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Drinking Out Loud

Universal Translator

Wine-tasting groups. Proper wineglasses. Wines that deserve discussion. Argentina is starting to develop a culture of fine-wine appreciation

Matt Kramer
Posted: March 2, 2010

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina—“At the bank where I work, we have an informal wine-tasting group that meets every few weeks. Why don’t you join us?” This invitation came, very nearly out of the blue, from a guy I met in a local wine shop.

Like so many educated porteños, as the natives of Buenos Aires call themselves (it’s a port city, hence the name), he spoke beautiful English. When I asked him about it, he explained that he had been educated, starting at a young age, in a local English language–oriented school.

In Buenos Aires, seemingly every educated person under the age of 40—and many much older than that—knows English. This is a blessing for which I am daily grateful. I can discuss wine reasonably well in French and Italian, but a Spanish-language wine tasting is way out of my linguistic league.

“Oh, don’t worry about that,” laughed my newfound friend. “Everyone at the tasting speaks English. Our problem,” he added, “is that we really don’t speak ‘wine.’ We just like to drink it. But we don’t know much about what we’re tasting.” Hearing that, I relaxed. I do—ahem—speak “wine.”

A week later, we met in a handsomely decorated “cellar room” of a local boutique hotel. Our group of seven men and three women sat on tall stools around a long, narrow table. My host explained that he brought the wines from his slowly expanding personal cellar and that his colleagues at the bank—all of whom were in their early 30s—brought, well, themselves. Upon hearing this described, everyone laughed about this highly agreeable arrangement.

The wineglasses on the table were, I might note, well-designed and suitably large. This is not a persnickety matter, if only because Argentine red wines are themselves large-scale and show best in good-size glasses. At nearly every decent restaurant I’ve visited, the wineglasses are large and properly shaped. You get much better wineglasses here in Buenos Aires, in even a modest restaurant, than you do in, say, Paris.

What happened next was all too familiar: Everyone around the table tasted the wine and pronounced whether they liked it or not. Now, there’s nothing wrong with this. But wine discussion can extend much further, if you’re so inclined. And if the wines deserve it.

These wines did. The first three served were single-vineyard bottlings from Bodega Alta Vista, a large winery in Mendoza created by the French family that once owned Piper-Heidsieck Champagne house. Originally it was among the seven French-Argentine wineries collectively called Clos de Los Siete. But Alta Vista broke away and set off on its own.

Single-vineyard wines such as Alta Vista’s are slowly driving Mendoza-area wines—the vast majority of which are blended from far-flung vineyards in the area to create large, commercial quantities—toward a greater site-consciousness. Distinctions of place are privately known among the local producers, but it’s only in the past decade at most that any sort of label proclamation of site has been offered to consumers.

Anyway, we had three Alta Vista single-vineyard Malbecs to taste, all from the 2003 vintage: Temis Vineyard, Serenade Vineyard and Alizarine Vineyard. The first is from the Valle de Uco; the latter two are from Luján de Cuyo. These two zones are each broad-scale (think Napa Valley and Sonoma County). So, not surprisingly, smaller districts are very slowly emerging. More localized district names, such as Agrelo, Maipú or Barrancas, among many others, will likely not be seen with any frequency for at least another decade, I’d guess.

Were there differences among the three wines? You bet. Where the wine from Temis Vineyard, in the Valle de Uco, was rich, round and generally a pleasing mouthful, the two Luján de Cuyo Malbecs (Serenade Vineyard and Alizarine Vineyard) were you-can’t-miss-it different. Both displayed an unmistakable mineral note, along with sharper-etched flavor delineation that may have itself derived from a higher apparent acidity. All three wines displayed a noticeable oakiness that was more than I personally care for, but which was neither bullying nor intrusive.

When I asked the group if they perceived differences among the three wines, the conversation suddenly lagged. Language is part of the problem, but it’s not a matter of what you speak, but of what you think.

“I don’t have the words for it,” said one taster. “Not in Spanish, either,” he added. This was echoed around the table. “I only know what I like,” said another. That opinion resounded among the others, with everyone nodding vigorously in agreement.

With that, I’m afraid that I once again failed the diplomacy part of the Foreign Service Officer examination. It’s not enough, I said, to be satisfied with I like it/I don’t like it. That’s too simplistic for tasting, as opposed to drinking. Then I went in for the kill: These wines are too good for that. All of us are subject to national pride, and assuredly the Argentineans are no exception.

Precisely because wine in Argentina—much more so than in neighboring Chile, by the way—has for so long been such an item of daily consumption, at correspondingly cheap prices, a certain insouciance set in. This same phenomenon once plagued Italy and its wine culture. Not coincidentally, the majority of Argentineans are of Italian origin.

In 1970, Argentina’s wine consumption was a whacking 92 liters (24 gallons) per capita, making it the world’s fourth-highest wine-consuming country after Italy (114 liters per capita), France (109 liters) and Portugal (102 liters). Since then, wine consumption has declined considerably, just as in other traditional wine-drinking nations. The latest figures, from 2008, show Argentine wine consumption at about 27 liters per capita. Chile, in comparison, consumes 17 liters per capita. (The United States consumed 9 liters per capita in 2008.) [Source: Impact Databank]

Most wine drinkers everywhere—and certainly in the United States—tend to approach wine from the “I like it/I don’t like it” platform. But for a wine-producing nation to propel itself beyond mere commodity wine, a native culture of what can only be called “wine appreciation” must emerge.

This may sound high-falutin’, but it is nevertheless both true and essential. France taught the world about fine wine precisely because it developed and cultivated just such a mentality. Granted, it wasn't necessarily part of everyone's life but, over time, a mentality of "wine appreciation" became part of everyone’s French patrimony. (Ironically, France appears to be losing some of this in recent years as its wine culture has come under aggressive attack from health-oriented government agencies and advocacy groups.)

Now we’re witnessing Australia revamp its wine culture to a more sophisticated “wine appreciation” as it transitions from its traditional commodity blended-wine orientation to a more site-specific mentality that can coexist—and be celebrated—alongside the larger-scale production that has dominated the Aussie notion of wine “goodness.”

Seeing just such a fine-wine reality unfold here in Argentina—an embryonic mentality nurtured by the sincere interest of Argentineans such as those at that tasting—is an exceptionally gratifying pleasure. Today, for effectively the first time in Argentina’s long wine history, you can crack open a bottle of Argentine wine (the better ones, anyway) and get far more than mere pleasure. Wine at its best is a message in a bottle—and we can all speak the language.

John Montague
Portland Oregon USA —  March 2, 2010 4:43pm ET
Another wonderful article Matt. This could be the preamble for any new wine tasting group or a solid review for existing groups. Looking forward to finding more single vineyard Argentinean wines making the shelves of wine stores here.
John Lawrence
Michigan —  March 2, 2010 8:10pm ET
So, did you attempt to provide them with a language for talking about wine? It's not clear. But isn't it oversimplistic to talk about just one wine language; there isn't just one. I like the French approach better--one that focuses more on aspects beyond scents and smells.
Matt Kramer
Buenos Aires —  March 3, 2010 7:15am ET
Mr. Lawrence: You ask a good question. And, yes, I did attempt to provide some “vocabulary”, although not in the conventional way that one might expect.

Instead, I, um, held forth on what I consider the key element about what makes some wines “better” than others, which involves our collective, universal human physiology.

The short version of this discourse is that we humans, because of our big cortex and vast neural pathways, are wired to prefer more complex stimuli over simpler stimuli. However, multiplicity (complexity) alone isn’t enough. There must also be a sense of cohesion.

For all of us, the attraction of “Mary Had A Little Lamb” -- which we all found so compelling when we were four years old—strikes us as banal by the time we’re ten. Our physiology has changed. We need (crave, really) more complex stimuli. Eventually, in time, we find the likes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony—or something else comparably complex yet perceivable as cohesive—more rewarding.

Is Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony “better” than “Mary Had A Little Lamb”? Definitively yes, for the reasons described above. The same is true for what makes some wines “better” than others. It’s not the taste. That’s mere “preference”. Instead, it’s the complexity/cohesion, among other factors.

In short, what you like isn’t necessarily what is “good”. They are separate issues. I’ve said on more than a few occasions that the best definition of a connoisseur that I know is someone who can say, “This is great wine. But I can’t stand it.”

Anyway, that’s the short version of what I said. Aren’t you glad that you missed the long one? Still, the group was awfully nice and never let on how bored they probably were.

By the way, should you have an appetite for this sort of thing, you might look at the chapter called “The Notion of Connoisseurship” in my book “Making Sense of Wine—Second Edition” (Running Press).
Joe Dekeyser
Waukesha, WI —  March 3, 2010 8:38am ET
I sometimes wonder if there is a developing trend in France and maybe throughout Europe towards an underground wine culture. Enophiles who love it, revel in it (secretly) and feel they have to partake of it on the sly. Why? Simple really, there is an intrusive but growing and vocal minority in France of Muslims who disapprove and are often confrontational about it and other realities of Western life. Never underestimate the influence that the vocal minority has on everyday life. Remember prohibition and the single-mindedness that created that fiasco.
Matt Kramer
Buenos Aires —  March 3, 2010 9:03am ET
Mr. Dekeyser: You’re most certainly correct about never underestimating the effect of a vocal minority on events anywhere in the world.

However, I have to say that, with respect to France, the “vocal minority” that is affecting France’s once-cherished wine culture is not their Muslim minority (who seem, to this outside observer, more oppressed than oppressive), but rather, an aggressively vocal and effective coalition of advocacy groups, government ministers and lawmakers who are intent on suffocating France’s “wine culture” in the name of health consciousness.

For those who haven’t followed what can only be called the “French folly”, in 1991 an increasingly health-obsessed French government passed a law named after its legislative proponent, Claude Évin, banning alcohol advertising on television and at sporting events and severely limiting advertising in print. (It also regulated tobacco advertising).

Under the Évin law, wine producers were forbidden to make any claims about quality. Indeed, they couldn't mention anything relating to smell, taste, or color. Just the name, manufacturer, alcohol content, and appellation of origin were allowed.

Only in 2005, over the objection of France's then-minister of social affairs, was the law modestly amended to allow "references to the qualitative characteristics of the product." (President Sarkozy has said that he is in favor of softening the severity of the Évin law, but so far has taken no substantial legislative action that I’m aware of.)

Joe Dekeyser
Waukesha, WI —  March 3, 2010 10:47am ET
Seems ironic that the Claude has the word wine (vin) in his name. The comment regarding a vocal minority still applies as does the wondering whether French enophiles have trended towards going underground. I'm from the government and I'm here to help you seems to apply more in Europe than it does in the U. S.

I most assuredly appreciate your reply and the history lesson. It was needed and is duly noted.

John Lawrence
Michigan —  March 3, 2010 12:31pm ET
Hi Matt--

Thanks for the response; to follow up, though, was looking more for particulars on what YOU consider those basic building blocks of wine language to be: I see a couple there: complexity and cohesion. But what are those "other factors" you speak of in your fourth-to-last paragraph?
Keir Mccartney
League City,TX —  March 3, 2010 12:59pm ET
Very nicely handled Matt.
Matt Kramer
Buenos Aires —  March 3, 2010 1:15pm ET
Mr. Lawrence: As far as “basic building block of wine language” as you put it, the words themselves, in my opinion, don’t have much meaning without an understanding of the values behind those words.

It’s one thing, for example, to tell a novice wine taster that “complexity” is essential. But it’s quite another thing for that person to understand why complexity is so important. Otherwise, it all seems terribly arbitrary.

Put another way, the important words are really just a convenient shorthand for the essential values—which (alas) always require a veritable flood of words! Think about “terroir” and you’ll see what I mean.

I tried, of course, to translate “terroir” into more comprehendible English when I coined the word “somewhereness”. Even though many people seem to have found that word useful, it hardly captures the “building block” importance of somewhereness in evaluating the quality of a wine.

Anyway, here are four words that really matter: originality; harmoniousness, nuance and finesse. The world’s truly great wines have these values, never mind the grape variety or place of origin.

I think these values (as opposed to mere words) are essential in arriving at a judgment about a wine. Yet I know that other tasters do not place as much weight on these particular values/words as I do.

This, if nothing, explains why and how two tasters can arrive at sometimes strikingly different judgments (and scores) about the same wine. This always baffles readers, especially newcomers to wine. It all seems so arbitrary. Yet once you understand a taster’s “value weighting system”, your own included, it becomes much more understandable why so-and-so loved this big Zinfandel while another, equally experienced and worthy taster, considered it a lesser wine.

Dunno if this helps, but there you are. Thanks, as always, for your interest.
Johnny Espinoza Esquivel
Wine World —  March 3, 2010 3:36pm ET
Mr. Kramer:
Now this is a nice piece!
I do really, really enjoy what your are experiencing on Argentina. I really have enjoyed reading your Universal Translator.

I have to recognize I have "crashing/encountered" feelings right now. I'm just have a very few years of experience of wine culture -I should have said "wine drinking" instead. In the past I used to drink wine for pure enjoyment, which is good. This approach led me to drink everyday wines from Italy, Chile, Argentina and California. This is to say, I was not paying real attention to the subtle complexities a wine can have -even a everyday one- Last two year I've been trying to understand and get into what wine drinking means, beyond pure enjoyment, culture included. I'm still have -once in a while- the "wild feelings of pure enjoyment" instead of the thoughtful drinking. I'm trying, I'm really do. I guess I've to balance "Apollus and Dionisious".

I bet the group enjoyed -instead of getting bored- on what you told them about the differences. That's one of the things I really love about wine, one for sure I Have to learn about. Hopefully I will be able.
Please, keep sharing your Argentinian Experiences. I'm sure some of us will learn a few lessons. . .

Keep up the good writing/blogging!
Steven Mirassou
Livermore Valley, CA —  March 3, 2010 4:35pm ET

No particular problem with your choice of qualitative touchstones, but it's in the relative importance of each by themselves and then in relation to each other that the horse race is run.
Matt Kramer
Buenos Aires —  March 3, 2010 5:05pm ET
Mr. Mirassou: I take your point. You’re right about the interplay among various “qualitative touchstones”, as you so nicely put it.

I’m curious, though: Is there a hierarchy of “qualitative touchstones” for you? Are some attributes intrinsically more essential--either collectively or in descending order--for wine greatness than others?

(I say “wine greatness” only to separate the discussion from technical wine quality, where attributes are more narrowly defined, such as volatile acidity, oxidation and so forth.)
Aldo Luis Biondolillo
Maipú, Mendoza, Argentina —  March 3, 2010 6:08pm ET
Hello Matt,

I like your approach for wine tasting and the arguments you have raised in favor of a more sophisticated wine appreciation. No doubt that the "terroir" component of the quality attribute of a wine is very important but so is the "genetic" of the vine. In my view "clonal selection" and "single-vineyard" go together in that complex world of wine appreciation.The result of ten years of work in our Malbec Clonal Selection Program is proving that.
Aldo Biondolillo
William Odom
Washington State —  March 3, 2010 6:32pm ET
Mr. Kramer
You being "Johnny on the Spot" Any chance you venturing to Chile to give us an insightful, first hand view of the 2010 harvest in the midst of the country picking up the pieces (literally) after their powerful earthquake. It would make a fascinating read.

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