Interrogating Your Wine

Five questions you should ask every wine
Nov 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?

Opinion

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