Scrutinizing the Inscrutable

by Al Drinkle

We’re too narrow-minded in our sensorial discussion of wine. By “we” I mean wine professionals, amateurs and consumers of all types, but it’s mostly the fault of the pros because their lead is followed by everybody else. Descriptions and reviews of wine, whether written by the chief editor of Wine Spectator Magazine or a vainglorious Pittsburgh-based banker with a Vivino account, are almost always laughably fatuous, nauseatingly derivative or both. I’m no better, but I’m willing to explain the nature of this failure.

A typical wine review reads like a shopping list of aromas and flavours that somebody thinks (or at least wants you to think) are impregnably present in a wine. It’s like telling your lunch guests that you’re serving them “olive oil, cubed bread, tomatoes, cucumber, red onion, basil leaves, garlic, red wine vinegar, salt and pepper”. When you put panzanella in front of them, they’ll be alarmed by your asininity and disinterest in brevity. Most wine reviewers spend their entire careers treading these waters, never really saying anything and compounding their lack of utility by writing the same review over and over, maybe substituting raspberry for strawberry here or jasmine for violets there. It’s even worse when the wine is truly great because as their descriptors get more pretentious, the spice and fruit references more ostentatious, their impotence to communicate the meaning of the wine becomes downright conspicuous.

But the “meaning” of a great wine is almost impossible to understand, let alone convey. They seem to be made up of a mosaic of aromas, flavours and textures, vast in their inventory of constituents and polyphonically intricate in their arrangements. The scope of their contributing components can seem infinite and one is constantly excited and even surprised by the brilliance of their orchestration. I remember the first time I tasted a wine from Château Rayas, somebody in the room suggested that you could probably find any aroma or flavour on the planet in the glass. I agreed, and was struck by how something that exhaustively captures every sensorial nuance possible could also have such an inimitably singular identity.

It’s a common mistake to think of great wine merely in terms of an interplay of aromas, flavours and textures. I recently heard an interview with a particularly insightful winemaker who claimed that for her, every wine had an associative colour, and she definitely wasn’t talking about white, red and pink. Great wines can inspire psychotropic daydreams in the starkest black and white (think Jim Jarmusch’s Down by Law) or the most vivid technicolour, depending on the wine and the situation. Last week I enjoyed a mature bottle of Burgundy that shrouded my world in diaphanous fabrics of the richest burnt sienna, not quite obscuring the silhouettes of lascivious chimeras luridly dancing in the sunset. I followed it up with a supernal Riesling that made my palate feel like it was wearing 3-D glasses.

When scrutinizing the inscrutable, one will find that some wines reverberate with warm, analog tones and others harmonize with digital, staccato precision. And the emotive capacity of certain wines can be arresting. It’s easy to find a wine that tastes “happy,” but the best provide more complex experiences, like the oppressive unworthiness one may feel when life seems too good, or the melancholic awe that sets in at the conclusion of a Jean-Pierre Melville film. Instead of answers, these considerations pose further questions… Do the wines feel this way too? Or do they knowingly instill these emotions in us while they placidly recline, laughing as we attempt to index their flavours in an Instagram post?