It's flowering in Napa vineyards.

It's flowering in Napa vineyards.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Esoteric Wine Tasting Metaphors

Even though many have seen the acclaimed musical version, I suspect that only a few have read Miguel de Cervantes’ lengthy, two-part epic Don Quixote de La Mancha. But if you are one of them, and you are also an enthusiast of the highest wine-knight-errant order, you likely know that Sancho Panza, Quixote’s devoted squire and sidekick was also a discerning, appellation-wise oenophile.

Well into the glorious quest for the unreachable star, is an offhanded description of an exchange between Sancho and another knight-errant’s squire. While Quixote and the Knight of the Grove were discussing their chivalric deeds and desires, their two squires settled in beneath a tree to discuss items of a more corporeal nature—food and wine. And much to Sancho’s delight, the Grove’s squire offered to share some of his that he had attached to his horse’s saddle. After a few ravenous gulps of rabbit and several lengthy draws of red wine from the bota, Sancho exclaimed, (in my modernized interpretation) “Son of a bitch, that’s delicious! And really complex!”

While still savoring the wine’s finish, Sancho next offered that it likely came from the province of Ciudad Real. Upon hearing that, the Grove’s squire added, "O rare wine-taster! Nowhere else indeed does it come from, and it has some years' age too!"

Not wanting to be upstaged, Sancho countered, “What would you say sir to my great natural instinct in judging wines, that you have only to let me smell one and I can tell positively its country, its kind, its flavor and soundness; the changes it will undergo, and everything that pertains to a wine? . . . But it is no wonder, for I have had in my family, on my father's side, the two best wine-tasters that have been known in La Mancha for many a long year . . . .”

Sancho next relates an incident when his relatives were asked to taste and assess a red wine from an innkeeper’s barrel. One tasted it and observed it had a slight mineral taste somewhat like iron, while the other noted it also had a slight nuance of leather. The innkeeper, however, assured them the barrel was clean and nothing was added to the wine to account for those unusual flavors. Nevertheless, the two stuck by their assessments. Weeks later, after all the wine was sold and the empty cask was prepared for clean out, the innkeeper was taken aback by the following in the bottom of the barrel: a small key to which was attached a cordovan fob. They had indeed detected the subtleties of iron and leather.

If Sancho Panza and his relatives were not fictional characters, they would be part of that rarified group of “supertasters” that, according to scientific findings, comprise about 25% of the population. Another 25% make up the lower echelon who unfortunately have no idea what they’re eating or drinking, while the rest of us, the “normal” tasters, account for the remaining 50%. Sensitive taste buds are what separates the “haves” from the “have-nots,” but the study affirmed that this sensitivity is likely an inherited trait.

One, however, shouldn’t be the least bit concerned or insecure about not being able to discern--for example--graphite, leather, camphor, undergrowth, minerals, forest floor, tar, bacon, petrol, truffles, loam, exotic herbs and spices, cats pee, or other obscure descriptors that “supertaster” wine critics seem to ferret out and describe. As normal tasters, we need only to sniff, swirl, sip and enjoy. More to the point, esoteric wine tasting metaphors, while fun and engaging at tasting seminars, are really not central to wine’s purpose which is to complement the food we eat.

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