Thursday, January 20, 2011

Recommended Reading: Making Sense of Wine

I remember Matt Kramer from back in the days when I read Wine Spectator. He’s been a regular contributor there since the mid-80s and reading his column was often a highlight. Perhaps Kramer is best known for his translation of Terroir as “somewhereness”, which just goes to show that some concepts are better left untranslated. But let’s not hold that against him.

Yes, Matt Kramer is an advocate of the concept of Terroir so, right away, we are comrades-in-vino. And I’m right with him when he mourns the homogenization of wines,
The greatest challenge today is to recognize ‘originals’...I believe more strongly than ever that both searching for and finding originals is a wine lover’s greatest pleasure…great wines taste like they come from somewhere. Lesser wines taste interchangeable; they could come from anywhere.
So many Cabernet Sauvignons and Chardonnays from countless different regions taste like they came from some McVino franchise. Perhaps the greatest service that wine scorers can do for us (if you rely on scores to buy your wines) is to score wines as much on originality as what Kramer argues is the most important criterion: complexity.

Perhaps my favourite chapter is The Wine Cellar – Are you Ready for Reality? where Kramer tackles the purported effects of humidity, vibration, temperature, light, and shipping on wine. Many of these threats, he argues convincingly, have been vastly overstated. As one example, the long-standing recommendation that we should keep wines in a humidity-controlled room stems from way back when wines were stored in barrels, hardly something that is common today outside of the winemaker’s cellar. Once bottled (sealed in glass), humidity is largely irrelevant to a wine’s condition.

The last chapter, Food Is the Meaning of Wine, starts off,
Wines exist for food. Without the context of food, wine is a eunuch, a sterile experience which soon acquires distorted features.
This is the point that so many New World winemakers miss, that a good wine becomes great only as a partner to food.

Much of Kramer’s writing still makes sense. He writes extremely well and reading something so well written about pleasure is in itself, well, a pleasure.

That’s not to say that everything that Kramer offers makes sense. He argues that the best way to appreciate a wine is to experience its evolution over time, and that the only way to do that is to buy a case of each wine that you buy. (It’s a oft-recommended wine-buying strategy.) A few pages later, he encourages buying wines from many different regions, and even buying different wines from the same region to appreciate their differences. Again, a good buying strategy. But buying a case each of different wines from within a region, and from many different regions, is a strategy only for the independently wealthy aficionado with a very large cellar! As for the rest of us, we can do one, or the other (even then, if we’re lucky). Me, I choose variety.

Kramer added a chapter for the second edition of this book: Twenty-First Century Fine Wine – The Consequences of Success. It’s worth reading just for his summary of the technological revolution (some might say trickery) that’s been brought to winemaking in the past 20 years. It's a revolution that he blames mostly on the Australians, who are not pleased. But the counter-revolution has already begun, even in Australia, at least at the level of fine wine. More wine writers and drinkers are seeking out originality. (See Beppi Crosariol’s column in the January 15 Globe and Mail…and most any post in this blog.)

Making Sense of Wine was originally published in 1989, with this second edition published in 2003. (Yes, I’m still catching up on my wine reading.)

Definitely worth keeping a copy on your bookshelf.

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