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Drinking Out Loud

Why the Fundamentals Matter

And what, exactly, are those fundamentals?
Photo by: Jon Moe
What does wine have in common with ballet? Matt Kramer has the answer.

Matt Kramer
Posted: October 4, 2016

Anyone who has ever taken ballet classes knows that from the first day of instruction to your last day dancing, you always practice the now-sacred five basic ballet positions. These are five positions in which you place your feet, as well as an additional five positions for your arms.

Whether you're a newbie or Nureyev, you will start every practice session at the ballet barre every day of your dancing life perfecting these fundamentals. It's incredible, when you think about it, but it's true.

Fundamentals matter because without them articulate expression is impossible. In ballet—or any kind of dance, really—you cannot express yourself without control and balance. If your feet aren't properly positioned, well, it takes no imagination to foresee the consequences. It's no different in sports or martial arts, either.

And it's no different with fine wine. There are fundamentals in wine. Although the choreography of wine styles may change—sweet to dry, light to powerful, single-variety or blends—without the fundamentals securely, even commandingly, in place, whatever results will inevitably be lesser. The wines will be less precise, less well-defined and ultimately less persuasive and seductive.

What, exactly, are those fundamentals? Unlike in ballet, the fundamentals of wine haven't been codified or distilled to an all-important five. Moreover, fundamentals will differ based upon who's submitting them. An academic wine scientist will surely offer a testament of fundamentals different from, say, a long-experienced vineyard manager.

That noted, I'll take a stab at such a list of fundamentals. Inevitably, this list is informed by my role as a critic and taster and also—this is worth mentioning, I think—as a passionate consumer.

First Position: Expression of Place Is a Wine's Highest Calling. That this is my First Position (the Prime Directive in Star Trekkie terms) will surprise no one who has read more than 100 words of my scribblings. Never mind whether you call it terroir or “somewhereness,” it is place that is the primal source of wine greatness.

Nearly all great or at least insightful wines express their place, whether in a pinpoint, single-vineyard fashion or in a broader but still distinctive and unique exclamation of site. This is what makes such wines original and timeless, at least in my book. It's what makes wines endure and prevail over changing tastes and styles.

Yes, I can think of a few exceptions to this rule of the primacy of place. But such wines are, to my way of thinking, the proverbial exceptions that only help prove the rule.

Second Position: A Wine Has Got to Be Clean. I can't put it more plainly than that. How can a wine possibly meet its highest calling of expressing its place if that expression is distorted or obscured by one or another winemaking flaw?

This is why too many of today's so-called natural wines are failures. They are not failures because of what their producers seek, which is a certain sort of untrammeled purity. Such an ambition is devoutly to be wished and applauded. But if that sought-after purity is besmirched by unclean or off flavors or by the presence of brettanomyces (a yeast that creates a musty, funky odor in a finished wine) or by noticeable volatile acidity (think vinegar), well then, the very purpose and intent of "natural" has been defeated hasn't it?

Third Position: A Perfect Sphere Is the Ideal. This, I readily acknowledge, requires explanation. It's really a metaphor for harmony in a wine. (Balance, in my opinion, is too narrow and confining a term, implying a mere matter of offsets or equivalencies.)

One of the most important lessons of my wine life was taught to me decades ago by Edmond Maudière who at the time of this memorable lesson was the chef de cave, or chief winemaker, of Moët & Chandon, then and now the largest French Champagne house.

"When you create a sparkling wine," he said, "you can never lose sight of the power and influence of the bubbles. Why? Because bubbles magnify. Any flaw in the blend, even a tiny one barely perceptible in the base wine, will be enlarged.

"The ideal in blending is to create a perfect sphere," he continued. "Think of it this way: A perfect sphere can descend to any depth of the ocean and never break because the pressure on all sides is equal at all times. You must strive to create the harmony of a perfect sphere."

I have never forgotten this. Every time I taste a wine—especially a wine that I think might be great—I ask myself, "How close does it come to being a perfect sphere?"

This, of course, is another way of asking: Does it have harmony? 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.

Harmony is the "dark matter" of wine, unseen and unmeasurable, yet somehow holding everything together.

Fourth Position: Originality. Not Replication. It's hardly breaking news that we live in a world of copies. It was ever thus, to be sure. Ancient Romans copied not just the sculptures of ancient Greece but its very gods.

Today, of course, we're awash in copies, knock-offs and counterfeits. We all know the reasons, which involve technology, democratization, mass marketing and borderless trade.

All genuinely fine wines are originals. Sure, it's inevitable that one or another wine may remind you of a benchmark from somewhere else. But the real judgment, the only one that matters, is a wine's singular measure of stimulating originality. This is what makes the best California Cabernets so compelling; why Australia's Margaret River is the source of extraordinary Chardonnay, and South Africa's best Chenin Blancs are so remarkable. They are like nothing else on the planet. They replicate nothing.

Fifth Position: Greatness Can Come from Places Not Previously Recognized as Great. This is a truly modern position, one that could not be asserted until the last half-century, at most.

Because of abundant capital, ease of travel, modernity of all kinds and local ambition, we're now seeing not just a blossoming, but an explosion of extraordinary wines from places never previously recognized as a source of wine greatness. You can surely name the list of countries and particular locales as well as I can, so I won't bother.

But I will say this much: It's a challenge for many wine lovers today to accept that this is so. Tradition is powerful in fine wine. The idea that indisputable wine distinction of the highest order can come from places not previously recognized (sanctified, really) as great can be hard for some—not all, to be sure—wine lovers to swallow.

Still, it has to be said: You can't master modern wine without also accepting, and endlessly practicing, this "fifth position."

John S Edwards
United States —  October 4, 2016 11:52am ET
Mr. Kramer,

Thank you for this concise article describing for me what has always been one of the most difficult things to explain about great wine and what makes a great wine. Your first choice would be mine also along with the description of a sphere in place of the term of balance.
Kyle Schlachter
Colorado —  October 5, 2016 3:06pm ET
Matt, at what email address could you be reached? If you don't want to respond here, you could email me at info@coloradowine.com. Thanks!

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