Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
Wine number 12, the final wine in the flight, was a deep burnished gold that shimmered as it moved heavily in the glass. The wine in question, the 1989 Trimbach Riesling “Clos St. Hune,” Vendages Tardiv Hors Choix, was a wine I had only previously read about but never tasted. On the nose, the ’89 was a tsunami of botrytis—crystalized honey, orange marmalade, pear oil, and toffee. There were other almost bizarre notes old botrytis wines often show including saffron, hay, malted grain, mocha, white chocolate, pressed flowers, and savory notes like soy and truffle. I jotted all these descriptors in my notes as quickly as I could as the fleeting images for each appeared briefly in my mind’s eye. On the palate, the Hors Choix was a combination of unctuous botrytis character and intense minerality with acidity so piercingly high that in the moment it was shocking. I tasted the wine several times in tiny sips and made notes trying to get everything possible out of the glass knowing full well I might not ever have the chance to taste this legendary wine again unless I made the pilgrimage to Ribeauvillé and the affable Jean Trimbach felt generous enough to open another very rare bottle. As I tasted the last drops of the ’89, I quickly jotted down a series of seven numbers: 6/5/5/6/1/1/7. This numeric sequence would help me recall the wine in future. The numbers are important—I’ll return to them shortly.
The language of wine—specifically the way we describe it and write about it-- is beautifully imprecise. Exhibit “A”: my impressions of the ’89 Hors Choix listed above. Poll any of the other 100+ people who attended the same tasting and aside from the fact that the wine was old, showed botrytis character, and had residual sugar, you’d probably get an enormous range of completely different impressions. Why? Simply because our perception of wine will ultimately always be subjective. Our ability to recognize aromas in the glass is completely dependent on our unique life memories thus ensuring anyone’s wine experience is utterly singular. While there are any number of things that we share in the delightful hallucination called the wine experience, we will never be able to completely agree on an interpretation of any given wine. It will always be imprecise. Period. I like the fact that it is.
Not everyone shares my affection. In fact, some are hell bent on trying to codify and standardize written wine descriptions. Bianca Bosker’s recent piece in the Times called, “Is There a Better Way to Talk about Wine?” is just about that. In her piece Bosker points out that over the last decade florid, verbose wine descriptions have become the rule and not the exception. She asks if the elaborate prose of writer’s such as James Suckling and Robert Parker have gone too far. Has the language they use to describe wines they review become so abstract, so obtuse that their writing is no longer relevant much less understandable for the average consumer?
To counter this apparently dire situation, a group of researchers called the American Association of Wine Economists has for over a decade railed against the likes of Suckling and Parker. To point, the organizations’ “Journal of Wine Economics” has offered an analysis of said wine critics and their prose with the conclusion that the industry is, and I quote, “intrinsically bullshit-prone.” Bosker goes on to write that Orley Ashenfelter, president of the Wine Economists, and other members of the association actually shun tasting notes in their wine club. Puritanical? You be the judge. Personally, I think it's called "trying too hard."
Jordi Ballester, a researcher at the Center for Taste and Feeding Behavior in Dijon and another contributor to the journal, has spent his career weeding out what he politely calls “fuzzy concepts.” The term minerality is his latest target and the subject of a paper he presented at the Wine Economists’ annual conference this past May. Ballester’s research sites another paper presented in 2009 to the Geological Society of America which states that “grape vines do absorb inorganic nutrients from the land, but the notion of granite or schist seasoning wine in any detectable way is scientifically untenable.” In an interview with Bianca Bosker, Ballester says that, “We never found a consensual definition of minerality. So how can we communicate like this?” My answer to Monsieur Ballester: be careful, my friend. It’s a slippery slope. If you start on a witch hunt about minerality, a term I use all the time (and will continue to use), where will it end? At what point will you consider my impressions of a given wine not valid, acceptable, and “tenable” in your very narrow universe?
Enter Geoff Kruth, MS. In her piece Bosker mentions the tasting charts on the Guild site published this past spring that list important chemical compounds such as pyrazines and terpenes that contribute to the primary aromas and flavors in wine. I interviewed Geoff this past spring (see post from April 6) and he explained his philosophy of using what he calls “objective factors” in wine as a primary tasting strategy:
“When I was studying for the MS exam I made an important change in my tasting. I used to taste on a very instinctive level trying to figure out what the wine was and even trying to guess what the wine was. Then I changed to trying to figure out what I could identify in the wine that was objective. Now when tasting I try to figure out what objective factors are in the wine that I’ve trained myself to identify very accurately. For example, if a wine has botrytis or aromatic terpenes or pyrazines; or if the wine has the signature of new oak or shows signs of oxidation or if the fruit shows raisination--any characteristic like that where I can recognize something and say objectively, “this is in the wine.” I try to identify as many of these things as possible.”
Here is a list of objective factors from that post in April:
• Phenolic bitterness
• Oak usage
• Carbonic maceration
• Stem inclusion
• High volatile acidity
• Lees contact
Geoff’s strategy of “objective factors” is immensely useful for both professional tasters and students alike. It provides a check list of elements that can be found and quantified in wine and is helpful in the “deductive” part of deductive tasting in terms of using a decision matrix. But know that Kruth’s philosophy has its critics as well. His detractors are quick to point out that describing wine as having “terpenes” or “thiols” to a guest or client sounds absurd and can only add to any potential confusion caused by general wine-speak. My answer to that is just as a physician knows the specific medical terms that apply to a diagnosis, he or she would never use the same technical language with their patient. Likewise with wine there are two language models; technical terms such as those listed above that professionals use and the language used to describe wine to the consumer.
But we’re still at square one. What do consumers need to know about a wine? Is there a way to meaningfully describe it without a barrage of florid language that may seem like nonsense? A way that establishes a common vocabulary that’s easily understandable and yet can account for both simplicity and complexity alike? Thankfully, there is.
It’s been around for 20 years.
In the summer of 1994 good friend Peter Granoff, MS opened the cyber doors to Virtual Vineyards with his brother-in-law Robert Olson. Virtual Vineyards was not only the first online wine retail “shop,” but the very first online retailer of any kind. Peter and Robert literally started Virtual Vineyards on a server in Olson’s garage.
To avoid using numeric scores, Peter devised a system to convey the most important information about every wine in the Virtual Vineyards portfolio. His system used seven criteria to profile every wine: intensity of flavor, body, sweetness/dryness, acidity, tannin, oak, and complexity. Further, these seven criteria were represented in one-through-seven increments with one representing least/none and seven most or maximum. For example, with sweetness or dryness Peter’s chart lists “bone dry” at one end with dessert sweet at the other; for intensity of flavor the chart ranges from “delicate” at number one to “intense” at number seven. Note Peter’s very conscious decision NOT to use a 1-10 scale simply because it would be too easy to extrapolate any number into a numeric score—which he was trying to avoid at all costs.
The results look something like this:
Intensity of flavor - Delicate: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Intense
Sweetness/dryness - Bone dry: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Dessert
Body - Light-bodied: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Full-bodied
Acid - Light acidity: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Tart acidity
Tannin - No tannin: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 High tannin
Oak - No oak: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 100% new oak
Complexity - simple:1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Very complex
All the wines listed in the Virtual Vineyards portfolio were profiled with Peter’s tasting chart. In addition, tasting notes were added that included descriptors for the wine (Je suis shocking!), technical information if available, and a bit about the winery. Suggested food pairings were often included as well.
I joined Peter at Virtual Vineyards in 1996 and worked with him for five years until the company’s demise in April of 2001. It’s worth noting that Virtual Vineyards/the original wine.com managed to sell over $50 million of wine in five years using Peter’s system--and without ever using a single numerical score.
Back to my numbers for the 1989 Trimbach Hors Choix listed above. Using the Peter’s tasting chart I described the wine as follows: 6/5/5/6/1/1/7. Here’s how the numbers break down:
Intensity of flavor: 6 – absolutely true. Only vintage Port, dessert Sherry, or young, over the top Petite Sirah could be more intense.
Sweetness/dryness: 5 - spot on again; while not a full-on dessert wine the ’89 is a richer equivalent to Rheingau Auslese in terms of residual sugar.
Body: 5 – dry extract (yield and age of vines) combined with residual sugar and the alcohol level make for a very rich wine.
Acid: 6 – despite the richness of the wine, the acidity was off the charts.
Tannin: 1 – none to be found.
Oak: 1 – ditto, even though I’m reasonably sure large inert oak uprights were used in production.
Complexity: 7 – this one the easiest of all. The ’89 is one of the most complex wines I’ve tasted in recent memory. If there was an “11” on the scale here I wouldn’t hesitate to use it. Thank you, This is Spinal Tap.
I haven’t mentioned the last bits of my tasting note on the ’89 Hors Choix. After listing descriptors for the aromas and flavors and “charting” the wine using Peter’s system, I always add a descriptive phrase or two. Usually these parting thoughts are a combination of what the wine means to me in the moment tinged with my complete inability NOT to be a smart-ass. For the Clos St. Hune my notes read: “Layered and remarkably complex. Like angels dancing in my head. A Maria wine.” The first bit is easy— it’s arguably the greatest Alsace wine I’ve ever tasted. Beyond that, the mention of Maria seals the memory of the wine for me. My daughter Maria—who I think the world of—was born in 1989. I started studying for the MS exams in late ’89. The year is also memorable for the Giants reaching the World Series only to be swept by the A’s just across the Bay--and the fact that I was at game three of the series at Candlestick Park when the Loma Prieta earthquake struck. All incredible memories that make 1989 a landmark year for me.
What’s the take away in all this? That as much as the critics of the critics rail about wine writing, the landscape will remain much the same. Even if a “code of wine writing conduct” is written, there will always be renegades the likes of Parker and Suckling whose prose defies any and all rules. Once again, wine is NOT precise. We will never completely agree on how it should be described much less written about. I think that’s a good thing.
It’s time to move on.