At a tasting seminar during a recent wine festival and while discussing different wines, a member of the audience said of a wine: “It takes you there”. Well, I’d like to know where to get those tickets.
The “somewhereness” of a wine or any other produced beverage; that character which unmistakably conveys the essence of the place where it was grown and produced, is believed by some to transport one to the place of the drink’s origin. I have always believed that this can only happen if one really knows something about the nature of the place where the drink originates. Even then, there is not necessarily any part of that place contained in the liquid one sips.
Is there really some essence of the humid air of Sanlúcar de Barrameda, itself, trapped in the character of a light Manzanilla sherry that acts as a sensory emissary of the place? Is it distinct from the mountain air and geology of the Jura? Does it impart some unique and unmistakable essence in the aromas different from those in Vin Jaune? Does the Jura smell like Vin Jaune? Does all of Andalusia smell like something readily identifiable in sherry? Do the Meursault air or soil smell of almonds and ripe apples?
Perhaps this line of reasoning is a bit unfair, as it seeks to find somewhereness in wines whose character depends largely on specific production methods (i.e. intervention and manipulation). So, to make my point I should look to wines whose character is more closely tied to the terroir of their origins.
There is a briary character to west side Paso Robles reds that is very unique and distinct, but is it an ambassador of the essence and ambiance of west side Paso to someone who has never been in Paso Robles? Is there a briary smell wafting in between the moss-covered oaks of the Adelaida district of Paso Robles? In east side Paso, this character, in wines, gives way to a dried sagebrush character that reminds me of dried wild sage and chaparral which you can smell in the air of hot arid places like east side Paso. But you can also smell this while hiking the trails of Southern California mountain ranges.
These traits which I identify with warm, arid AVAs like east Paso are a result of my personal experiences with these environments and the wines they produce. But if someone has never been in such an ecosystem nor made the connection between the climate and the character of the wines, will they get this association when they have an east side Paso cab? Sure, one can wax poetic and posit that the rugged, sometimes rustic and dusty reds of east side Paso Robles are very much like the orographic dessert where riverbeds often run dry through a once-booming railroad and cattle town.
This “takes you there” association is often dependent on the taster’s past experiences and, in the absence of concrete experiences with the place that give salient background information, constitute a fantastic journey though the conjured images can be very disparate from the realities of the place itself. This is not bad or wrong. It is just not concordant with reality and merely demonstrates the creative power of imagination.
I recently picked up a bottle of Laphroaig Islay whisky. This single malt from one of the northern islands of Scotland has a distinct character: smoky, peaty, salty, iodine-like and medicinal. This is said to come from the island’s water and aggressive “peating” – the smoking or roasting of the barley with the peat found only on the island. It can be off putting for some.
For me, it certainly conjures up images of people in smoke-saturated virgin wool sweaters and wool pea coats that have gone damp with sea mist and then dried in the wind – over and over again. Does all of Islay smell like that? Do all people on the island dress like that? Is the distillery a nostalgic, rugged barn? I don’t know. I’ve never been to Scotland. Is this character, this somewhereness, more a product of manipulation and production technique such that were it removed, the whisky might taste like any other? I think, quite possibly so. For all I know, it just may be high levels of alkylated guaiacol, phenols and furfurals resulting from aggressive roasting – essentially smoke taint. I’ll have to take Andrzej Daszkiewicz‘s advice and pick up a copy of “Peat smoke and spirit. A portrait of Islay and its whiskies” to know for sure.
There are intrinsic characteristics of a wine that come about from the interaction of soil, climate and fruit and vine physiology. Others, less intrinsic, come from growing, harvesting and production decisions. The proportions of each can create different characteristics and can be regionally distinct. Together, these can compel one to fantasize about the place of the drink’s origin. But does anyone visualize endless acres of strawberries when drinking a Santa Maria Valley pinot or forests of artichokes and fields of spinach when drinking a Monterey chardonnay?
It is only the sensory characteristics that can be directly attributed to the synergy of a place’s soil and climate (and to a lesser degree the prevalent micro fauna as well as preferred methods of production) that can be of any meaning in appreciating somewhereness. If we cannot connect the dots between what the aroma and taste tell you about where the grapes were grown, what the climate may have been and how the grapes were turned into wine, then these fantasies will invariably be just romanticized notions, often incongruent with the true nature of the place of the drink’s origin and where ever you are “taken by the beverage” will be decided by your own fantastic proclivities.
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