Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Remembrance of Things Past

Spend some time reading wine reviewers and you’ll notice that they all have personal biases. High scores go to well-made wines with aromas, tastes, and texture that a reviewer likes. A wine with aromas, tastes, or texture that a wine reviewer doesn’t like, even if it’s well-made, receives a lower score, or isn't reviewed at all.  If you want to rely on a wine reviewer, take the time to understand what aromas, flavours, and styles the reviewer prefers. They might not be your preferences! And never, ever buy a wine based just on a score.

Robert Parker, pioneer of the hundred-point scoring system and perhaps the most famous wine reviewer in the world, catches a lot of flak for the enormous influence that his personal preferences have on how wines are made.  Both the documentary Mondovino and Alice Feiring’s book, The Battle for Wine and Love, hold Parker accountable for the global homogeneity of wine styles. Their argument is that far too many wines today are made in the same style – a style to please Parker, earn his high score, and command higher prices. But I don’t blame Parker. I blame wine buyers who slavishly follow his scores, or winemakers who put profits ahead of loyalty to regional typicity.

Parker himself has been consistent in his personal preferences over the course of his career. But where do these personal preferences come from? When are they formed? Why do some of us like jammy, big-fruit, massively tannic wines, and others prefer muted aromas of spices and leather, with soft tannins? I have a theory.

In my courses to become a sommelier, we analysed a least a dozen wines in each class. This analysis required us to identify the aromas and flavours in the wine, as well as colour, texture, balance, and finish. After we had completed our individual analysis, several of us would describe to the class what we found. To me, it was interesting to hear how often aromas were described in the context of childhood memories. Such comments as “smells like the herbs in my grandmother’s garden”, “reminds me of a plastic raincoat that I had when I was little”, or “it’s just like the box of Sun-maid raisins packed in my lunch in Grade 4” – all idiosyncratic to be sure but highly evocative.

In my case, I could instantly recognize the aromas from my Mom’s baking (such as lemon or vanilla) and the smell of cherry and chocolate combined, just like in a Lowney's Cherry Blossom, something I always found in my Christmas stocking.

I’m convinced that we most easily recognize aromas in a wine that unlock a childhood remembrance. We enjoy those wines that bring back happy memories.

Alice Feiring has her own personal likes and dislikes as well. In her superb book, she writes about her preferences for certain aromas and flavours in wines (allspice, clove, and cinnamon) that recall a very specific and happy memory from her childhood.

So, when you enjoy a wine, are there aromas and flavours that you easily recognize and enjoy? Do they bring back childhood memories?

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