How to Read a Wine

by Dwight Furrow

71It's not like “reading tea leaves”. Fermented grape juice will not foretell the future. But wine does tell a story if you speak its language. Now, I'm not getting all mystical here by attributing linguistic ability to fermented grape juice. The story a wine tells is quite concrete and palpable like mud on the boots and mildew on leaves. The flavors and textures of wine are not merely sensations but qualities that say something about the land on which grapes are grown, the people who made the wine, the world they live in, and the person who is drinking it. Discovering these details gives a wine resonance and meaning that cannot be gained by mere consumption.

A wine has flavor because it is made from a specific grape, from a specific piece of land, and by a winemaker who intended the wine to taste as it does. The winemaking process and decision to plant those particular grapes is a centuries-long process of adapting grapes to climate, soil, and taste preferences. Thus, when you taste a wine you taste the residue of geography and culture. Taste opens up a world with a rich assortment of connections just like any good book.

Of course, anything we consume has a history and a process that produced it. And with sufficient knowledge of how it was produced, we might identify features of that process by attending to its flavor. But wine is unique because when you pay attention and understand why winemakers make the wine they do, the wine says something about them, their family, what they like to drink, and their motivations for making wine. A can of Coke tells you little of importance about the people who make it or the place it comes from. It can be made anywhere by anyone if the price is right. Not so with non-industrial wines. They are inherently artisanal products, and inherently a product of place, and they tell a very human story. Wine is one of the few products where geography, human culture, and aesthetics meet with such intensity, variability, and beauty. It is thus full of meaning waiting to be interpreted.

This relationship between worker and work is possible only when the scale is sufficiently small to enable a hands-on approach to winemaking. Of course, there are industrially-produced wines made through a process that severs any connection to origins, created as survey-driven product to satisfy consumers who want a pleasant buzz to share with friends. There is nothing wrong with that, and some of those wines are quite good. But they make unsatisfactory reading—they do not represent a human world.

So connections and relationships make wine meaningful. It begins with the flavor which is related to the land and weather, and to the winemaker who must have a relationship with the vineyard and/or vineyard manager. Most artisanal wines are family affairs and many of these relationships in Europe go back centuries. Families and vineyards are connected to the culture of the region and the sensibility of a people around which the norms of winemaking develop. Some wines are not just part of a culture; they are so deeply entwined that the culture is wholly absorbed by the wine trade. The villages of the Cote d'Or in Bourgogne, France are like that. During a visit to the village of Beaune I asked our guide if anyone worked in the city of Dijon, only about 15 miles away. She thought the question was absurd. “Everyone here works in wine” was her response. And it has been that way for centuries.

Ultimately, these connections lead back to you and me and our sense of what is important and beautiful. When a wine is made by people who find winemaking intensely meaningful, and they want to share that meaning, it becomes evident in the glass if you know what to look for. We begin to read a wine when we attend to how these elements are tied together by the flavor and texture of wine. The fascinating thing about wine is its variability. The very same grape can be fruity in one place and earthy in another, and variations in fruit notes or earth tones arise even from neighboring plots of land. The kind of contrasting and comparing that naturally arises from appreciation of this variation is the first step when learning to read.

Reading a wine also means attending to how well these connections between people and their land function. In the well-established wine regions of the world, winemakers are relying on centuries of trial and error in knowing which grapes grow best on their land. When a wine is rich in complex yet specific flavors that are in perfect harmony, with fruit and acid in balance—and it exhibits a consistent flavor profile from year to year, despite fluctuations in weather—the grapes are flourishing, an indication that they are in their rightful place. The culture has adapted to the grape, and the grape adapted to the culture, and the winemaker knows precisely how to find that sweet spot year after year. The flavors tell the story.

Of course, just as when reading a book, imagination is involved when reading a wine. Is there a causal connection between the pretty rolling hills in Piemonte, Italy and floral notes of a Barbaresco; the hard, lean, leather of Tempranillo when planted on the dusty plains of Ribero del Duero, Spain; the hardscrabble hills of the Douro River in Portugal and the acidity and tannins of the hardy, persistently sturdy Touriga Nacional? Probably not, but wine makes you think of such things. And, like a character in a story, wines can be charming, majestic, suave, roguish, silly, and ostentatious. Wine is expressive enough to conjure such thoughts. You don't have to assume a mystical explanation—just enjoy the metaphors, all part of reading the wine.

Not every wine can be read. Some wines are mute lacking any connection to the land or cultural traditions. They give sensual pleasure without the intellectual part. But if that is all we drink we miss the originality, uniqueness, and singularity lurking in the glass. Industrial production methods are designed to produce one thing—profit. To make a profit they must produce something else—standardization. It is not hard to see that if everything we appreciate is a product of standardization, regardless of how appealing, there are whole dimensions of life we are missing. Seeking out the idiosyncratic and exceptional is inherently worthwhile. That means seeking wines that are not mere commodities but are unique because of where they come from, whether that is a place on the map or the mind of an innovative winemaker.

This doesn't mean a wine must be complicated or expensive to be worth drinking. Meaningful wines are not always the “best” wines or the wines with the most flavor intensity. Rustic wines can exhibit a sense of place; simple wines can have subtle charms if we are attentive enough to discern them. What matters is a winemaking tradition in which winemakers strive to capture the unique taste of their location.

So how do you read a wine? Well. You need lots of knowledge about soil, climate, and winemaking practices. That is a lot of information but it isn't particularly difficult to acquire—it takes attention, time, and patience. And you need to pay close attention to what you are drinking, be open to nuance and new experience. Most importantly, reading a wine requires a commitment to the idea that there is more to life than the consumption of standardized, formulaic “product” and that meaning intensifies as it approaches the rare and original.

For more ruminations on the philosophy of food and wine visit Edible Arts.