Bud break in the vineyards

Bud break in the vineyards

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Defining a wine's intrinsic character


How to best describe or otherwise assess a wine one is enjoying?  Many, not wanting to wax poetically over something that is nothing more than a beverage that accompanies food, are quite satisfied with, “It tastes good.”  Knowing WHY it tastes good, if they are so motivated, requires them to take a few small steps toward being informed.

That effort involves getting acquainted with some of the more commonly used wine descriptors, which usually fall into the following groups: structural aspects (tannins, acidity, alcohol and sugar); aromas of flowers; aromas and flavors of fruits, herbs and spices, as well as wine textures and body styles. With time and an earnest level of commitment, one can eventually learn and confidently articulate most of the above wine tasting terms.  At that point, one will know WHY that wine “tastes good,”  or better yet, why it does not.

Beyond those basic components, committed wine enthusiasts occasionally feel that something more is needed to further amplify or define a wine’s overall profile and intrinsic character.  And it is here one moves from an objective evaluation of a wine’s basic elements into an experienced based opinion of its overall quality.

At this point a wine can be characterized as being either rather complex or quite simple; polished or coarse; elegant or rough; masculine or feminine; voluptuous or angular; layered and multi-dimensional or not; opulent or thin; Apollonian or Dionysian.

Depending on how quickly you read that last sentence, you could be scratching your head and wondering, “Apollonian? Dionysian?” Students of Greek Mythology, and the Olympic Gods in particular, will recognize the reference to Apollo and Dionysus (aka Bacchus).

Both were fathered by the sexually active and offspring-prolific Zeus, the “Father of Gods and Men.” Each had a different mother—one was a goddess, the other a mortal—and the Olympian half-brothers developed their own, unique and diametrically opposed characters. 

Apollo’s character, his area of responsibility and defining attribute, is primarily symbolized by the qualities of rational thought, control and order, moderation, intellect, morality, purity, beauty and prophecy.


Totally the opposite, Dionysus’ attributes are commonly associated with the traits of untamed emotions and instinct, intoxication, dance, ecstasy, wine, women, sensuality and drama.

With implications far beyond the mere realm of wine tasting, their contrasting profiles illustrate much more: the conflicting duality of man’s impulses.  This clash was vividly illustrated by the Athenian playwright Euripides in his classic tragedy, The Bacchae.  To this day—it premiered in 405 BC—it is still being published in the latest, “modern, updated translations.”   

Addressing those attributes, Jay McInerney, in his December 3, 2006 article, “The Founding Wine Geek,” offered his character assessment of two French wines and how they related to Thomas Jefferson: “Jefferson is assumed to be a Bordeaux man, in part because he wrote about it most and in part because Bordeaux seems like the wine that reflects his character; Bordeaux is an Apollonian wine, a beverage for intellectuals, for men of patience and reason. Austere in its youth, it predictably develops great complexity over the years. There are few surprises in Bordeaux."

"Burgundy on the other hand," he continues, "is a wine to engage the emotions more than the intellect, a wine for the lunatic, the lover and the poet. So it comes as a bit of a shock to learn here that during his years in Paris, when he had access to all the great growths of France, the sober sage of Monticello stocked his cellar with more Burgundy than Bordeaux.”
 
In my early years of wine exploration, Red Bordeaux was one of my first favorites, and I readily agree with his portrayal of its character.  But I must confess that Red Burgundy (Pinot Noir) was always absent from my wine vault, because those that I preferred were routinely priced in the three digit price range.  As such, and quite luckily for me, what became my Dionysian favorites were the untamed and smoldering, Syrah-based reds of artisan producers in Cote Rotie—a classic appellation in France’s northern Rhone Valley

Because of their intellectual appeal, one is tempted to assign the Apollonian or Dionysian labels solely to wines from the world’s super premium appellations.  However, that need not be the case, for any red or white wine—even those without great provenance—can be portrayed with those underlying qualities.

Wines that have been “elevated,” or otherwise redefined, with options from the winemaker’s toolbox can safely be called Apollonian.  Consider, for example, those that have been polished with oak, enriched with a stirring of the lees, improved and balanced with other wines, or spiked with color or flavor concentrates.

Conversely, Dionysian wines are those that have not undergone such winemaker interventions, and they, for the most part, tend to display their natural, untamed, mineral-laced character. To be sure, and mythologically speaking, neither style is necessarily better than the other, but they should be enjoyed for what they are and what they symbolize.

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(Sidebar: Last night after completing the above posting, I retrieved "Zorba the Greek" from my DVR and watched this exceptional 1964 movie that displayed the classic Apollonian/Dionysian conflict between Basil (Alan Bates) and Alexis Zorba (Anthony Quinn).  At the very end of the movie, after their having survived numerous calamities, Zorba says to Basil, "Damn it Boss, I like you too much not to say it. . . You've got everything except one thing: madness.  A man needs a little madness or else . . . or else he never dares cut the rope and be free.)