I consult Wikipedia's page about wine tasting descriptors. The kind of vocabulary used by Jancis Robinson in her FT articles, describing posh Premier Crus costing several hundreds of euros. A world shrouded in its own self-serving mystique, with mega-rich people spending at wine auctions the kind of money that would buy a family house in much of the world. Like fine art, investing in wine has become an alternative to the stock exchange; if supply is limited and demand is constrained only by the wallets and egos of buyers, prices should continue to be buoyant.
But will drinking a fine wine, of the right vintage, from the right vineyard, deliver an experience that is tens, or hundreds, or thousands of times more fabulous than drinking something more modest?
|Worth 16 zlotys (£3.20)? Chateau Gros Chene, a Bordeaux from Auchan, as recommended by reader Wilkbury.|
Three times (and only three times) in my life did I experience something sublime and transcendental while sipping a wine. The first was at a friend's wedding when a bottle of Hungarian Tokaj, a present given at his father's christening, was cracked open. It was over 50 years old. The second, vintage Bordeaux left to a friend by her late father, struck me as exceptional. The third was a bottle of Chilean Casillero del Diabolo Pinot Noir knocked back with fellow-blogger Toyah in Warsaw a few years ago. (I've bought two more bottles of this Pinot Noir since, but neither had the same memorable magnificence - different vintages.)
Otherwise, wines are either foul (mercifully rare nowadays), drinkable, decent, or OH, YES! On a scale of one to four, which allows no middling grade, the Western Cape Pinotage (drunk right now in the company of wholemeal chleb drwalski bread with Gran Padano cheese and olives stuffed with almonds), ranks a three. A four would be a wine that delivers a greater gradation (complexity or depth) of flavours. So why pay 15 times more for a wine which may deliver a four?
There are two approaches. One is to submerge oneself into the mystique of wine connoisseurship. Read, taste, learn - about grape varietals, terroirs, regions, vintages, methods. The other - to consider the science.
The ability to describe sensations is an extremely important talent. It serves one well, when having to describe, for example, to a doctor, how something feels. Those who can't do it well are at a disadvantage when it comes to being treated. We describe by analogy, by metaphor, by reaching for common shared experiences. When it comes to wine tasting, we compare the aroma, the complex spectrum of flavours and other sensations that flood our senses using terms that will resonate with the reader or listener. So 'smoky', 'herbal', 'acidic' or 'yeasty' we can imagine. But what does 'big', 'modern', 'elegant', or 'round' suggest? These are bullshit phrases. "I wasn't lying... only bullshitting." We move into the realms of the bla-bla-bla.
One famous experiment was conducted in 2008 on students from Caltech. With their head wired to sensors scanning brainwaves (fMRI) to show how much pleasure they were experiencing, they were given various wines to sample, and told how much the bottle cost. Drinking wine from a bottle they were told cost $90 (300zł) was indeed scientifically proven to give more pleasure than drinking wine from a $10 (32zł) bottle. Except... it was the same wine.
More proof is here, that top-notch wine critics can be fooled when they have no cues to go on other than their experience and expertise. Do spend 10 minutes watching this video (below) - a group of experts blind-test 11 wines costing between €14.90 and €1,531 (!!!) a bottle. The cheapest wine came second out of the 11 tasted, the most expensive came 8th, six places below a bottle that cost more than 100 times less. However, credit is due to the wine-tasters - several of them managed to identify the estate the wine came from on the basis of taste and bouquet alone.
And indeed, if you want to have a laugh at the expense of those who overdo the terminology when describing wines, take a look at this paper by Richard E. Quandt of Princeton's economics department.
An increasing body of science is suggesting that wine connoisseurship is little more than snobbery, based on knowing a bit of jargon and geography, but not really linking price to experience. The current snobbery targeting those (who like me) adore the taste of New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs from the Marlborough region, by using terms like 'perfumed' or 'fragrant'... There was, I recall, a similar snobby backlash in England against Chardonnay and Pinot Grigio varietals and those who professed to like them.
Once upon a time, the rule was simple. The more expensive the wine, the greater the chance of experiencing something wonderful. Nowadays, with the New World producers focused on consistency at a lower price point, you can be pretty sure that a bottle of Jacobs Creek or Sutter Home will not disappoint. But the supermarkets, with their mega purchasing power, are bringing quality wines down to an even lower price. The South African Pinotage from Lidl is an excellent example (although my father prefers Lidl's South African Cabernet Sauvignon).
So, then. There comes a point where all those extra euros fail to buy any extra pleasure from the drinking. This is my rule of 'the shoulder'; the graph plotting quality against price. It is as true of cameras as it is of wines. You need to consider where that optimal point is. A €1 (4zł) bottle of wine will be rubbish. At €3 (13zł), you will be able to find wines that are acceptable. At €5-€15 (21-65zł), you'll find the optimal price-quality balance. At higher prices, any extra spent will buy only marginal - indeed debatable) improvements in quality.
Foodies - even those who can enthuse about seasonal asparagus, fleur de sel, artichoke hearts, salt-marsh lamb, fillet steak grilled medium-rare, baked beetroot with goats cheese, avocado wrapped in Breton ham, the merits and demerits of unstoned black olives - can feel daunted by the world of wine connoisseurship. Here, the distinctions far more subtle than those between a Bleu d'Auvergne and a Bleu de Bresse - and how does one describe them without using adjectives like cogent, rotund, bloated, flinty or munificent?
Once again, we come to the life in balance. Not to obsess about minute differences between wines, but to sample, enjoy - and remember not to be over-charged for the privilege.
This is not to rein in my enthusiasm for discovering new wines, new tastes, new experiences, new sensations, new pleasures. It's just that my expectations for finding something outstanding will not be limited by knowing its price.
This time last year:
Poland's golden autumn
This time two years ago:
Visceral and permanent - a short story
This time three years ago:
Crushed Velvet Dusk in my City of Dreams II