Our experience of wine, by force of practical necessity, is a personal one. The real experience takes place in the brain, acting – of course – on sensory clues from the mouth and nose. There is no empirical measurement of a wine, so every wine drinker is a universe of one, filtering each successive tasting experience through a database of previous experiences.
Almost every wine appreciation course in the world teaches its students the Flavour Wheel, with a view to developing reference points for describing flavour or aroma cues to describe a wine. The favoured choices for sauvignon blanc (not necessarily simultaneously) are cat’s pee, gooseberries, figs, tinned asparagus, freshly cut grass and others. It’s enough to drive one to drink! Sauvignon Blanc – generally – tastes of sauvignon blanc, and whatever it smells/taste of doesn’t necessarily imply that it’s a pleasurable experience. Unless, of course, the wine is corky, or oxidised, or faulty in some or other discernible way, in which case it does become necessary to add it to the description.
I once asked a group of about 40 people, all of whom were tasting the same sauvignon blanc, to give me their flavour associations for the wine. In short order I had a selection of about a dozen from which to choose, most of them totally unrelated. The point I was trying to make was that they needn’t get too hung up about what flavours or aromas they do – or don’t – identify. (For some fun with wine tasting notes, try out this website: www.gmon.com/tech/output)
No, it is far more relevant to be able to understand a wine’s total make-up. Is it well-made? Does it come from a hot or cool region? Was it aged in barrel? Were the barrels new? Is the oak character in balance? Are the tannins largely from the oak or the grapes’ skins?
One now admittedly also ventures into somewhat nebulous territory, because one is looking out for the way the wine ‘feels’ in the mouth, getting a sense of texture and shape.
I know of wine drinkers who actually draw little shapes, or even graphs, indicating how they’ve experienced the wine from the moment it entered the mouth.
So, a wine that doesn’t have much body (perhaps even tasting a little watery), with prominent acidity, may be described as being thin. One that fills the mouth (well, not literally!) with a slightly oily feeling and not much acidity would be called flabby (whoever says winespeak is ridiculous is right). This kind of wine would be unlikely to deliver much refreshment.
There are few wine issues more prone to heated debate than the use of oak, with many wine drinkers declining chardonnay on the basis that many are fermented in barrel. They forget that all red wines above entry level pricing have been subjected to some degree of barrel ageing. The contradiction is that red wines with a prominent oak character are often praised by wine drinkers who most vehemently refuse to drink wooded chardonnay.
It is on the correct degree of oak that the ‘flavour-wheelers’ diverge from the ‘feelers’. The former will be in raptures about vanilla and mocca. While there’s no denying that the texture camp will enjoy the flavours, they’ll be on the lookout for how the wine feels in the mouth. A dried-out blotting paper feeling shortly after swallowing the wine is a clue that the tannins from the oak are overwhelming the wine. Conversely, a fruit pastille-type feeling where the mouth feels coated in deliciousness, would indicate that the oaking has not been overdone.
That’s assuming the wine has even got that far. Legendary Australian wine man, James Halliday, who tastes upwards of 10 000 wines per year, has an amazing knack for summing up a wine in just a few words, within seconds of tasting it. For particularly offensive wines he uses the acronym DNPIM – do not put in mouth!
One could also make use of celebrities. A showy wine with lots of oak and ripe fruit, without any subtlety, is the busty blonde typified by the likes of Pamela Anderson (more likely in her youth!).
In a way, it brings us back to the Flavour Wheel, which is one way of starting to build up a framework for relating future experiences. It’s all about having reference points – there are no absolutes in wine. Building up those reference points takes years of drinking many different wines. I wouldn’t go so far as to write off my daily couple of glasses to education, but there really is no substitute for building up a bank of experiences.
Each wine is the summation of a unique set of circumstances – climate, soil, aspect, grape variety, as well as the passion of the people making it. It’s what gives wine its diversity, its interest, and what ultimately sets it apart from the industrially manufactured beverages. It’s a large part of what determines the price tag; understanding the wine ensures that we are getting value for our money.
It’s when we can build up our own framework of reference points that wine becomes most rewarding.
Reproduced with permission from South Africa magazine