Monday, 19 November 2012

Which tasting notes will help my red wine age?



On passing the MW you are required to participate in the Institute’s education programme, and as part of this obligation I spent several days marking students tasting notes. The best notes were deductive - the Institute has an exacting approach to notation – whilst the worst answers just kept on plundering a limited lexicon of descriptions, like a still-life artist condemned to rearranging and painting the same bowl of fruit over and over and over again.

Subjecting nouns to this sort of functional and metaphorical shift in usage is meat and drink to the wine trade. Anyone who has ever stood-up in front of a crowd of diners with a glass of wine in hand knows nothing pacifies a drunken mob better than the timely naming of a fruit: “raspberries here”, “plums”, “blackcurrants” etc , and it’s tempting to think the better the wine the more elaborate and more exotic these depictions must be. Yet it seems that just as you can induce a trance by staring into a mirror for too long, so continually hanging your nose over the same wine will eventually bring-on olfactory hallucinations. How else can we possibly account for people conjuring up such queasy mixes as cassis, cherries, bacon-fat, Asian-spices, pepper, liquorice and garrigue within one glass? And at what point does wine tasting become legalised solvent abuse?

Often tagged onto these longer notes are “drinking windows”, and it’s not unusual to find that there is a correspondence between the over-endowment of descriptors and the number of years to peak maturity. Discursiveness and ageing potential seem inextricably linked.   You think its complex now, blah, blah, blah, Asian spices, blah? Well, you ain’t seen nothing yet! 2025-blah.

Somewhat against the trend, I am increasingly persuaded that ageing potential follows on from wines’ homogeneity rather than the faux-complexity found by over-zealous tasters. In my recent blog on Otago (The Heart of Lightness) I drew out the differences as I saw them between Otago and the Cote de Nuits:   

"Depending on your point of view, a prism either scatters light into its constituent wavelengths or refocuses them back into a single beam. Loosely applied, this seems a reasonable analogy for the differences I tasted between the Pinot Noir of Felton Rd and the wines of Vosne Romanée; viticulture, vinification, elevage, maturation, and polymerisation act like a lens in Burgundy, drawing everything to a point, whereas at Felton Rd, the studied application of the same techniques produces a hugely varied palate."

If you taste red burgundy whilst feigning ignorance of its appellation divisions, then the wines can be categorized according to the purity and intensity of the rather singular red fruit character they possess, and the extent to which the rustic counterpoint to this fruitiness is replaced by condensed and soluble tannins. In other words, the trend towards homogenisation is a good sign in young red burgundy. In fact, I would go as far as to say that the ageing potential for Pinot Noir is inseparable from this process of youthful coalescence.

And why stop with Burgundy. The best wines of Pomerol can have a lozenge-like softness. I recently wrote of Vieux Chateau Certan it was “Blissfully simple”, which might sound like I was damning the wine with faint praise, when in fact I was utterly entranced.

Richard Smart taught us that deep shade is the enemy of high quality wine production, and since he first published “Sunlight into Wine” we have been slowly learning about the intricacies of the relationship between light exposure and wine style.  At first, sunlight exposure and long hang-times sounded like good prescriptions in cool and temperate climates, yet the more I taste and compare wines drawn from different hemispheres and continents, the more convinced I am that long exposure to direct and diffuse UV builds flavour at the expense of homogeneity. Chilean Pinot might taste of blackberries, cherries, rhubarb, coffee, ivy and resin, but it’s hard to work out how wines inclined towards such youthful divergence will do anything other than fracture further apart with age. Far from being the prerequisite for ageing, youthful complexity perhaps mitigates against anything but future decline.


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