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use your words

In this is juice not a doctoral thesis on October 24, 2012 at 1:05 pm

An apples tastes like an apple.

A lychee tastes like a lychee, even if you’ve never had one.

A petrol-soaked pear tastes like just that, I imagine.

And wine tastes like wine. But unless you’re Hugh Johnson, you can’t say that without being mocked as someone who “just doesn’t get it.”

There’s good reason why it’s rarely enough to describe wine so simply. Fermentation transforms juice into wine, creating aromas that previously did not exist. A wine can smell like chocolate or tar or mushrooms or saffron, and it all comes from just grapes (and yeasts.) That’s why (real) wine can be pretty fucking cool.

If it’s not enough to say, “gimme wine!” and too obnoxious to wax poetic or ramble off Parker-esque lists of obscure fruits & flowers, how do we talk about wine? I don’t mean professionally. In an everyday way.

As a bartender, my first question to you, my guest, is generally,  “What do you want to drink tonight?”

Take a deep breath. It’s not a trick question. I’m not demanding specific vintages and single-vineyard bottlings all effortlessly pronounced in French. I merely want to bring you a glass of wine, if only so you will pay me. There are no wrong answers. But there are bad answers.

Don’t tell me, “a medium body, dry red.”

Really? Fantastic! Let me guess, in addition to your discerning palate you also have hobbies. No way, I also have hobbies! And you probably like the Beatles. OMG so do I!

And so does everyone else.

I am pouring no fewer than 25 red wines by the glass. Do you know how many fall into this category?

Now, I say this with the full understanding that you have a life to get back to (or one you’re trying to escape.) You may not give two shits about what’s in your glass, as long as it’s alcoholic. But in that case, tell me so. I have a cheap glass of grüner with your name written all over it.

But if you come into my bar it’s likely because you want something more to your wine-drinking experience. I can give that to you, but you need to meet me halfway.

Here’s how:

Tell me what you want using three criteria – body, taste, and aroma.

The first is easily understandable: do you want a light, medium, or full-bodied wine?

The problem lies in the all-too-common conflation of the other two.

Of the five tastes, only three actually apply to wine: sweet, sour, and bitter (which is generally only reserved to tannins found in red wine.) A wine can be savoury, I suppose, but it’s never really said to be umami. And if your wine is salty, then there’s a bigger issue at hand.

Wine can be sweet. Or it can be not sweet, as in dry. And I know this is a lot to throw at you at once, but it can also be off-dry, meaning it still has some residual sugar. In the best cases the wine’s acidity will balance this sweetness, making the wine delightful rather than cloying.

Now shit’s about to get real:

A wine can also be dry and fruity.

How’s that, you query? Because taste and aroma are different.

Unless you’re drinking port or living in the nineteenth century, most of the red wine you find out there is fermented dry.

So when you say that the Barbera I’ve just poured is “too sweet,” what I really want to say is “False. And screw you.” Fruity, absolutely. It’s fermented grape juice, for fuck’s sake, and young stuff at that – of course the primary aromas you perceive are cherries or raspberries. But just because fruit is usually sweet does not mean that wine is.

Too often I find myself in this scenario. At first I found your untrained palate mildly amusing. Now it just pisses me off.

So what do I do? I pour an older Burgundy or another wine where the fruit has faded and the earthy notes are more pronounced.

Your mouth puckers and you shake your head saying that it’s too dry – or maybe if you feel fancy you’ll assert that it’s “too tannic.” Which is also not quite true, as the tannins are more well-integrated than those rough ones in the xinomavro which you just tried – and also rejected as too sweet.

Sidenote: don’t be afraid of tannin. It has a purpose. Think of the sandpaper-in-your mouth feeling is the wine’s way of telling you, “hey numnuts, you’re supposed to drink me with food.”

Where does that leave us? Your initial fear of the long list of unpronounceable grapes has turned to frustration because you can’t find something familiar and pleasing. You’re unhappy.

My initial enthusiasm to explore the diversity of wine with guests has turned to frustration as I realise my true job: to decipher every individual’s nonsensical wine lexicon. I don’t get paid enough for this.

You say, “maybe I’ll just have a white.”

I give you a kabinett Riesling. But I don’t tell you what it is. (Riesling, like lardo, is something most people are convinced they do not like. But who doesn’t love a little bit of sweetness and fat? Really.)

You taste it and love it because “it’s not too sweet.”

Actually, it’s quite sweet. Fuck you, you don’t deserve this.

I mean, that’ll be fifteen dollars, please.