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Are you a wine philosopher?

Are you a wine philosopher?
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First Published: Thu, Mar 03 2011. 06 58 PM IST

Sante: Pay attention when you sip. Do you taste amla? Can you smell the hay?
Sante: Pay attention when you sip. Do you taste amla? Can you smell the hay?
Updated: Thu, Mar 03 2011. 06 58 PM IST
Yesterday, I drank a 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon from Marlborough County in New Zealand. This wine starts with a terrific nose of juniper berries and cloves. It has a complex bouquet with hints of apple, truffle and vanilla spices. The finish is long and full-bodied with layers of oak, raspberries and tobacco.
Sante: Pay attention when you sip. Do you taste amla? Can you smell the hay?
The above description would make for a terrific wine, except that it is entirely made up. There are no 2008 Cabernet Sauvignons in Marlborough, and certainly none in which truffles and vanilla flavours come together. The more pertinent question is this: As you read through my made-up tasting notes, could you taste the wine? Chances are that you couldn’t, because juniper berries and truffles aren’t part of our geography; our terroir, if you will. Each of us has a palate with a memory that is usually formed by childhood foods. Many of a wine’s flavours aren’t an intrinsic part of our palate.
Let me give you another description. Yesterday, I ate a samosa at Khan Market in Delhi. It was bigger than usual and started with a spicy kick of green chillies, layered with ginger and a bite of dhaniya (coriander) seeds. It was full-bodied with chunks of soft aloo (potato). The onion was a bit crunchier than usual but merged well with the bite of ginger. Since it was just fried, it had a crunchy casing with a soft body. The green chutney provided us with a long and spicy finish.
Question: Could you taste the samosa? Chances are that you could. This then shows both the power of words and their limitations. Words provide references but are limited by human experience. Eskimos have a number of words for ice and perhaps none for spices. We have a number of words to describe spices and but one for ice.
Wine, ultimately, is an experience to be savoured; not analysed. We all get that. At the same time, wine connoisseurs want to convey their enthusiasm and passion for a particular varietal or vintage and the only way to do that, without actually offering a taste, is through words. Consider Robert Parker’s description of a Chateau Latour: “Complex aromas of crushed rocks, graphite, black cherries, creme de cassis, new saddle leather, and dried mushrooms are still tightly wound. The wine is full-bodied and powerful with exceptionally high tannin combined with zesty acidity, and laser-like focus. It will require 15 or more years of cellaring.” What do crushed rocks taste like? And has Parker tasted them? What does new saddle leather taste like? Or is it a smell he is describing? What does laser-like focus mean? Could you taste this Latour? This then is the futility of tasting notes.
Of late, there is a growing interest in “the philosophy of wine”. Can a wine be masculine, teasing, sombre, even soul-stirring? Can you really smell violets, truffles, apples and juniper berries in a glass of Bordeaux? What about the personalities of the winemakers or what wine writer Clive Coates calls the “inexorability of terroir”? Are wine judgements subjective or objective? These are the concerns of a new branch of wine enthusiasts who also happen to be philosophers. Two recent books, Questions of Taste: The Philosophy of Wine, a series of essays edited by Barry Smith, and The Philosophy of Wine: A Case of Truth, Beauty and Intoxication by Cain Todd address these issues.
Much of the content of both books is mental masturbation: endless, unresolved and unresolvable analyses of the intricacies of wine and the drinking experience. Words, ultimately, can only convey so much. They cannot plumb the depths of grief or the heights of ecstasy. They cannot measure love or depravity. Words in that sense are limiting and so it is with the experience and pleasures of drinking a glass of wine.
Psychologists divide our experiences into two categories: cognitive and sensory. Cognitive ones are intellectual pursuits and sensory ones are usually aesthetic ones. Cognitive implies understanding; sensory is more animalistic and is about, well, sensing. Code writing, graphic design, architecture and poetry are all cognitive pursuits; painting, juggling, and drinking wine are sensory ones. Philosopher Thomas Aquinas divided up even our senses into cognitive and non-cognitive ones. Seeing and hearing, he said, are cognitive senses and lead to greater understanding. Touch, smell and taste, on the other hand, are sensory ones. Drinking wine, by that yardstick, is a sensory exercise. Philosophers can debate it but wine, ultimately is an experiential pleasure: like holding a puppy, or a baby.
What cannot be discounted is the long link that wine and philosophy share. The earliest philosophers used libations as a way of getting discourses going. The word symposium comes from the Greek word for “drinking together”, which leads me to suggest that all modern academic symposiums ought to be accompanied by suitable libations, the better to theorize and analyse.
My takeaway from listening to symposiums on wine and reading the philosophy of wine is simply this: Pay attention. How many of us actually attend to the moment when we take a sip of wine? Usually, it is in a group setting, along with food and conversation. You take a sip and instinctively like it or not. You say, “Mmm…nice!” or wrinkle your nose. But like most things that can be cultivated, your palate too can be cultivated if you simply take a second to pay attention to the wine you are drinking. Try to describe what you taste. It doesn’t need to be words outside our terroir. For an Indian, a Sauvignon Blanc can taste like amla. A Shiraz can taste like young pepper vines. And a Merlot can even taste like a samosa without the aloo.
Shoba Narayan becomes a philosopher after a few glasses of good Bordeaux. Those who wish to listen need only share their Lafite or Latour with her. Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com
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First Published: Thu, Mar 03 2011. 06 58 PM IST