I recently purchased Karen MacNeil’s Wine Bible and have been delighting in her meticulous research. With the friendliest, most approachable tone she explains the history and culture of each wine region, all the intricacies of the climate and soil there, the types of grapes that thrive its environment, the major wineries to know, how to visit them, and on and on. It’s fascinating. And better than that, it’s useful.
In her intro she lists five qualities that a taster has to assess in order to determine if a wine is truly great. Now, I know how snobby that seems — Heineken and Corona don’t make these demands! — but I’ve come to think of wine the way I think of literature. I’ve read many a book that I did not enjoy, but whose greatness was clear and identifiable. If you take Shakespeare, for example, I’m sure you couldn’t find anyone who would deny his greatness as a writer, but you can find plenty who don’t enjoy his work because it can be impenetrable. For those who take the time to get past the difficulty of understanding his poetic language, however, the richness, beauty and brilliance of his words spill forth. So, too, with wine. If it is snobbish to take the time to develop an appreciation for the complexities of wine, it is the same of trying to understand high literature, in which case so be it: you can call me a snob. I’ve been called a lot worse.
But I digress. MacNeil’s five qualities are these: Varietal Character, Integration, Expressiveness, Complexity and Connectedness. At the end of her first section on mastering wine she writes the following:
Admittedly, a wine’s integration, expressiveness, complexity and connectedness (or lack thereof) may not be immediately obvious. But if you taste the wine slowly and think about these concepts, they’ll soon begin to make sense. It’s also fun to get an even greater demand of these traits through some practice. So here’s your wine homework: To discover what integration means, buy a white Burgundy, such as Meursault, and think about harmony. For expressiveness, try a New Zealand sauvignon blanc and consider its intensity. Go looking for complexity by drinking a mature (ten years old or more) top-notch Bordeaux or Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon. And connectedness, though hard to describe, is easy to find. Try a Côte-Rôtie from the northern Rhône, with its almost savage peppery flavors, or a shimmeringly tart riesling from the Mosel region of Germany. Neither of these wines could come from anywhere other than the place it did. (6)
Wine homework? Yes, please!