Sunday, May 6, 2007

New frontiers in Euclidian wine-tasting theory: The exponential tasting

How should you describe the taste of a mouthful of wine to someone?

Over the last couple of decades, two separate theoretical camps have evolved: First, that group we might call the Parkeristas, who aim for a universal and accessible wine language, based on teasing out and analytically identifying components of taste and bouquet (i.e., ‘this wine has a palate of lychees, saddle leather and earwax.’). Facing them are the people whom Robert Parker has benevolently dubbed the terroirists, who believe the best way of conveying meaning when you’re talking about a bottle of wine should be how it meets the standards of its geography, (i.e., ‘this tastes like a well-made, medium-priced right-bank Bordeaux ought to’).

The distinction between these groups is largely a decision about what you’re going to take as your wine-taster’s fundamental atomic particle; that descriptor that can’t be understood in terms more basic than itself. What makes a good Bordeaux? An enological Bill Clinton might say that it all depends on what you want to mean by ‘Bordeaux’: is it a progressive time-space nexus leading to the wine in your glass: France→Bordeaux→ Medoc→Margeaux→Chateau Giscours→1995; or is it “aromas of licorice and sweet, smoky new oak intermixed with jammy black fruits, licorice and minerals”?

A fundamental element of the descriptive discipline for each side has to be a familiarity with those most basic elements of your vocabularies—if you’re going to talk about licorice and lychees, (or if talk about them is to have any meaning for you) you need to experience what they taste and smell like, and learn to distinguish them in the wine you’re drinking. Similarly, if type, geography, style and terroir are going to be the most basic elements of your wine vocabulary, you need to experience what they taste like, and learn to distinguish them—you need to first know what, for example, that well-made, medium-priced right-bank Bordeaux tastes like. The rest of it is simply zeroing in—and then at some point of specificity, resolution fails and you have to shut up.

If the tastings in this blog are going to lean more towards the topographical winespeak of the terroirists, it’s because this is largely how the most interesting wines come to you—by geography, not fruit-genre. While you can certainly go out and buy yourself a multitude of, say, Tempranillos, when you start to seek out real distinction of winemaking expression, you end up getting geographically specific; you start exploring estate-made Riojas and Ribera del Dueros.

So here’s a relatively inexpensive method—a party-trick, almost—to get familiar with the fundamental elements of a region. Take Bordeaux as our thought-experiment: Eight people each kick in $25 to give a total kitty of $200. (And before you gulp too hard at that entry price, remember what an average evening at a bar usually costs you.) Find a reputable store and spend half the pot on the best bottle of Bordeaux you can get for that price. Spend half of what remains on the best bottle you can get for that price. And so on. Geometrically, it’s called the Golden Spiral.

You can also follow that spiral in reverse: find the cheapest bottle of Bordeaux you can. (In my regular store, it’s about $11.) Find a bottle that’s approximately double that ($25) and so on through $50 to $100. You should find that as the price goes up you zero in on a more precise geographical designation. Walk your spiral from cheapest to most expensive and back, and by the end of the tasting, you’ll be well on the way to mastering the fundamentals of your chosen language—or at least one dialect of it.

A sample exponential Bordeaux tasting assembled from BC sources might look like the following:
Chateau de Courteilliac (Bordeaux AC) $11.99
Chateau Greysac (Medoc AC) $25.99
Chateau d’Aurilhac (Haut-Medoc AC; Cru Bourgeois) $32.48
Chateau Grand Puy Lacoste (Pauillac AC) $98.60

Or from Ontario retailers:
Christian Moueix Merlot (Bordeaux AC) $14.95
Chateau Les Cabannes 2004 (Saint-Émilion AC) $23.95
Chateau Villemaurine 2001 (Saint-Émilion Gran Cru) $56.45
Chateau Troplong Mondot 2003 (Saint-Émilion Gran Cru) $99.00

The variations are endless: all you need to remember is, spiral in geographically. And if you’re dealing with a good retailer, don’t hesitate to ask for advice—it may be the most fun the proprietor has all day.

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