very quality that makes this particular Chambertin unique: a combination of factors (terroir and climate) and human know-how found nowhere else in the world-a combination that has to be perceived as an indivisible whole, including aromatic and tactile impressions, producing an emotion that is enriched by the memory of all previous emotions. These together form a dynamic ensemble that develops in space (the glass) and time (the duration of the tasting). Other contributory factors include ambient temperature, air quality, atmospheric pressure, and, of course, wherever possible, the opportunity to exchange views with your fellow tasters!

Nothing could be more dishonest, therefore, than to freeze-frame what you feel at the precise moment when you decide to analyze and describe a few aromas and then use that as a basis to define the wine as a whole. Nothing could be more inane-as if the sleeve notes for Les Misérables could pass for the novel itself. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: An aroma of blackcurrant, cinnamon, or horse sweat is not in itself interesting, since what defines it has to do with molecular properties that can be easily simulated by artificial means. Its interest depends on the body and texture of the wine that give shape to the aromas we perceive and, most especially, on what it tells us about the grapes-fruit from a particular terroir that ripened in a year with specific weather conditions, with a taste that was structured, transformed, and fixed in time by fermentation. Bear in mind also that the perception of smells and tastes varies from person to person, depending on genetic heritage, received wisdom, and the cultural and historical mores of particular nations and societies. Plainly, therefore, he who sets himself up as the universal arbiter of the "aesthetic value" of a taste is an impostor, and all those who take him seriously are deceiving themselves.

Personally, I will always favor analogies that describe wines as "characters"- "spirited or calm," "secretive or expansive"- something that Lalou Bize Leroy in Burgundy does particularly well. Conventional, routine comparisons between "masculine" and "feminine" wines are cheerfully accepted. So too are those comparing wines with works of art, based on the proportions, effects, and style of particular wines. All of these are preferable to the catalog of routine tasting notes that you tend to find in wine books. I will go one step further, even though I know that many will not agree: For me, the individuality of a noble wine is analogous to music-tone, voice, song. I think of wine as a musical score, composed of geological, climatic, agronomic, and enological notes that must be sight-read, understood, and interpreted. The taste is the result of that interpretation, starting with a highly complex group of micro-organisms (yeasts and bacteria). Supervising them are wine growers and winemakers, some more intelligent and sensitive than others. Such an apparently cultural approach to wine is in fact entirely intuitive. It appeals to wine growers and the public alike because it encourages views about wine that the conventional approach avoids-views that are sounder, clearer, and more universal than subjective opinions based on a moment’s perception.

I have worked hard to make this approach of mine credible, partly by delving into every aspect of wine production, but mainly by forcing myself to discipline my own impressions! Understanding the art and craft of winemaking is something I could not have done without the support of leading professionals who gave unstintingly of their time and talents. But, of course, I have often been accused of arrogance by some of my more envious and shallow colleagues. Who does this critic think he is, they ask, meddling in other people’s business, presuming to teach wine growers their trade, calling for a different kind of wine? In fact, they miss the very basis of his relationship with wine growers: that spirit of apprenticeship that underlies any good artist-critic relationship. A recently published and badly informed American book even says-much to the amusement of those producers who know me-that I have betrayed the cause of journalism by becoming a paid consultant. All of these accusations are slanderous and hurtful. But I take solace in the knowledge that my musical relationship with wine allows me to plumb the mysteries of great bottles- symbols of that fragile union between Nature’s genius and man’s creativity, a marriage that only occurs under certain unique and unrepeatable circumstances.

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