A Framework To Understanding Wine...

The more I study and teach about wine, the more I realise that a source of many complications and confusion for many wine student when it comes to wine appreciation is a general lack of a framework of thinking to approach their journey of discovery.  Many a wine lover readily (and perhaps prematurely) jump from concepts to concepts in the hope that the accumulation of knowledge will help them understand wine more clearly.  Ironically, this often has the opposite effect causing more confusion and misunderstanding.

In this post, I want to propose an approach, a way of thinking that lays solid foundations upon which to rest the building blocks of wine knowledge and help to connect the dots more effectively.  My approach is not original.  In fact, many a wine book and courses such as the WSET hint at it with more or less clarity.  However, few actually spell it out as clearly and emphasize as I do that, without understanding this approach with absolute clarity, the understanding of wine will always be deficient.

My approach focuses first on understanding Style and Quality.  Notice that I did not write Grape, Terroir, or Winemaking.  No. I absolutely believe that we must understand exactly how to define style and quality before we should embark on the journey to understand grape, terroir, and winemaking.  

The Source of Style & Quality...

For sure, and as we will see in future posts, the source of style and quality are the grape, the terroir (which I prefer to call "ripening conditions"), and the winemaking.  Therefore, it is absolutely necessary to study these 3 concepts in great details to understand wine.  However, I believe we must FIRST understand how to define Style and how to define Quality for the concepts of grape, terroir, and winemaking to begin making sense.  When we confidently describe style and quality in a technical and objective manner, I believe the dots of grapes, terroir and winemaking can then be connected with more clarity and intelligibility.

Style, or the wine personality...

To me, style is the personality of the wine. Just like the ballerina Darcey Bussell above, a wine can be mesmerizing, ethereal and vibrant.  It can dance delicately on our palate yet show an underlying strength that is almost imperceptible but one that we clearly feel is present. Alternatively, just like the many roles Sophie Marceau interpret in her movies, the wine can be refined and elegant, with the poise of aristocracy and old worldliness. At other times, just like Michele Yeoh, who was once a bond girl performed many of her own stunts, especially those of the martial arts.  She is powerful and strong, yet lean and feminine.  Just like these 3 performers, different wines have completely different personalities.  

Key, is to experience wine for its personality first and foremost.  Only then can we decide on its quality.  Only wines of the same styles can be compared among each other.  A Prosecco will never be a Champagne.  And vice versa.  Therefore, it is absolutely incorrect to compare each and claim that one is better than the other.  The personality of the wine can also guide us for pairing it to our food or to our mood.  Do I feel for something light and refreshing or something creamy and comforting?  Is the wine powerful and dense to match a delicious roast or is it dry and lively to match the beautiful oysters in front of me?  When we know how to define style, we can be bolder in our experiments with wine.  Even when we have not tasted the wines of our temptations.  When I tell the sommelier that I love Pinot Grigio from Collio, he might just as well advise me to taste a wine from Rias Baixas and be confident that I will love it just as much.  The key to understanding the personality of the wine is to be able to describe it with the help of a method.

More precisely, a framework to approach Style would be to describe the key elements that define its personality accurately.  To that end, we need to focus on its weight, its structure, its texture, its aromatics and its winemaking characteristics.

The weight of the wine is how heavy or light it feels on the palate as we swirl it around our mouth.  Does it feel fluid like water or creamy like, well, cream?  The structure relates to its components such as its acidity, its tannins, its sugar, and alcohol.  Are the components delicate and subtle or are they pronounced and extreme? The texture is often overlooked.  Yet, it has such an important role to play in the personality of the wine.  Does the wine feel soft or hard?  Are the tannins sandy or silky? Does the interplay of acidity and creaminess give the wine and 3-D sensation on the palate at once refreshing and caressing?  The aromas are so important in revealing the personality of the wine.  Is is delicate or intense, is it floral or fruity?  Mineral or aged? And what to make of the winemaking, does the wine have the vibrancy of its production in stainless steel or does it have the creaminess of ageing in oak barrels for extended period?

A Framework to Define Style...

More specifically, the weight of the wine is directly propotional to it fruit concentration (or its fleshiness) and its alcohol.  Its structure relates to its weight but also its acidity, tannins and sugars.  The texture depends on its feeling on the gums, the tongue, the roof of the mouth.  Aromas come from 3 sources, the primary family from the grape itself, the secondary family from winemaking, and tertiary family from maturation in bottle.  The wine can have extra distinctions mostly from the wine making itself or whether the wine is modern of classic, and sometimes can relate to its ageing potential.

When we understand how to define style we can begin to draw in our mind a map of the world of wine and then pinpoint on it where each wines that we taste fit on it.  As we increase our experience of various wines of the world and as we map them in our mind, we come to the realisation that a particular style is more to our liking than another.  We also realise that in fact, wines can be grouped  together in 4 broad families for white and 4 broad families for red.

 The 4 Styles of White Wines...

The 4 Styles of White Wines...

 The 4 Styles of Red Wines...

The 4 Styles of Red Wines...

Quality, or the measure of excellence...

Quality is an altogether different concept.  If style is the personality of the wine, then quality is its measure of excellence.  From the moment the buds break from the vines in the spring until the wine is bottled, sometimes years afterwards, many decisions will have been taken and many factors could have influenced the excellence of the wine. Often, years and years of refinement will be necessary to produce a truly outstanding wine when the magical combination of vine age, perfect ripening conditions, highly skilled handling in the cellar will come together in the beautiful whole.

However, it must be clear from the outset that a winemaker begins the season knowing fairly precisely which style of wine he/she will produce at the end of the vintage.  No matter how much we talk about terroir and vintage variation, it will be known in advance that this plot of that one can only produce this style or that style.  A village wine will always be a village wine, no matter the quality of the vintage.  Therefore we must understand that wine production is actually more precise than we are often led to beleive and style is the starting point for everything.  Once we understand that the wine is made with an target style in mind, then we can begin to assess the quality.

Personality and excellence are two different concepts altogether, and surprisingly, they are often confused by many wine experts.  As we have seen, Prosecco and Champagne are two different styles of wines altogether. So are village wines versus grand CRU wines.  And so, we can not compare them against each other.  But we can compare each against their peers within their specific style and measure the quality achieved within the intended style itself.  Therefore, it is absolutely possible to have an outstanding quality Prosecco as it is to have a poor quality Champagne.

Ironically, for such a critical topic, it seems that it is difficult to find consensus among wine professionals as to what constitute quality.  Some MW students go as far as creating complicated acronyms for their exam such as BLICTOAD in particular.  However, for me, I believe that wine quality is more simple than that.

First and foremost, does the wine have complexity and purity?  That is really the source of all pleasure.  Its bouquet is the most important factor that transports and makes us dream.  Is it simple and straightforward or is it layered with all kinds of primary, secondary, and tertiary aromas? And even if the wine is made to be enjoyed young and fresh with primary and secondary aromas dominating, is it clean and pure with well-defined aromas that we should expect from its style? 

Once we are satisfied with its bouquet, we must concern ourselves with the balance of its components structure.  Here, I refer to what Emile Peynaud calls the hardness of the wine caused by its acidity, tannins (for red), and co2 (for sparkling) which must be counterbalanced by its softness caused by its alcohol and sugar (for sweet). The key is that the components of the wine (its structure) must act in the background without distracting the act of tasting. A perfect balance is when the components are almost imperceptible.  For young red and tannic wines, the story is slightly different as it will almost invariably be out of balance due to its elevated tannic structure compared to the softness of its alcohol and sugar (if residual sugars are present).  Here, we must consider another type of balance which is the wine's aging potential. For such wines, we must assess whether its fruit density (a.k.a. fruit concentration) will support its structure in a way to enable the wine to resolve its tannins over time.  When the high quantity of tannins will have softened and become integrated, the wine will be in balance and its structure will feel imperceptible as it should. However, for this process to work, there must be enough fruit density to support the voyage of time.  Think of it as the food a horse needs to move forward day after day.  Without food to nourish it, even the strongest horse in the world will not go very far.  Then, there is the question of tannins quality.  But that is another matter for another post...

For Ageing, The Components (Structure) Must Be Supported By Fruit Density...

Finally, the length of the wine is fundamental. If the bouquet of the wine does not last, there is no interest.  Here, the key factor is the length of the aromatics, not the length of the components and it is often referred to as the Intense Aromatic Persistence.  

A Framework to Define Quality...

An objective approach...

I believe that with training and experience, it is possible to describe style and quality in an objective manner.  However, without the discipline of an approach, it is very difficult to be objective, no matter how much we taste and taste.  Without clearly understanding how to define style and quality with a framework of thinking, it is then easy to rely on emotional factors in our descriptions and assessments and thus, become subjective and unreliable.

With the above framework firmly in mind, we can begin to explore the particularities of each building blocks (grapes, ripening conditions, and winemaking) with consistency and guided inquisitiveness and with a view to linking the concepts together and to deepen our understanding. When we are fluent in define style and quality, we can more readily understand what are the factors that influence a style in this way and quality in that level.

Style is the personality of the wine whereas Quality is its measure of excellence.