Think of the best wine you ever tasted.
For some people, that wine might be a fine, old, rare vintage of Burgundy or Bordeaux, sipped during a multi-course dinner at a hushed temple of cuisine, or a perfectly aged German dessert wine, a golden, glowing elixir to be consumed one succulent drop at a time. For others, that wine could be a carafe of vino rosso della casa, poured from a cask in the backroom of a trattoria that looked out at a piazza in Siena or a canal in Venice, during a meal memorable more for its sense of romance and conversation and circumstance than for any real culinary art.
Both of those wines, those remembrances, are legitimate expressions of taste, memory, and life itself, and both of those wines, the expensive and the cheap, the spoken-of-in-whispers and the so ordinary as to be anonymous, are closer in kind than you might think. Each is essentially a product of simple agriculture dedicated to one end: plowing, planting, nurturing, harvesting, keeping an eye tuned to the weather and the turning of the seasons that result in appropriately ripe grapes ready for the winery.
Most wine makes no pretense of greatness, existing only for the need to be quaffed for immediate pleasure with whatever meal is at hand. In fact, most vin ordinaire, analyzed chemically, is as little different from fine wine as men and women are differentiated by a minuscule glint of a chromosome on the eternal chains of DNA. Wine at whatever level of intention or quality of achievement typically consists of something on the order of 85 to 87 percent water, 13 to 15 percent alcohol, and the rest traces of a daunting host of chemical elements that make the difference between the plonk you might take from the grocery store shelf and the historic Bordeaux Premier Cru that someone — not most of us — could shell out thousands of dollars for at auction.
If that’s the case, why bother? Why spill gallons of ink or billions of electrons writing about, criticizing, parsing, extolling, explaining, and extrapolating the nuances of what is essentially a berry transformed through a common chemical process into an intoxicating beverage? That’s the crux of wine’s conundrum for me: As a veteran writer about wine and vinous subjects, I understand that every wine I taste is fundamentally the same as every other wine, yet I also understand that every wine is different from every other wine in terms of its origins, its intentions and its making, its history and relationship to a place and a heritage. Our purpose in writing about wine is to balance those aspects into a sense of completeness that satisfies us gustatorially, intellectually, and emotionally.
Looked at dispassionately and simply, wine is a fluid made by fermenting fruit through the action of yeast so that the natural sugars are converted to alcohol, which becomes an inextricable component of the beverage, and carbon dioxide, which is allowed to escape, except in the second fermentation of Champagne and other sparkling products. Wine can be made from any fruit (or vegetable, for that matter) whose sugar content is sufficient to result in alcohol — apples, pears, peaches, various berries — though the dominant or most important form of fruit turned into wine, both in economic and cultural terms, is grapes.
To be strictly scientific, when we swirl a glass of wine and unleash its inimitable aromas into the air and into our noses, our sensing agents are stimulated by 600 to 800 distinct flavor compounds, the primary source of which is the fermentation process. These compounds may be divided into five groups: alcohols, esters, carbonyl compounds (aldehydes and ketones), sulfur-containing compounds, and organic acids. The particular flavor of a varietal wine — and don’t forget that most of what we describe as flavor is actually aroma — whether Sauvignon blanc or Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon or Pinot noir — is the result of a complicated series of transformations that begin at the stone-and-root-level in the vineyard, continue through the maturing and ripening of the grapes, and speed up exponentially during the relatively violent and energy-releasing processes of crushing, maceration, and fermentation.
For example, the hint of herbaceousness that sometimes characterizes Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot wines? That derives from the volatile short chain aldehyde called 3-Methyl-1-butanal, otherwise known as isovaleraldehyde. The cocoa or coffee-like undertones we sometimes detect in red wines? That’s 2-Methyl-1-butanal, also known as butyraldehyde. Their molecular formulas are identical — C5H10O — and they differ only in molecular structure. What a difference an isomer makes! Meanwhile, the more pronounced grassy-herbal elements of Sauvignon blanc, that bell pepper, green bean, gooseberry quality, come from methoxypyrazines, actually from three methoxypyrazines, but we won’t go into that except to say that one of them, the most abundant, naturally, is responsible for the canned asparagus nature of Sauvignon blancs that have crossed over to the dark side. It is why canopy management is so important in the farming of Sauvignon blanc vineyards.
Examined from an even more detached point of view, the sociological and economic, the production of wine ensures that a valuable crop, in which a farmer has invested time, effort, and money — essentially a life’s work — does not go bad and become unprofitable. Crates of picked grapes become compromised fairly quickly; they bruise, acquire mold, and rot. Turned into wine, however, grapes last longer and are easier to transport. Even in its simplest iteration, wine offers more longevity than the fruit from which it is made. Wine also commands a higher price than its constituent fruit. This modality holds true in the example of distilled spirits, which can be seen as agents for prolonging the production of the harvests of corn, rye, barley, and potatoes beyond the pleasurable but limited functions of the breakfast and dinner table.
Seen from these angles — chemical, sociological, economic — wine seems fitting as fodder for scholarly papers, perhaps, but not particularly engrossing for the consumer. Let’s advance the intensity level a notch, then, to a cultural realm.
Not intending to abuse T.S. Eliot’s notion of the adequacy of narrative and metaphoric forms in the expression of action and feeling — which he writes about in his radical essay on Hamlet, published in 1919 — but I’ll borrow his concept and assert that wine is the “objective correlative” of the grape. That is, wine, especially at its greatest (by whatever measurable principle), is the perfect vehicle to fulfill the highest level of a grape’s possible achievement. In this perception, wine conveys a sense of inevitability that other beverages or transformative agricultural products rarely contrive. One does not drink beer, for example, even in its best or most powerful manifestations, and think, “Ah, yes, this is the apotheosis of cereal grains.” (All right, perhaps some brew fanatics do.) The grape, however, is never far from my thoughts, at least, in the swirling, sniffing, and sipping of a glass of wine, nor is the notion, depending on the quality and complexity of the wine, of the place where the grapes were grown and the wine was made.
A glass of wine serves — should serve — as an emblem of a piece of earth, a stretch of vineyard, a swath of sky, a narrowly defined ground of being where its grapes were nurtured and harvested. That sentence summarizes the French notion of terroir, the idea that wine is not only influenced by but reflects the nature of the vineyard where the grapes were grown. Factors in terroir include the geological and chemical character of the soil and subsoil, the specific micro-climate in all its nuances and broad strokes, the lie of the land and its direction and exposure to the sun and its drainage. The concept of terroir and the belief that a drinker can smell or taste or somehow sense the presence of the vineyard in a wine are controversial. It’s a rare nose and palate that can distinguish among, say, a group of estates that lie in proximity in the appellations of Pauillac or St. Estephe in Bordeaux. One would want every wine, as an image of the transcendent, to express its terroir; how a wine would do such a thing remains nebulous. I’ll say, however, that when I taste a Pinot noir from Oregon’s Willamette Valley, I am almost always struck by a particular scent of rich, damp loam that I get in no other example of the grape; it’s an identifying characteristic for me that I associate with no other wine region.
If we must write about wine, then, certainly write, in tasting notes and reviews, about the sensations involved in looking, sniffing, sipping, feeling and how those sensations evolve over time in the glass, aspects that guide consumers to purchase (or not) a bottle of wine. I’ve been engaged in that process for 34 years, and many writers and publications make that concept the cornerstone of their existence.
The matters we need to engage most importantly, however, are these: Place, history, people.
Let’s confess that the idea — or ideal — of place is tricky, because not every wine originates from a distinctive region or piece of earth or even needs to. A wine that carries the designation “California” or “Vin de France” is not trying to embody anything in particular except some element of drinkability; as long as such a wine is clean and fresh and tasty, no harm is done and indeed a great deal of pleasure can be earned. Still, if we encounter a wine and can envelop it through our own words in the webs of geology and climate, of the history and narrative of long stewardship and craftsmanship, the more meaning it offers beyond just enjoyability or even complexity.
I admit to a bias in favor of small, family-owned producers that utilize traditional and thoughtful methods in the vineyard, that respect the nature of the vineyard and the varietal character of the grape, that practice, as much as possible, a hands-off approach in the winery. The terms I would use here, though difficult of specificity and open to dispute, are “authenticity” and “integrity.”
I feel a connection to history, geography and biography when I taste a wine from, as I did recently, the Florian and Mathilde Beck-Hartweg estate in Alsace, a property founded in 1590 and now operated by the family’s 13th and 14th generations. I’m compelled to think about how these generations knew every inch of that land, every wire, post, and vine and every detail of the dirt and underlying strata; how this 13th and 14th generation could probably taste every one of their wines blindfolded and identify which patch of vineyard gave it birth. At the risk of sounding like a total geek, I find that scenario thrilling; it certainly adds a dimension or two to each sip of a Grand Cru Riesling.
What matters, then, isn’t the theoretical skill and experience that would allow a taster to identify from a glass of wine a particular slope in the Sonoma Coast region or a hillside in Brunello di Montalcino or a commune in Burgundy. Few people in the trade could accomplish such a feat. What matters is the knowledge that those places exist, that farmers and winemakers take those places and their histories seriously as expressions of the earth and their grapes and their intentions in the winery. The highest purpose in writing about wine is to bring that knowledge to readers so their encounter with a wine is broader, deeper, and more intimate than even the hopefully gratifying (or life-changing) sensual experience.
Fredric Koeppel writes the award-winning wine-review blog BiggerThanYourHead.net. He is a freelance journalist specializing in arts and culture, food and wine. He lives in Memphis, Tennessee, where he and his wife maintain a pack of rescue dogs.
Photos: Meg Houston Maker