In an attempt to find our bearings in the often confusing world of wine, we’re likely to turn to bottle labels to tell us what we’re tasting. But by focusing on labels, we’re creating expectations that detract from the very personal experience wines can offer all of us.
So you know the main regions, you’ve tried the big grapes, found some you liked, perhaps ventured into champagne and nailed a few food pairings. You can even identify some of those fruits and tannins the label mentions. All good.
But is that really all wine boils down to?
I’ve tried thousands of wines. I used to be a wine blogger, I’m part-French and I’ve wasted entire afternoons tasting 200 takes on the same grape variety, interrogating Serious Wine People and dodging Serious Wine Nutters like this guy:
From all that, I’ve learned you only need one thing to understand wine. It’s got nothing to do with your knowledge of grapes or regions. And even less to do with distinguishing blackberry from blackcurrant. Nope.
You just need to drink it. Bulldoze your expectations and drink it.
Authentic wine experiences
Stéphane was my local vintner when I lived in Paris. I came in for a prescription one Friday. Sensing my need for an escape from lawyering, Stéphane responded: You want something esoteric? Try this one – it’ll show you things.
Later that night, I got all of Provence in his chosen bottle of La Bastide Blanche Bandol. Once relieved of its cork, it practically exhaled the scent of the region I’d spent my summers in as a child. It tasted deep, red and rugged, as though the nearby Calanques cliffs had pushed their way into it. The first glass had this whiff of forest fires that reminded me of my first cigar. (Tragically, I smoked it back to front without realising.) That flavour, like real smoke, had cleared by the time of the second glass. Pretty cool. What hit me then was how much it felt like winter all bottled up. Heavy, meaty, earthy winter. That made me think about how Christmas in Provence always involved encounters with wild boar and how tasty boar was. I wondered if any were roaming in the back garden of our old house right then. And I decided I should never go back to that house because it could never live up to the memories I have of it.
Yeah, all that. That’s what I got.
You know what I didn’t get? Smooth notes of blackcurrant. Yet if you’d read the label, you’d have thought that was the main experience on offer.
And that’s the problem. Focusing on labels is narrowing our experience of wine.
Reducing wine to nothingness
Great wine experiences all taught me one thing: to embrace the unpredictable nature of wine. But the last decade has seen a concerted effort by the wine industry to distill wine down to a set of simple denominators. They’re dumbing it down in a bid to make wine accessible, not understanding that literally all of us can appreciate and enjoy a wine on our own terms, if we stop getting told what to look out for. Nowadays every other bottle is flaunting its stuff using the same narrow terms and kinda weird, erotic language.
We’re so focused on seeing whether we can spot the flavours the label describes that we’ve kinda forgotten the bigger point, namely what the wine evokes and makes us feel.
The wine trade produces these repetitive labels because it thinks you’re confused. It wants to make wine cute and easy like Disney. It also reckons you’re terrified of picking The Wrong One – a mythical experience wine retailers have been trying to scare you about ever since you graduated and applied to join The World Of The Adults.
What happens with this dumbing down is that it implants expectations that lead to a pre-defined, impersonal wine experience. All you’re doing is waiting for those notes of cherry and missing out on the wine’s full impact. It’s kinda like reducing Monet’s water-lilies to big-ass painting from France – expect dots and smudges, but forgetting what you feel when you stand in front of those gigantic bits of genius at the Musée de l’Orangerie.
And you know, that’s fine. It’s ok to have a label that talks about roundness or prunes or whatever. But when you approach the wine, don’t focus on that. Don’t let the label prep you for a prefabricated experience. Respect your own tastebuds. Let them take you where they want to take you and think about what the flavours do for you, good or bad.
Great wines pose questions rather than shout predictable answers. If you want to get wine, the only thing you need to do is accept that uncertainty is the experience. Bulldoze any expectations and just taste it. Forget the blueberries, just focus on how it makes you feel. Relaxed, confused, romantic? What does it conjure up for you? Does it taste a bit like your mum’s apple pie, or does it smell like grandad’s study?
And the same bottle can feel different every time. Wine is alive – that’s what makes it exciting! It can taste lush one year and lighter the next. Each bottle is a mystery date.
There’s this precise little monologue from Maya to Miles in the wine film Sideways that nails this message in a way I never could:
I like to think about the life of wine. […] How it’s a living thing. I like to think about what was going on the year the grapes were growing; how the sun was shining; if it rained. I like to think about all the people who tended and picked the grapes. And if it’s an old wine, how many of them must be dead by now. I like how wine continues to evolve, like if I opened a bottle of wine today it would taste different than if I’d opened it on any other day. Because a bottle of wine is actually alive. And it’s constantly evolving and gaining complexity. That is, until it peaks, like your ’61. And then it begins its steady, inevitable decline. […]
And it tastes so fucking good.
That’s the experience wine can give you. And none of that’s on the label.