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An interesting graphical depiction showing the relationship between flavour chemistry and the perception of wine can be found here. I like it because blogger scientist Jamie Goode acknowledges the role of learning and the way in which perception influences how we experience a wine. What we know about wine generally, or a specific wine, will influence our perception. As Jamie points out, we are not ‘tasting machines’ and our models of the world impose themselves on our sensory experiences. We do not see a wine how it is, in many ways we see a wine how we are.
I guess ‘information’ in the diagram refers, at least in part, to context. We can be primed to expect certain flavours and environmental variables will influence our perception. Ambient temperature, background music, time of day or the company we are in, will influence us in subtle ways which we are rarely conscious of. Which is more influential in perceptual terms, the flavour of wild yeasts or the suggestion a wine is made with wild yeasts? I feel an experiment coming on…
‘New research’ by Laithwaites found that a 1,000 “reasonably well-informed about wine” participants said that many descriptions in 43 tasting notes from leading wine brands and critics were not that helpful. The worst included “firm skeleton” with 37% of respondents finding it unhelpful and “nervy” 31%. Other less-than-helpful terms included: “wet stone” (27%); “tongue spanking” (21%), “haunting” (21%), “spring hedgerows” (19%) and “brooding” (18%) as well as “vegetal”, “leathery”, “chunky” and “minerality”. The latter term is especially contentious not only in terms of the taste it describes but also because of the debates about transmission of minerals from earth to grape to wine. I find it quite useful but acknowledge that it is a slightly nebulous and overused descriptor.
Huw Johnson has suggested Anne Noble’s aroma wheel has introduced a formulaic element to tasting. It is essentially a ‘taxonomy of flavours in wine’ so this is the point of it. It is a useful tool in wine education, it stimulates discussion and exploration. The issue is that it is not that widely used and even less understood. It has to be combined with an understanding of individuality and taste profiles to really add value for consumers. I would also argue that it should expand to include many more descriptors such as the ‘exotic fruits’ and mushroom tastes being used by some critics so that notes are meaningful for a South East Asian audience.
Interestingly, in the Laithwaite’s study “Fresh” was regarded as the most useful word, along with “zesty”. Both possibly relate to people who like acidity. They find these words signpost wines that suit them and both are handy euphemisms where ‘acid’ might have unwanted connotations. I think “peachy” comes out well because it is a popular and well known fruit associated with summer but it also has other meanings which are positive e.g. ‘good’ and ‘sexy’. Whereas ‘vegetal’ which I sometimes find a positive quality in reds has less positive connotations and might suffer because of this rather than any descriptive utility. My guess is that this was a major confounding variable in this study. People simply like some words more than others.
Justin Howard-Sneyd MW, who consults for Laithwaite’s, points out that the subjective nature of taste makes the results ‘unsurprising’ but then goes on to suggest; “We have probably been guilty ourselves of using overblown language in the past but this is a wake-up call to the whole wine industry to make a change.” But, surely the answer is not to ‘dumb down’ but to help people understand their own tastes and the taste and language profiles of critics.
Andrew Jefford in Decanter has argued that while “a well written tasting note has practical worth”, even established writers are capable of turning out, “inadequate, boring, incoherent or risible notes”. Jefford is probably one of the most ‘flowery’ of critics. He uses a highly technical language and is prone to metaphor. Personally I am all for this approach. I can often work out what the wine he is describing would taste like to me because I have read lots of his notes and tasted lots of the same wines. I have got benchmarks and this is what we should be encouraging people to develop.
The ‘flowery’ approach can be amusing, creative and really useful but is not an approach that sits well on the back of a bottle. Given what we know about decision-making when buying, wine retailers will increasingly use those descriptors which stimulate purchases rather than those which really inform the diversity of ways in which the wine in the bottle might be experienced by different individuals. This is a shame.
Having Brighton and Hove Albion season tickets for myself and youngest son, means we go down to Sussex every few weeks for a match. The Amex stadium is a wonderful ground set in the South Downs opposite Sussex University and Brighton, under inspirational Manager Gus Poyet, are playing lovely football. Having supported Albion through rough times, including the end of the Goldstone Ground, near extinction and wilderness years at Withdean Stadium it is great to see them winning matches in the Championship and still dreaming of Premiership football (although it is always good to be careful what you wish for as there is so much that is good about the Championship and a lot of downsides to playing in the top tier).
My mum, who lives outside Lewes, was one of many who opposed the planning application and although I was sympathetic to the arguments against it, my selfish desire for my team to have a decent ground won out over greener concerns. It really is a stunning venue and even visiting supporters rate it highly on fan sites. With beer from Harveys and Dark Star as well as pies by Piglet’s Pantry we are well catered for. There is lots of space around the stadium so no mad crushes getting in, great acoustics and comfy padded seats. No wonder we have loads of season ticket holders and are getting the highest attendance figures in the Championship (regularly 28,000 plus).
So how does a 2007 Southern Rhone fit in to this football soliloquy? Whenever we are down for a match we visit family and friends who always seem to have fantastic foraged food, game or homegrown veg. Recently I came back with some wild venison which stimulated a 2007 Rhone tasting as I was conscious I have a few that are probably peaking. It was a difficult but decent year, (especially when compared to Bordeaux) but is surrounded by the excellent 2005, 2006, 2009 and 2010 vintages which tend to overshadow it. Forget about the 08s…
Chateauneuf-du-pape, Domaine de la Roquette 2007
This is designed to be more approachable than it’s famous sibling Vieux Telegraphe (which was great in 2007 but still needs years to peak). This was the third bottle I have tried over the last 18 months and I was surprised how quickly it seems to be fading. Perfectly drinkable but lacking the subtlety and the complexity I had hoped it might develop. Dark fruit, alcohol and a bit of spice. I could buy something cheaper from more recent vintages that would knock spots off it. Maybe it is in an awkward, slightly closed, stage?
Domaine de l’Ameillaud Côtes du Rhône Villages Cairanne 2007
Cairanne is often pretty humble stuff but this showed some nice garrigue notes which worked with the venison. Made with a deft touch by Nick Thompson everything was nicely integrated and balanced. I am not sure I would leave this hanging around if I had any left. I’m sure it might last but it is hard to see it gaining anything and it is really enjoyable now.
Côtes du Rhône Villages Secret de Famille, Paul Jaboulet 2007
Jacques Desvernois sourced Syrah from Dauzaman in the Gard to make this for the Wine Society. Some Grenache was added (10%) and this has proved to be a wise decision as it definitely adds another dimension to it. More than capable of another couple of years but I wouldn’t go past 2015. Nice purple showing some age, sweet and spicy. A good affordable effort from classy stable.
Côtes du Rhône Coudoulet de Beaucastel 2007
I love this wine in most vintages. The Mourvedre in the GSM blend is key. It often disappoints on opening but left to its own devices for an hour (or two), preferably in the open air, it starts to morph into something slightly animal. Crunchy when young this is well into its stride but shows no sign of fading. The brothers Brunier seem to take more risks, or exercise less control, with this wine than Roquette above. I am probably the one per cent that would rank this higher if I was forced to give scores.
I had a bit of a technology meltdown recently. Broken phone, vanishing tablet at Gatwick, laptop lead mauled by puppy and backup phone deciding to give up the ghost after a decade of faithful service. Thus, I found myself in Portugal dependent on a hotel laptop to stay in touch with loved ones and work. The funny thing is that it was incredibly liberating. No checking multiple email accounts, video conferencing, texting, googling, telephone tutorials, tweeting, skyping, blogging or impulse buying on Amazon, Ebay etc. Instead I felt a pleasant connection with the immediate world and spent my time chatting with people, noticing things around me and generally entering in to a state of mindfulness that was an echo of simpler time.
Days became a simple refrain involving golf, wine, reading, chat and waves crashing in along the atlantic coast. And so it goes… This kind of routine has become alien to me and much as I love the frenetic pace of life in london it was a real antidote to atomised attention. Not enough to make me want to retreat to a Himalayan monastery but definitely enough to make me question the value added by information and communication technology.
So as I sipped Alvarinho with friends I became ever more conscious of the connection between the wine and the, for want of a better word, ‘terroir’. Vinho Verde means “green wine,” but translates better as “young wine”. The modern ‘Vinho Verde’ region was originally designated in 1908 and includes the old Minho province plus adjacent areas to the south. The resulting wines are widely available and keenly priced in Portugal. For example Muralhas (pictured) can be picked up for as little as 5 euros (or 3 or 4 times the price in a nice restaurant). Another good value one that is on a lot of restaurant lists is Deu et Deu.
I have often sung the praises of Albarino from over the border in Spain and there is something about the grape that ticks all the boxes for me. Refreshing, tangy, salty, peachy; great as an aperitif and good with lots of food. Often there is a pleasant spritz along with a limey acidity which makes it thirst quenching. Also it tends not to be too boozy so can be glugged. It is not always easy to find in the UK but Asda have an Albarino from the Rias Baixas in Spain (pictured) which is sometimes reduced from its already reasonable £7.98.
My maternal Grandad Bill Wiseman (pictured) was a lovely man. He joined the RAF years before WWII broke out and miraculously, given how much time he spent in the air, survived it. My mum has recently transcribed some of his letters to my Grandma. The letters, sent in 1944 from Northern France in (they were not allowed to be more precise when writing) are incredibly moving but also very funny in parts. They have a wonderful immediacy and booze was clearly an important factor in maintaining morale. Below is a nice example;
Somewhere in Normandy. 15082 G Unit
All continues to go well over here except the blasted weather but we have excellent tents with fly sheets so nothing comes through except the shrapnel of our ever-loving Allies. They really are, to say the least, “A bit much”, as they fire at everything including gremlins…… I had an enjoyable time yesterday. I took a lorry & 3 men out from 2 to 7 P.M. on a food & liquor hunt. We went into a fair-sized local town about 15 miles from here which is quite unscratched. It is packed with troops & although there is plenty of stuff in the shops the French have got Black Market prices beaten hollow. I found I could cope with the language fairly well, that is I could make them understand but their replies took rather a lot of sorting out. The chaps wanted some liquor but the wine shops were all dry, however I scrounged around & found a wholesalers & after a bit of nattering he agreed to let me have some, so down in the cellars we went. Most of the wines are very new but found some 1937 Burgundy & a good Barsac (Sauterne) 1942, both at 175 francs a bottle (17/6). I nearly crowned him when he told me, but the guys wanted liquor so cursed him in English & came away with the booze. They only have sweet Champagne in these parts, this guy had plenty at 195 frcs. (19/6) & I told him he could sell it to come other sucker, at least that’s what I meant.
He had obviously picked up some Americanisms from ‘our allies’ and has some great examples of their banter. At first he thought they were pretty hopeless (one anecdote concerns him liberating one of his Polish friends who had been ‘captured’ by the Yanks’) but he quickly warmed to them. He also admired their waterproof jackets and managed to get one but obviously needed to customize it because he later wrote “Darling please send me some F/Os braid to make stripes for epaulettes of my Yankee jacket“. He was also partial to the ‘whiskeys and sodas’ they doled out and tells a great story about tumblers full of Brandy with some Russian troops. He was a keen beer drinker but seems to have developed a taste for sweet wines during his time in France (sometimes with a biscuit at tea time!) and I would love to know details of the Barsac. I was lucky to have known him and he lived until I was in my twenties. I will always remember the ‘cowboy fort’ he built me and his warm and tolerant manner. He also had a lovely golf swing which I like to think may have a genetic component.
Great animation on Maria Popova’s site ‘Brain Pickings’ here illustrating effects of alcohol.
“Because glutamate sites become less effective, information flow becomes slow, and only the largest signals can make it through. This means you feel less, perceive less, notice less, and remember less”…
I tend to think that the simplification of the term terroir results from the word itself, which suggests territory, landscape or geography. Of course soil and weather are fundamental variables in determining winemaking outcomes but all but the most vehement traditionalists now accept the importance of ‘the human dimension’. However, these human variables are still seen as secondary with certain ‘territories’ celebrated, and privileged, despite evidence that they produce mediocre wines if the land is not paired with a winemaker who can problem-solve. Would a novice make great wine just because the grapes are from Le Montrachet? I doubt it. Is an experienced winemaker hamstrung by the environment? Of course their efforts can be thwarted by heat or hail but good winemakers in new terroirs are exploding an orthodoxy that is essentially a triumph of branding. As Prof. Warren Moran points out; “To attribute priority to the physical environment over the cultural is … a mistake. The expression of a place and its people in a particular wine is better captured in the term typicité – the distinctiveness of a wine from a particular place/appellation. “ Call it typicité or terroir, what is the human contribution and how can we best understand it?
Practices in the vineyard and the winery are often well-described in their contribution to the resulting wine. An obvious example is the use of oak, which itself can be broken down into the type of oak, the size of the barrel (surface area to volume ratio) and length of time the wine spends in it etc. etc. We can control this type of physical variable and generate data that is informative. Tom Harvey at Mclaren Vale commissioned 6 winemakers (3 of each gender) to make a wine from the same batch of grapes . This ‘winemaker’s series’ from ’Alpha Crucis’ allowed each to chose when and how to harvest, and then ‘treat’ the Shiraz. Andrew Jefford felt gender was not the significant variable and that choices around oak and yeast selection were most telling. But, he concludes “In the end I realised that winemaking resists dissection, just as I suspect woodcarving or stonemasonry does. If you tried to work out the significance of every tiny gesture, you’d go mad. It is the web of interactions which counts…” Of course wines are incredibly complex, and display emergent properties when we interact with them, but we should not abandon the struggle to isolate key variables. Given the money involved in wine, the exploration of such factors will continue despite the cost and complexity. The technology to carry out this exploration, such as mass spectrometry and frmi, will also facilitate this by becoming cheaper and more sophisticated.
More interesting (at least for for me as a psychologist) is what historically informed such decision-making and the current cultural influences influencing outcomes. Trial and error, superstition and intuition all contributed to the evolution of the wine trade. In her book The Meme Machine Psychologist Susan Blackmore builds on an idea from ‘selfish gene’ theorist Richard Dawkins by proposing a cultural replicator, or meme, functioning like a gene. Examples might be a playground game that survives across generations or an aphorism with proven utility such as a ‘A watched pot never boils’ (the mechanisms of which we now understand through a scientific perspective). Such memes are often community and culturally specific because they relate to the environment and the lived experience of groups. For example, the decision to pick grapes might have been informed by memes before the advent of meteorological data or tests of phenolic ripeness. Memes could explain much that is labelled terroir, not least its evolution as the apotheosis of branding (is the idea of Le Montrachet itself a meme as much as a geographical location?). Different approaches might be needed to unpick how these ideas shape wines but we have exciting qualitative methodologies that may help us in this. Such approaches may prove more fruitful than traditional paradigms which, for example, have failed to demonstrate what ‘minerality’ is and where it comes from…
Blackmore, S. (2000) The Meme Machine Oxford Paperbacks
La Gironde Verte is an educational initiative from the Bordeaux Wine Bureau (CIVB) aimed at engaging Junior school pupils (aged 6-10/11) in viticulture. They get to visit vineyards, ask questions and complete a special book. This has attracted criticism from some quarters. For example, the quote that follows is from John at ‘All about wine’; “Is this good or not? I think it’s dangerous to learn young children so young wine (sic). From one side I understand that the Bordeaux Wine Bureau (CIVB) teaches these young children to get them familiar with the Bordeaux wine heritage. On the other hand, this might be the first step in creating young alcoholics? …”. Being mindful of dangers in exposing children to alcohol is, of course, important but following John’s logic would stop us teaching children about the World Wars in case they decide to open hostilities on our neighbours. For me the issues are much more about when and what to teach children about alcohol.
When you look at the Gironde Verte curriculum it is pretty innocuous and can be seen as supporting knowledge about plant biology, climate, economics etc. My concern would be that, as with other things Bordelais, it is slighlty parochial and more about ensuring brand loyalty than education per se. The programme is wholly funded by CIVB and this only adds to my reservations. If the programme is educationally worthy in its own right is this type of backing needed? Would they need to ‘market’ it and sign up schools?
It is vital we educate young people about the very real dangers of alcohol consumption. Diana Johnson (MP) in the UK has proposed The Relationship, Drug and Alcohol Education (Curriculum) Bill which would require the Secretary of State for Education to include relationships, drug and alcohol education in the National Curriculum. There is already some input in some schools about illegal drug use. The police, and others, do sometimes show children what various drugs look like and explain the dangers associated with them but references to alcohol and drugs have been removed from the revised science National Curriculum. Alcohol is legal (for adults) but as potent and damaging as many illict drugs and education must help young people to make informed decisions.
If we are going to educate children and young people about alcohol then we need to consider the message we are communicating. We also need to consider the most appropriate age at which to do this (and it might not be 6!). Politicians would do well to look at the efficacy of different approaches rather than call for programmes based on ‘common sense’ that later turn out to be ineffective or counterproductive.
I have just had an article on ‘personality and wine’ published by Fine Wine Magazine (here). It is a topic I get asked about a lot but tend to avoid in case I am misquoted. Any comment on personality and motivation can be a bit of a minefield but I hope Obama is not too put out by my speculations about his wine related White House decisions. Nixon, I am not too worried about…
On a similar note (what shapes our tastes and choices), yesterday I was contacted by Tim Hanni an MW based in Napa. He delivers training on food taste preferences and has some accessible content on his website (here) including videos on the topic. His ‘Vinotype’ taste profiler (here) is fun and very quick to complete. Despite a few methodological reservations I think it has something really helpful to say and Tim’s approach aims to empower individuals to explore their own profile and preferences. Always an admirable pursuit.
The Olympics have defined this summer. In many ways they are now defining September too which is a huge achievement for the Paralympics. I had committed so much to the former that the latter became a bit peripheral despite my work with kids with disabilities. I came back from France (see below for winey stuff) and was faced with awe inspiring images of people showing the world that our stereotypes are patronising and outmoded. There are challenging new discourses opening up and wandering around Stratford is even more inspiring than it was 4 weeks ago. Fantastic! Luckily quite a few friends have tickets so I am going to get to see some events. I can’t wait.
I managed to visit Languedoc‐Roussillon, Burgundy and Champagne over the summer and it has been a good opportunity to reflect on their relative strengths and weaknesses. The extreme south east of France will always be one of my favourite places. The wildness, magical light, social history, food and wine … it has it all and is a hugely underestimated wine region because of its history of mass production. Makers such as Jean Gardies and Olivier Pithon are the antithesis of this, making terroir driven wines characteristic of the physical landscape but also representative of cultural capital and attitudes. I was told that Pithon is no longer making his ‘Saturne’ and have contacted him to try and find out if this is true. That wine epitomises all that’s good about the area; old republican vines, grenache, carignan and syrah, biodynamic experimentation, garrigue and minerality. It would be a profound loss and I have had my fill of that this summer.
I had been due to meet up in France with my friend Mark and his family but he had already told me he would be too ill to travel due to surgery and chemo. He died a few days before I left after demonstrating how to face a terminal diagnosis with bravery and humour. I found myself surrounded by the beauty of Collioure reflecting on how much I would have enjoyed sharing the wines of the region with him as our kids played on the beach. He will be badly missed, particularly by Nicola, Ella and Nick. He is also a loss to Psychology, the training of clinical psychologists and to our understanding of disability, the area that fascinated him.
I have spent years in search of obscure vineyards and dragging my family around cold and dimly lit cellars but they still show great magnanimity about such visits. In Burgundy we had bikes and the highlight was a pleasant ride from Beaune to Puligny‐Montrachet taking in Meursault and a few other villages sacred to ‘Burg hounds’. It was a wobbly ride back after a tour, tasting and lunch at Domaine Leflaive. Disguised as exercise this was still great fun and my boys thought Simon Aplin’s engaging wine spiel the best of the summer visit talks.
Like Burgundy, Champagne has so many tasting opportunities it can be a bit overwhelming. A lot of the bigger houses are closed in August but Mumm was buzzing and they have good infrastructure for visitors. They also have a house style I quite like (not as much as Verve Cliquot or Pol Roger though) and a few interesting lines not available in the UK. Visits to Epernay and various growers are easy and well worth it. Although everyone is raving about ‘grower champagne’ I found them patchy though a couple were superb.
So my favourite wines of summer;
Mon P’tit Pithon Blanc Vin de Pays des Côtes Catalanes Domaine Olivier Pithon A snip at 16 euros for a magnum given the current exchange rate. Maccabeu, Grenache Blanc and Grenache Gris blended to accompany food and please rather than impress. Not too boozy and very gluggable so perfect for long lunches with lots of local anchovies.
La Torre (2009) Côtes du Roussillon Villages Domaine Jean Gardies Not cheap at twenty quid but a seriously good wine with a great future. Mourvedre, Grenache and Carignan, it has depth and balance that could stimulate a myriad of pretentious comparisons.
Saint Romaine Sous Le Chateau (2009) Domaine Olivier Leflaive Lovely mineral white Burgundy that is good value at not much over a tenner in France (premier cru status is being pursued but has not been granted yet). The 2010 is available in the UK from Haynes, Hanson and Clark.
Champagne Fernand Lemaire Champagne Brut (2005) An admirable effort from a medium sized family concern. 80% chardonnay and 20% pinot noir. Ginger biscuit notes which might not be everyone’s cup of tea but works for me. Premier cru although that designation in Champagne doesn’t really say much.
And favourite things to see and do; say ‘hello’ to the mischievous ‘Messire Bertrand’ in the kitchen at the Hospices de Beaune, eat Bouzigues oysters at the fishermen’s outlet in the harbour at Port Vendre then night sail back to Le Racou, visit Montrachet as a reminder that magic can emerge from pretty humble fields, ooh and ahh at the Champagne themed and Chagall designed stained glass windows in Reims Cathedral, whisper ‘Merrett’ by Dom Pérignon’s grave in the pretty chapel at Hautvillers, and perhaps best of all go on all the slides at ‘Aqualand’ in Argeles with fearless kids…