Learning to find the differences

The idea that Eskimos have a hundred words for snow seems to be discredited, but I daresay it’s true that most Inuits are better able to describe snow than sauvignon blanc. The importance of experience in wine – and thereby acquiring a vocabulary with which to take that experience further – has struck me forcibly in three cases recently.

Just last night (at my tasting group’s monthly meeting – we were this time attacking some pretty grand burgundies) the point was made by someone how older red wines (15 years plus, perhaps) can start merging their flavour characters to an extent – if not always their structural ones (tannin, acid balance, etc). So that a pinot noir and a shiraz and a cabernet can share a lot of characteristics – precisely, the tertiary-development flavours of old wine.

This makes it much more difficult to even distinguish a cabernet from a pinot than it would have been when the wines were young – let along to be able to pick up the subtler characters that distinguish a Pommard from a Corton, or a Pauillac from a Pomerol, for example.

While this is undoubtedly true, I think it is also matter of experience. It maybe makes it more difficult to make the distinctions – but does it make it impossible? Most of us only very seldom get to taste old wines which are at their mature peak (and it’s only fine wines of course which reach such ages and such peaks). Those lucky enough to do so quite often will certainly pick up the power of discrimination. Because I was lucky enough for quite some time to drink a lot of older Bordeaux wines with Louise Hofmeyr out of her father’s cellar at Welgemeend, I am more confident with old Bordeaux than old syrah, say. (In fact, for the same reason I’m probably more confident with old old-fashioned Bordeaux than I am with young modern Bordeaux.)

The point of experience, and the lack of it leaving me at a loss, was even more obvious to me on my recent trip to Jerez. I thought I knew a little about sherry, but doing the intensive tours that I was privileged to be given showed it was very little indeed. Tasting, for example, the same wine at different stages of its evolution in the solera system, I sometimes found it difficult to discriminate between them. There I was, clutching notepad and pen to record my experiences – and I found I simply didn’t have the words in which to do so adequately. More or less, for some time at least, everything just tasted …of sherry.

I did fairly quickly pick up some clues, and stopped trying to decribe the sherries as though they were susceptible to the same sort of analysis as cabernet or riesling. Once I got into the particularites, and found words to at least start describing them, I could find more differences and more words. I started to understand sherry. Perhaps (I hope!) it’s a bit like riding a bicycle, and now I can balance and start going faster, and taking my hands off the handlebars: Look, mum, I can distinguish between an amontilladio and a palo cortado, not to mention a palo cortado originating in fino from one originating in oloroso!

This is exaggeration, of course. The flavours and structures were always different. But the point is true: that it’s not just experience that counts, but learning how to put that experience into words – so that you simultaneously build a vocabulary of words and of vinous effects.

The third area which I’ve noticed this sort of thing possibly operating is so-called “natural” wines – those made in very unmanipulated fashion (often without sulphur) from totally organic vineyards, and importantly (I think) made with a particular mindset. This is a hugely controversial topic at present, and I don’t want to make more than one point.

One common critique of many “natural wines” is that they tend to taste similar. Some critics deny that terroir characteristics, or even varietal characteristics, often make their way into such wines. (NB, I’m not debating this point here, just pointing out that many eminent and experienced wine people make it.)

From my position of relative ignorance (gosh – how much I’m ignorant of!) I would suggest that perhaps the problem is often less with the wines than the tasters. If you’ve been tasting a particular kind of wine for so long, and developed an undeniable expertise in discriminating amongst all its usual possibilities, then something different comes along. What do you do, if you’re feeling challenged and/or you’re not willing to be open minded? You start looking for the things you know about (as I was first doing in Jerez) and not finding them, and then deny that there’s anything there at all. Possibly, terroir and variety are indeed there – just being expressed in different ways that you have to learn to see (like the Eskimos surrounded by snow – or snows).

It’s a suggestion, anyway.

But one marvellous basic truth is undeniable. It’s clear that these days most wine tends to start blurring together – much at the mass-produced level but also at more exalted levels where ultra-ripeness and oak destroy subtlety. But the infinite variety of wine is not yet destroyed, by any means. It’s even thriving, alongside the supermarket sauvignon and the Parker-points cabernet. Not least in some little corners in South Africa. But sometimes we have to learn how to taste it, precisely because it comes as a surprise.

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