Do you have a “wine connoisseur” friend? Have you seen someone gurgle wine around his mouth loudly (and off-puttingly)? Has anyone lectured to you about a wine’s characteristics, about its vintage, terroir, vinification process and so much more than you were looking for?
Did you ever find yourself thinking, ‘Forget the rituals and the trivia and just enjoy wine for the way it tastes!’?
Well, there are many good reasons to question wine-worship. For one, wine is, at bottom, just a soup of chemicals. And not a particularly exciting soup, either. Dry wine is about 95 percent a combination of pure water and pure alcohol.
And wine is just another beverage. Just like Coke, Sprite, orange juice, and root beer. It’s something that you drink for your pleasure because it tastes good.
But I do think that wine is special. Maybe certain other beverages are just as special, too—whiskey, coffee and tea, for example. I couldn’t tell you. I don’t know enough about them. But I can try to explain what I think it is that makes wine different from other beverages.
It all boils down to this: with wine, I’ve often felt, ‘I don’t think I like the way it tastes, but I still like it.’ That is, I’ve appreciated wine for reasons unrelated to its taste. I cannot imagine saying the same thing about Coke or orange juice or, for that matter, many of the foods that I eat. Because as far as I can tell, those things are supposed to taste good—and nothing else. The people making Coke aren’t thinking about much else besides whether or not the consumers will like the taste of their products.
But I know that winemakers often have much more in mind. Some of them are thinking about tradition and will refuse to follow trends in modern preferences. (The traditionalist Barolo producers, for example, refuse to use Bordeaux-style barriques to soften their wines.) Some of them are passionate about fidelity to the expression of a particular vintage—even in what people would consider “bad” vintages. Yet others have a particular vision of the wine that they want to make, consumers’ tastes be damned.
Then all of those decisions affect the way the wine tastes. That’s when wine became really fun for me—when I felt like I could taste wine and trace the taste back to winemakers’ decisions. Because once I could do that, I wasn’t just drinking wine to have a beverage that tastes good to me. I was drinking it out of curiosity, to try to understand the winemakers’ decisions, and to glimpse the winemakers’ opinions of what wine should be.
For example, I recently tasted 2011 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay from California. It was a delightful puzzle of a bottle. I had known 2011 in California to have been unrepresentatively cold and rainy. In terms of grapes, that means unripe and diluted, and in terms of the resulting wine, that usually means sharply acidic and thin.
But the wine defied those expectations. It was full-bodied; that is, the wine felt heavy on my mouth. And I caught characteristic green apple aromas.
Green apple aromas in Chardonnay, in wine speak, points to a particular winemaking decision—the decision not to initiate what’s called malolactic fermentation. Also called secondary fermentation, malolactic fermentation is a chemical process by which malic acid, which is naturally present in grape juice, is converted into lactic acid. Lactic acid is often described as buttery; malic acid, as green-apple tart. So, as I tasted the glass of Chardonnay, I imagined the winemaker deciding not to start in malolactic fermentation. Was that the traditional Chateau Montelena style? Or was it a decision based on the vintage or perhaps the changing consumer preferences?
What about the full body? That was a real surprise for me. I could only guess where that came from. It could mean that the winemaker waited a long time to harvest, trying to achieve maximum ripeness in the grapes. It could also mean that only the ripest grapes were hand-selected to make the wine with. Or perhaps there was extended aging on the yeast after fermentation finished (often called sur lie aging)?
With such interesting questions, the last thought on my mind was my preference. I might like the wine that I’m tasting. Or I might not. But regardless, when I drink wine, unlike when I drink orange juice, I imagine a winemaker agonizing over important decisions: whether or not to depart from tradition, whether to let the grapes translate into wine or to sculpt it into something else, and whether or not to cater to mainstream consumer preferences. And because of the variety of such decisions, I can try to understand the wine without measuring it up against my own (fleeting) preferences.
That’s why wine is special for me.
Albert is a law student and spends most of his time reading, thinking, and writing law. But that has never stopped him from drinking and sharing wine with his friends.
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