Matt Kramer’s timing is terrific. Just as wine-tasting notes are being criticized in several quarters as too florid and esoteric – and thus irrelevant – he’s released a compact and polite polemic that calls for a realignment in the way that writers, merchants, sommeliers and others talk about wine.
His slim book is titled “True Taste,” with the subtitle “The Seven Essential Wine Words” (Cider Mill Press, $18.95, 126 pages).
Actually, the subtitle should be “The Seven Essential Wine Concepts” or “The Seven Essential Wine Values,” given that Kramer isn’t really reinventing the (wine aroma) wheel by suggesting that members and observers of the wine community reduce its wine lexicon to just seven words.
Regardless, what Kramer has to say of the challenge in conveying the nature and value of wine is worth pondering because of his experience and standing in wine culture. He’s been writing about wine full-time for nearly 40 years. Nowadays, he’s best known as the most provocative of the Wine Spectator’s stable of columnists. “True Taste” is his ninth book.
It’s also his thinnest, amounting to a long and cerebral essay aimed at correcting what he sees as shortcomings in the modern tasting note, which customarily amounts to a litany of obscure scientific jargon and poetic flavor descriptors – dewy rose petals, smoldering pipe tobacco – that fail to sum up comprehensively and helpfully a wine’s character. “An abundance of flavor descriptors in a tasting note tells us surprisingly little about a wine’s actual quality,” Kramer writes early on.
Thus his seven words, or commandments: Harmony, texture, layers, finesse, surprise, nuance and insight.
“Harmony” seems an alternative to one of the more common buzzwords in today’s wine world, “balance,” but Kramer goes to great pains to explain the difference, at least as he sees it. A harmonious wine is a cohesive collection of forces – tannins, acidity, fruit and so forth – whereas balance suggests a “range of equivalencies” that compels a taster to be more aware of how one characteristic of a wine offsets another rather than to consider the whole picture.
Similarly, what to Kramer are “layers” could be seen as “complexity” by others. To Kramer, however, “complexity” suggests more – more barrel fermentation, more lees stirring, more oak – all of which weigh down the fruity essence of a wine, distracting from its overall impact. In contrast, “layers” suggest depth to a wine, with a person’s taste buds working like archaeologists to uncover new, unforced, natural strata.
While “True Taste” overall is more philosophical than practical, it is most helpful in the section on “finesse.” There, Kramer breaks from the sweeping pattern of earlier sections in the book to outline what a person ought to consider when looking for a wine of finesse.
A wine with finesse, he says, is more likely to come from a cooler than warmer climate; it’s probably made from a variety of grape with a higher-than-usual level of acidity, such as nebbiolo, barbera, riesling or pinot noir; and its grapes likely have been grown in chalk, schist or granite. “A wine with finesse always seems subtle, no matter how big or powerful,” he writes. It will be a wine largely free of extreme cellar techniques, like long aging in barrels of heavily toasted oak, he notes. “Finesse is when wine does all the work.”
Kramer doesn’t explore at any length why or how the contemporary wine tasting note became such an exercise in flamboyance and cryptology. Decades ago, however, another highly regarded wine writer, Gerald Asher, said in an essay in Gourmet magazine that the densely written and technically precise tasting note began to emerge in the 1970s in parallel with the surge in new California wineries.
As those wineries released their first wines, they dispatched about the country their new college-groomed winemakers to explain and promote the wines. Those winemakers, suggested Asher, were obliged by their training to give scientific rather than hedonistic appraisals of their wines, going into detail about flavor compounds, fermentation methods and the French forests that provided the oak for their barrels. From them, wine writers, retailers, sommeliers and the like took their cues and followed suit.
With “True Taste,” Kramer calls for an adjustment in perspective that steps back from technical deconstruction in favor of an approach that dwells more on overall cohesiveness, summation and judgment. If Asher is correct that today’s frequently confounding wine talk can be traced to academia, perhaps university bookstores is where Kramer’s “True Taste” first should be stocked.
Wine critic and competition judge Mike Dunne’s selections are based solely on open and blind tastings, judging at competitions, and visits to wine regions. He can be reached at dmichaeldunne