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The question that I get asked more often than any other is, "How do you taste wine?" or its many variations, such as "How can I taste wine like you?" or "What are you looking for when you taste wine?". It's not easy for me to answer these questions. I have been making wine for over 20 years now, and the exercise of tasting, of sensory analysis has become so automatic and precise that I rarely deconstruct it to think where it comes from. For the last two weeks I have made an effort to try and pick apart what I look for and I have come up with a list of ten attributes that I find to be very important.
"Typicity" is not an English word, but it should be. In French they call it typicité, which my dog-eared Larousse dictionary describes it as "The ensemble of characteristics that make a food product unique". If you are drinking a Pinot Noir Typicity is what helps us to recognize it as a Pinot Noir. It is also what tempers the urge to overdo a wine, to obliterate its natural characteristics. Typicity is best served when the winemaker translates flawlessly the poetry of the vineyard into the wine without fuss and ornament.
Sense of Place
What makes great wines great? The simple answer is that great wines come from great vineyards. These vineyards through their unique sites, climates, soils and history produce wines that are great and speak most clearly of where they are from. Typicity and sense of place are intertwined: A wine with a sense of place has typicity and wine that shows typicity shows a sense of place.
Complexity is the simplest element of wine to explain. It merely means that there are a lot of different flavors and aromas in a wine that are unique. Wine can be complex and bad, but wine cannot be simple and great. The key to complexity is integration, which allows wines that are complex to seem like one seamless experience with many different singular sensations. Imagine it as a train ride through a varying and beautiful countryside, where we are never at a loss for things to look at and we never crack the spine on that book that we brought.
Integration is when all of the complex elements come together. In wine we don't want any hard edges anything that dominates too much. We want wines to have integration not only of the many complex aromas and flavors but also tannin integration. All wine has a shape when you put it into your mouth, from the very first drop on your palate you get sensations of texture, density, and flavor. Ideally they should intensify in value gradually and taper off into a long finish. The fewer holes and interruptions there are in the symmetry of these perceived sensations, the more we have integration.
Surprisingly, elegance in wine is a controversial subject. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it perfectly in wine as "refined grace in form". Elegant wines can be light in body, but they can also be weighty. Elegant wines don't necessarily need to be complex but most certainly are integrated. Elegance can be the type of aromas that we get in the nose or the supplest of velvety tannins that meld perfectly into the wine. I remember Chateau Latour winemaker Jean-Louis Mandrau describing a wine as, "little Jesus in velvet underpants," or a friend's description of a lovely Italian Refosco as, "Audrey Hepburn on a Vespa." Man, that is elegant.
Length is just a question of time. The time that the positive sensations of the wine stay on your palate. The length of time that flavor is perceived after the wine has been swallowed. An hour after a wonderful lunch and a bottle of 1990 Le Bon Pasteur, I remember emitting a horrendous satisfied belch and discovered that the dense black fruit flavor of the wine was still perceptible in my mouth.
Integration is the coming together of all the separate elements of wine, but balance is the elegant duel of opposites. Flavor and oak, quality of tannins, whether they are dry or sweet in perception and alcohol are among the many things that we look at to see whether a wine is balanced. The ideal example of this crossing of swords is the duel between acid and perceived sweetness. The smallest excess in acidity can make wines seem thin and dry, while the lack of acidity makes wines seem tired, cloying, and lacking in freshness.
Power is the perceived intensity of many wine components. When it is balanced and integrated it is good element. When it is monolithic and lacks complexity it is boring and ponderous. In my opinion, power is overrated in wines. One can have wonderful wines that are complex, elegant, pleasurable, and balanced with great length that are not powerful. Powerful wines can be elegant as well.
Texture is a quality that the tannin gives to wine. The important thing to realize about tannin is that it differs in quantity and quality in wines. A wine can be very tannic but have very high-quality tannin, what we in the trade would call "fine grained", that is to say that perception of the tannin is not dry but dense. Fine-grained tannins support wines like flying buttresses hold up great cathedrals. Wide-grain tannins give us the feeling that we have little wool sweaters that have been individually hand knit for each or our teeth; they dry at the gum line. Tannins help with perceived density and extend length. Dry wide-grain tannins in young wines stay dry forever and never come around with age. Wines with fine-grained tannins soften well with age and are excellent for long-term storage.
In the end the only question is, "Do I like this?" I have had many wines that for whatever reason I have personally loved. Maybe it was the beautiful vineyard, maybe the presence of a special person or a myriad of other reasons that influence the taste of a wine. When I am clouded by outside sentiments I call this the "Cassis Effect," after the small seaside town in southern France. It is a stunning place: a small port town that has immense cliffs nearby that fall abruptly into the Mediterranean. The wine is always fantastic there as you sip it on the terrace of a restaurant looking out over the masts of sailboats in the harbor. I have made the mistake of serving it to friends here in the States after exporting it back and found it to be severely lacking, leaving only the taste of the subtle bitterness of friendly chiding.
Does it bring me pleasure? If the answer is "yes," then you can start thinking about why and they you can start understanding what you like in wine and not what other people tell you to like.
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