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Drinking Out Loud

Interrogating Your Wine

Five questions you should ask every wine

Matt Kramer
Posted: November 20, 2012

Always the beautiful answer who asks a more beautiful question.—E.E. Cummings

To some folks, wine is a one-way street. You buy a bottle, open it and drink up. Seemingly, the wine does all the work. All you do is decide whether you like it or not. Yet nothing could be further from the truth. Our appreciation of wine is much more interactive.

Oh sure, if the wine is just an everyday item, one that neither deserves nor rewards any attention, then the buy-unplug-and-glug approach is just right.

But at the fine-wine level, a whole lot of discussion goes on, whether consciously or otherwise. With wine, as with so much else, we get what we ask for.

What, then, should you ask of a wine? This question is more key than you might imagine. It will determine not only the kinds of wines you choose, but also the kind of taster that you become.

Let me give you an example. Some wine critics say that an essential question to ask a wine is: "Are you delicious?"

This sets the bar awfully low. It empowers the "If I like it, it is good" approach to wine appreciation. As a taster you're asking nothing more of a wine than that it please you. In high-falutin' terms, this is known as the hedonistic approach.

The "Are you delicious?" demand ensures that as a taster you will prize ease over challenge. If this question is primary, you will choose wines that are soft, rich, fruity and devoid of the rasp of tannins or a poke of acidity.

So what should you ask? Allow me to offer five such questions that I, anyway, think good tasters might ask of any wine they come across. Next time you try a wine, ask these questions and see how the wine answers.

1. Are you characterful? If I had to nominate one question as preeminent over any other, this is the question I would choose. Why? Because characterfulness in a wine is the proverbial fork in the road.

If you decide that a wine lacks character, then however pleasing it may be—however, dare I say, "delicious"—it ultimately is banal. A wine without character will never—indeed, can never—invigorate. It cannot sustain your repeated attention. It is interchangeable with many other wines and therefore is, well, a simple commodity.

2. Are you unique? This is the next (big) step up from the character question. It's also a more difficult question to ask if you lack context. If, for example, you're tasting your first Meursault or Malbec, then it's pretty much impossible to say with assurance that the wine is unique. You need more experience with other wines of the same type.

That acknowledged, even novice tasters can hazard a guess. Some wines are so astoundingly original-tasting, so sense-filling, that you can't help but conclude that if this baby isn't unique, there surely can't be many more at home quite like it.

I remember just that sensation upon first tasting the Rieslings of Egon Müller's Scharzhofberger and von Schubert's Maximin Grünhäuser, to say nothing of the likes of La Tâche or Hanzell Chardonnay.

3. Are you a knockoff? Sometimes you can get the answer you're looking for by asking what might be called a reverse question. Here, instead of inquiring about uniqueness, you might instead ask whether you've already been there and tasted that.

For all of the wonders of our wine era, one of its features is the ability of winemakers to copy the style of successful or lauded wines. Modern technology and scientific winemaking training allows winemakers to mimic at least the manners, if you will, of other wines. And they do—all the time. (This is why question No. 1 is so critical.)

If you taste a wine and you have a nagging sense that, hey, I've had a wine like this before, then you're on to something. Trust your gut instinct on this. And know that knockoffs, by definition, lack originality.

4. Do you offer insight? For what it's worth, this is the question I ask more often than any other. Really fine wine can (and should) deliver a lot more than mere pleasure. It's precisely this ability to go beyond the merely pleasing that vaults a wine into the "really fine" category.

Really fine wines offer insight. If you can taste a wine and say, "I had no idea that the earth could speak this way," then, Bingo!, you've found a wine that offers insight. A wine that can tell you something about the mysteries of the natural world (call it terroir, if you wish) is an experience like no other.

I would submit that there's no more gratifying experience in wine-loving than drinking a wine that offers insight. Asking if a wine offers insight is arguably the highest demand you can make—and it is the hardest question for most wines to answer affirmatively.

5. Do I want more of you? Here, finally, we come to pleasure. (Yes, pleasure is essential. It's just not the sole measure.) The best wines—for whatever reason—make you want more. I've written often about my love of magnums. The best magnum bottles are filled with the wine you want yet more of.

If you ask a wine, "Do I want more of you?" and the answer is a resounding "Yes!", then you've arrived. Personally, the wines from which I get this answer are also the ones that I've concluded are characterful, unique, original and offer insight. That’s what I always want more of.

But whatever is on your list, if a wine answers this question to your satisfaction, then nothing else matters, does it?

David Rapoport
CA —  November 20, 2012 12:42pm ET
Oh cool, more fodder for those who like to brag about how sophisticated they think their sense of wine aesthetic is!!
Claude Kaber
Luxemburg —  November 20, 2012 1:52pm ET
I'd probably ask "do you evolve? ". Evolve when swirling around in the mouth, every sip or glass a little different, evolve in the cellar. That's what makes a great wine, the contrary is like drinking a glass of milk, not bad, but every sip tastes the same, monolithic. I guess it's a related to question #4.
Gerry Ansel
Fullerton, Calif —  November 20, 2012 1:53pm ET
David, Matt is only offering the reader a way of enjoying wine more *actively*, rather than sipping it passively. If we take a moment to think about those things, we we would get more enjoyment out those expensive bottles in which we've invested. It's not about sophistication, it's about gaining deeper insight to what we're drinking - something beyond "it tastes good."
Lee Hammack
Virginia —  November 20, 2012 2:22pm ET
Sorry. I could not get past Q#1. What a load!
David A Zajac
Akron, OH —  November 20, 2012 3:36pm ET
Got to admit, you lost me on this one too. For instance, I think we would all agree one of the most unique wines on earth are those of Gevrey Chambertin, you can smell the earth in those wines, no doubt. But how do you know, unless you drink way more wine than 99.9% of your readers, whether the Cazetiers from Bouchard is more representative and "original" than those from Serafin, Bruno Clair, Faiveley or Le Moine? Is one original and all the others somehow less origninal? Or what about the cabernet's from Napa's Beckstoffer vineyard? There are now probably ten expressions of that vineyard, if not more...is one more original than the other? Or what about all the micro climates within Chat. du Pape, is Beaucastel more original the Vieux Donjon? Isn't it really about what is in the bottle? Yes, a Gevrey should taste like a Gevrey, and a Chateauneuf should taste like a Chateauneuf, but past that, what?
Steve Order
Massachusetts —  November 20, 2012 5:51pm ET
I do ask, is it delicious but maybe it's because I don't separate that question from Q#1. When I'm looking for a wine to serve a large group of unexperienced wine drinkers, I look for something that is delicious. For me that means a) it has some character and b) I want more of it. I don't ask a lot of Columbia Crest Estate Merlot other than, it's appealing to a large crowd, it has some varietal character and, I will drink another, and another, glass. When I'm drinking Lynmar Pinot Noirs, I expect more and I ask for character, insight, nuance. And it always comes down to , do I want more of you?
Gerry Ansel
Fullerton, Calif —  November 21, 2012 1:02pm ET
Lee, a great wine does, indeed, have character. Like people, there is nothing more boring than a "perfect" wine. It needs to show some personality (and sometimes even be slightly flawed). It's an element that keeps the wine-drinking experience facinating.
Lee Hammack
Virginia —  November 23, 2012 2:56am ET
I never wrote that wine does not have character.
However . . . I am quite sure that, if we all use that term, it will mean something different to each of us. There is no real definition of "character" as it relates to wine in Mr. Kramer's piece. He writes of what the wine can do if it has character, and what it cannot do if it is lacking. It reminds me of wine writing style from 30 or 40 years ago . . . sounding good without really saying anything . . . specious.
Henry Kranzler
West Hartford, CT USA —  November 23, 2012 1:12pm ET
As I read this easily consumed article (kudos to Mr. Kramer's fluid style), I found myself thinking that this is what wine writing is about. However, upon reading the fifth question, I asked myself (and now direct the question to Mr. Kramer), what distinguishes the "delicious" in #1 from the "want more" in #5, other than disapproval of the first and celebration of the second? If wanting more is a function of the other three criteria, the first four questions should suffice.
Jordan Harris
Niagara, Ontario —  November 26, 2012 9:36am ET
The flaw I see to this particular piece is in the originality question. As David brings up above, the site in many cases is the determining factor of the wines character. If many winemakers source from individual sites that are know for particular qualities, then who is original. I know the examples you used are based off Monopole style wines, but does that make Mazi-Chambertin or Echezeuax less interesting. While there will be some different characters from each domaine, the "Hey, I've had a wine like this before" is hopefully and probably the terroir and should not be dimissed.
Austin Beeman
Maumee, Ohio —  November 26, 2012 11:20am ET
Question #6. Were you worth buying or should I have saved my money for something else?
Richard Kim
Anaheim Hills, CA —  November 26, 2012 10:14pm ET
Matt, thanks for a thought-provoking piece. Looking at the comments, you certainly were provocative. What your article did for me was to remind me of the fascinating complexity of wine, and that the drinking of a fine wine should be approached to appreciate that complexity. This is the source of the infinite fascination and joy that wine can offer. Many hands and minds and hearts went into the creation of the wine in the glass. Do them justice and pay attention. The exact questions may differ among individuals, but the purpose remains the same.
Leonard Cupo M D
Honolulu, Hawaii —  November 27, 2012 1:41am ET
Agree, Matt. It's philosophical. With all the wine (life choices) out there, where do you invest your time and energy? You only have so many sips (life options). Most sips (life experiences) should deliver more than oral/esophageal rinsing (boredom) if you are serious about wine (life). It's not about snobbery but rather tasting wine (living) honestly and to the fullest. If you can't relive and reinvent a wine tasting (life experience), was it really worth it?
Barnaby-monica Starr
Phoenix, Maryland USA —  December 1, 2012 4:36pm ET
I am a huge fan of your column, Matt. One of the questions I find myself asking of a wine is, "Do
you have structure?" Can I discern a beginning, middle,
and a finish? When I perform this exercise it seems to help me separate the great wines from the merely good
ones.
Steve Faries
The Woodlands, TX —  February 8, 2013 8:02pm ET
Matt's isn't the good cop approach. Listening and toying will not do. He'd probably even result to wine-boarding to extract what he demands.

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