Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Expression and Comprehension

I apologize for my absence—after leaving Spain I've spent the last few days in the wilds of the Loire Valley, roaming in Chinon and Bourgueil with my friend Patricio. While there are many fine things to eat and drink in the Loire, there is little opportunity to connect to the internet, alas.

I was sitting on a TGV a couple days ago reading Michael Schuster’s article on terroir in issue 18 of The World of Fine Wine. One of the ideas that he discusses is the method by which one gains an understanding of terroir, concluding that it is impossible to achieve unless one is able to taste and compare terroir-expressive wines in the company of someone who already knows and can articulate their qualities. “In this sense,” he says, “terroir is an oral tradition, one that needs to be passed on by people who have understood it, to be handed down from one generation to another.”

This made me think, a little obliquely, about an issue that Michel Bettane brought up last weekend at the WineCreator conference in Ronda, where much of the discussion revolved around ideas of authenticity, distinction and expression of character. At one point in the debate, Bettane drew a contrast between distinction of quality and distinction of character—that is, wines that are of high quality due to perfection in technical attributes (and in fact, “technical quality” might be a better descriptor) as opposed to wines that are of high quality due to an expression of an individuality and character of place. Naturally, the two are not mutually exclusive—a wine can be both expressive of character while being technically outstanding. However, one often tastes wines that, though smoothly harmonious, immaculately proportioned and luscious in their fruit flavors, lack any real distinction of character or sense of place. Some of these wines score very highly in the press, and some sell for a great deal of money, both of which naturally encourage and perpetuate their existence.

The problem is that not enough tasters, whether professional or amateur, are equipped to recognize distinction of character. One of the difficulties is that it’s far easier to identify technical quality than quality of character, and often I feel that many people are too easily satisfied with the former. Even the way that we taste is oriented largely towards the identification of technical quality: blind comparisons, sterile conditions, numerical scoring. On the other hand, we have not yet developed a system for identifying character, which is far more difficult. One could even say that the idea of character, while ultimately identifiable, defies the whole concept of systemization.

In another portion of Schuster’s article he talks about man as a key component in the expression of terroir: the winemaker, first of all, as the conduit, but also the consumer, who in order to receive the message must have the experience and capability to understand it. Unfortunately, unless we as tasters have properly cultivated ourselves, our tasting is blind in more ways than we imagine.

7 comments:

Brooklynguy said...

Is that Bernard Baudry on the left in that photo?

Jeremy said...

Very well articulated Peter. Very much enjoyed reading this post. I will now have to hunt down the Michael Schuster article...

Robert said...

Thank you so much for the post.
You raise many interesting questions.
The notion of sterility could be pushed further. There are many experiences in life today that are sterile--and by sterile I mean that they are essentially discrete and do not transfer from one to the next.
Drinking a 100-point wine devoid of terroir expression is a fine example of an experience that is isolated, generates nothing and leads no place. Would you be able even to recall it? Perfect but amnestic? Is it still meaningful?
What makes wine any different from the numerous other experiences that, in a memorable phrase by F Scott Fitzgerald, are mere co-efficients of the leisure of the literate rich? I would say, character.
I had lunch with--and was introduced to--Peter Wasserman a couple days ago, where he made the point that there were already too many wines being made in Burgundy that were incomplete due to the excessively small size of vineyards. Our notions of terroir (in Burgundy) were being undermined by too much fracturing of the land. By implication, he was arguing that terroir is indeed a social construct.

Peter Liem said...

brooklynguy,
That is indeed Bernard Baudry, upholding the old-fashioned oral tradition with Patricio and me in the vineyard of Les Grézeaux.

robert,
I agree with you -- for me, the expression of terroir (which is a conjunction of both man and place) is the only thing that gives wine meaning. A wine devoid of this expression, devoid of quality of character, is no more interesting than a glass of orange juice.

Steve L. said...

I have been thinking about terroir from a similar perspective recently. It would take a great deal of time and effort to gain a deep understanding of a specific terroir. If, for example, I wanted to "know" the Charmes vineyard in Meursault I figure I'd have to experience at least five different vintages and a similar number of producers, not just once but over several years of the wines' evolution. That's, like, 5 x 5 x 5 wines, or 125 bottles, something that I'm afraid will never happen. And that's for a single vineyard. I wish I could taste with an expert whenever I wanted to.

jack said...

Great post, this has me having all sorts of obscure thoughts about wine.

You're right to note the distinction between technical qualities and qualities of character. The wine press, and people in the business of buying/selling wine often place too much emphasis on technical quality while giving hand-waving lip service to a wine's character.

The reason for this is parsimony. In a market full of individual products the consumer requires some way of narrowing the field down to a few interesting examples. Ratings, tasting notes and all the rest of it are great tools.

Character, on the other hand, is a complicated issue. As you point out, it may not even fit into any neat system at all. What's needed is experience - experience of the people, of the land and soil, experience of the culture and history of the wine. How does one express this? By singing poetry on mountaintops? Or by saying nothing at all, with the understanding that character cannot be explained, but shown?

I haven't the foggiest. It probably comes down to personal style, but also to the purposes one is pursuing when tasting and expressing the results. When I taste with my professional hat on, I tend to think about technical aspects, but when I'm drinking with friends over a meal, well, that's another matter.

I'm not much a poet, so when I find a great wine that I think has character (emphasis on 'think.' Steve is right about the difficulty in understanding terroir - I'm tasting as blind as anyone else) I try to get it into a glass and in front of someone.

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