Saturday, June 7, 2008

Wet Stone Salad

I promise this is the only time Paul Giamatti will ever appear on this blog (until someone makes a wine called "Pig Vomit").

"There is a problem when these people list all these flavours and aromas they think they have detected. It then gets on to the label of the bottle and what you are looking at appears to be a recipe for fruit salad." -Hugh Johnson

When cornered in social situations, you can always reclaim some personal space by describing your sensory reactions to whatever you're drinking. Some will humor you with mumbled agreements or half-assed nosings of their own cocktail, but most will just slink away. Immediately you are identified as a pinky-extending, Sideways-DVD-owning, swirl-and-spit blowhard best left to wallow alone in your oenological onanism.

Such is the nature of "tasting notes", the beating heart that makes alcohol enjoyment possible on a level beyond guzzling, and/or the festering sore that assures those who dare to use them will always be, to many, hideous. Case in point, the satirical (I think) tasting room scene in the aforementioned film when Miles closes his eyes, covers his ear, and rattles off an increasingly absurd list of the aromas in his glass, ending in "nutty Edam cheese". For a moment there, he's not the good guy. No way, we think. Passion fruit? Asparagus? Why can't wine just taste like wine?

Hmph. Wine does, or at least should, taste like wine--no argument there. But there needs to be a language for describing the differences between wines; otherwise restaurants and retailers could save everyone time by dividing their selections into approximately four categories: "red/good", "white/good", "red/bad", and "white/bad". To the recreational consumer, an honest and plain-spoken assessment of a wine's texture, balance, and concentration can be invaluable.

Hearing, on the other hand, that a wine smells like "vitamins" and tastes like "new saddle leather" is unlikely to help. Ultra-specific descriptors like these are primarily handy for masochists who enjoy walking the tightrope of blind tasting, since all kinds of trivia about a wine's origin can indeed be deduced from certain giveaway aromas and flavors. But if you already know what the wine is, luxuriating in "fruit salad" nouns and adjectives is just a stupid game--EXCEPT if it clarifies and makes more permanent your memory of what you drank. Recording the particulars of what you smell and taste for this purpose will presumably equip you to make better choices about what you and those who trust you drink in the future. Just don't think they'll impress anyone.

And because why not, let's take a shot at the wine press's least mobile target--Robert M. Parker, Jr.--for proliferating such blabbery tasting notes. Any Parker review from the last fifteen years is perilously likely to contain something like "wet stone", "spice box", "liquid minerals" (WTF), "violets", "crushed rocks" "road tar" (an admittedly vivid smell), and sometimes a vaguer cop-out like "dark fruits" or "dried flowers". I don't own a spice box--I just use a shelf. Where does that leave me in trying to imagine the opulent 2002 Pavie?

Parker wasn't the first to ever liken good chardonnay to pears, but just like insipid 80's guitar shredding is Eddie Van Halen's fault no matter how much of a genius he is, I blame first Parker's popularity for all the people who think the extent of your wine expertise is proportional to the logorrhea of your tasting notes. For proof, just look at wine writing pre-RP and post-RP. Hugh Johnson must be mad enough to crush rocks with his bare hands.

Buttery warm-climate chards often naturally contain diacetyl, a compound also used to flavor margarine. So I still wonder about whether a wine universally agreed to smell like blackberries really DOES have any molecular similarity to blackberries. I wouldn't be surprised if it did, but I would be if the same were true of wines garnering comparisons to road tar and vitamins. Flintstones cuvee? Bottoms up.

Today's damage:
(Plus yesterday)
  • Newton Vineyard "Red Label" Chardonnay 2005 - Deep straw color. Juicy tropical aromas wash over rich buttered toast. Just enough acidity to qualify it as wine. Tastes big, but not as big as the 15.5% wrecking ball it is. Probably interchangable with big Cabs in food-pairing applications.
  • Vina Aquitania "Sol de Sol" Chardonnay 2006 - A trickster--smells like a California behemoth, but is a nimble, steely bantamweight on the palate with lemon, green apple, and spice leading into a minerally finish. Clever.
  • Ken Forrester Petit Pinotage 2007 - Oak-free is trendy right now, but this is the wrong wine to throw under that bandwagon. Without oak's woody roundness, this is all coarse angularity propping up an ersatz savory smoke character. The bright purple color makes it all the more awkward. I understand this is a cheapo, but I'm losing faith in Pinotage.
  • Powers Merlot 2005 - A few years in bottle have done this inexpensive WA Merlot good, dulling the color a little and imparting an old world earthiness. Pronounced cooked fruit and menthol flavors come off gracefully. Almost impressive.
  • Yuengling Traditional Lager - Evergreen college quaff still satisfies where most mass-produced American beers don't. Light brown color introduces a tasty bitterness that unfortunately quits by the time it reaches your throat. Refreshing light-medium body means even beer wimps have no excuse for not liking it.
  • Lieb Family Cellars Pinot Blanc 2006 - Bright yellow color. Almost off-dry with a viscous mouthfeel and faint but perceptible sweetness. Herbs and lemon syrup define this very well-balanced North Fork white.

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