You would think that the most challenging element of wine is tasting it. After all, if you want to get some sort of credential such as a Master Sommelier or Master of Wine (surely it's only a matter of time before credential bloat has us referring to our wine servers as "Doctor") you have to successfully identify a bunch of wines tasted blind, i.e., with labels unseen.
But tasting wine is not the real challenge. That's because—this might surprise you—wine tasting really isn't very difficult.
Oh, playing the wine version of "Pin the Tail on the Donkey," where you have to identify the wine blind, has its challenges. But it's just a boy's club thing, a rite that offers a demonstration of public prowess or an equally public prospect of humiliation.
Wine tasting intended for true discernment is altogether something else. It's an investigation of differences, a matter of recognizing better from worse. (In this context, tasting blind does offer an opportunity of removing distractions and, yes, prejudices.) And doing that, I can assure you from decades of teaching wine-tasting classes, is not at all difficult. Almost anyone who's willing to pay attention and has just a modicum of experience can identify a better-quality wine from a lesser one. Really, it's no big deal.
Instead, the real challenge is putting words to wine. This is where many people—most, even—stumble. The vocabulary of wine is what's really daunting. This is why so many parodies exist. Too often, the words put to wine not only stretch credulity, but invite skepticism, if not outright laughter and derision.
Recently, I received a letter from a reader who enclosed a list of 50 descriptive terms for tannins that he had read in various wine publications such as refined, solid, well-behaved, racy, polished, dry, dusty and sinewy, among others. "I guess it's no wonder I don't know what tannins are," he noted.
We could, of course, take the Trappist monk approach, tasting the wine and then shuffling away in silence. But where's the pleasure in that? It offers no companionability or sense of shared discovery. Words bring wine to life. Wine—fine wine, anyway—not only invites, but very nearly demands, comment.
You can make a case that only six words—values, really—are essential. They involve judgment, rather than mere description. (Forget flavor descriptors. Writers use them because they are necessary to tell you what a wine tastes like.)
In any wine situation, whether at the dinner table or in a professional tasting, if you assess wine using these six words you'll nail what this taster, anyway, thinks is really important. As follows:
Finesse. Although now a proper English word, it's clearly French and is easily enough translated: fine-ness. In a world where the great majority of wines were once coarse and rustic, it takes no imagination to understand how "fine-ness" was seen as fundamental to real quality.
Today, finesse refers to something a bit more specific but no less critical. Finesse is the quality of how a wine delivers itself to you. If this "delivery" strikes you as heavy or clumsy or somehow disjointed, the wine lacks finesse. And it should be marked down accordingly. A wine that lacks finesse is, by definition, a lesser wine if only because you will quickly tire of it—and it will tire you (see Fatigue).
Harmony. Another old-fashioned virtue that, like finesse, has stood the test of time. Some tasters like to talk about balance, which is a trendy wine word these days, if only because it's invariably employed in defending high-alcohol wines.
A better, more comprehensive word in my opinion is harmony. What's the difference? A wine that is harmonious has effectively corralled the various forces present in a wine—fruit, tannins, acidity, sweetness, alcohol—and managed to achieve a persuasive, cohesive whole.
Now, I'm no fan of high-alcohol wines. Yet I'd be less than honest if I didn't acknowledge that I've had a good number of wines where the high alcohol (typically 15 percent or higher) simply didn't intrude. I was neither aware of it nor did it detract. The reason was harmony.
An emphasis on harmoniousness in wine is a subtle yet powerful evaluation term. Think of clothes. How often have we seen someone who is obviously expensively dressed, yet it doesn't work? He or she fails to pull it off almost invariably because of an absence of harmony, which involves not just color coordination and texture but also appropriateness. (The late Elsie de Wolfe, a renowned interior decorator, famously defined good taste as "Simplicity, suitability and proportion.")
It's no different with wine. Great wines are always somehow effortless. Flavors are beautifully defined yet flow seamlessly together. Fruit and acidity are in perfect equilibrium. The wine practically floats. That's harmony, which is a helluva lot more than just balance.
Layers. Everyone talks about complexity in wine and there's nothing wrong with that term. Personally, I think that "layers" better captures what really separates better wines from worse. Maybe it's just a matter of semantics, but hear me out.
Whenever the word "complexity" is invoked, it implicitly suggests that more is better. That's probably true, but how that "more" is expressed is critical. We've all had wines that have rushed up to us with an almost explosive array of scents and tastes. We're wowed. "Boy, that's complex," we say.
But if you step back and ask yourself (and the wine) whether it has layers, you might well arrive at a different conclusion about the wine's apparent complexity. You might find that, actually, there are no layers, or only a few. You might then conclude that its apparent complexity is superficial.
Truly complex wines run deep. They meter out to you their complexity in, well, layers. The more you keep diving in, the more layers you pass through. Very great wines are seemingly bottomless. You keep passing through yet more layers, discovering something new and different.
Detail. It's not enough that a wine has layers/complexity. The elements of these layers, the various flavors and nuances that compose the layers, must be delineated. Really fine wines don't give you a sense of the flavors being smeared or running together. Instead, the details are precisely defined and easily distinguished.
Fatigue. This is an odd term, I know. But if you view wine through the lens of "fatigue" you will more easily discern qualities and deficiencies that separate truly fine wine from wannabe fine.
Put simply, great wines don't fatigue you. No matter how many times you return just simply to smell the wine you're exhilarated. And each time you taste, far from growing bored with, or tired of, the wine, instead you feel like you're bicycling with the wind at your back. It's effortless.
Great wines don't fatigue. It's as simple as that. They don't fatigue because of several of the attributes previously cited such as finesse, delicacy, delineated flavors and layered complexity, among other virtues.
After tasting a wine several times—and getting past the sometimes deceptive initial first impression—you should ask the question: "Does this wine fatigue?" How you respond can tell you a lot about the intrinsic quality of what you're tasting.
Surprise. Last and hardly least is the element of surprise. This is another way of saying "originality." Interesting wines offer an element of surprise, of unpredictability; great wines guarantee that sensation.
No matter how many times you taste, say, a great red Burgundy or Barolo, you're always surprised. The profoundness lies not just from complexity, but from a sensation of new discovery, even with wines that you (wrongly) imagined you already knew.
Surprise is the secret sauce, if you will, of all of the world's most compelling wines.