Wine Opinion: how learning the archetypes will make tasting easier
New year, new drinking plan? So let's make 2014 the year of drinking smarter. I'm listening to Denis Dubourdieu, winemaker, professor and consultant, who says: "Anyone can taste better if they pay attention to what they're drinking. The more attention you pay, the more you will enjoy it, and the more you will remember for the future. It is our memories that make us good tasters; having the ability to understand how one wine fits with another."
Getting to know a region, appellation, even a single producer, can be bewildering until you start sorting wines into styles. Luckily, like characters in romantic fiction, wines have archetypes. As novelists use archetypes to signpost their stories, we can use them while tasting. "It's not a mystery why wine tastes as it does," says Dubourdieu with just a hint of frustration at how most of us miss this simple fact. "There is cause and effect."
The clearest way to approach tasting is to have a mental model of what each region, sub-region or individual appellation should be. Any wine you approach is above, below or equal to the model. This may not be the very best wine in a given appellation - the best wine is usually atypical - but the one that embodies the essence of the place.
"White Burgundy is an excellent example of how wine tasting becomes easier once you search out the models. Each great appellation has its personality, and tastes quite different from its neighbours. The model wines manage to embody the heart of this personality. So the model of a Chassagne-Montrachet has delicacy, a dreamlike quality of drinking, or liquid music," says Dubourdieu.
"Great white Meursault must be rich and round, but have a reductive quality to it that emphasises the minerality. There can be good Meursault without reduction, but it will not be the model. Head to Pernand Vergelesses, and you have less of an impression of roundness than in Meursault, it's replaced by a flinty, trenchant character that is more reminiscent of Chablis than Cotes de Beaune wines," says Dubourdieu.
I have recently been thinking about the models for each appellation in Bordeaux, the region that I write about most, and my home for 10 years. I taste these wines often, so I have to make sure I stay attuned and watchful, and that I am ready to adjust the model as properties make changes, and work harder.
Again, it's often not the legendary wines that provide a trusty model. For instance, it's not Chateau Margaux for AOC Margaux, as its sublime perfume regularly takes it above its peer group; it's Chateau Palmer which approaches the essence of what I want to find in a fine, controlled but sensual Margaux. Pétrus is not the model of great Pomerol, but the weighty and exuberant Trotanoy.
I try to decide how other Margaux or Pomerols approach these two. When I find a better one, that replaces the model and becomes my default. Below are two of my models. Chateau Trotanoy AOC Pomerol 2004 This has a marked smokiness on the nose, and some heat from the alcohol on the attack, but it's so well balanced that it's practically indiscernible. The same goes for the tannins, which are clearly there.
This has heart and muscle, but everything is just where it should be. Tobacco notes dominate, with a certain sweetness mixed with dark chocolate. It is less floral than some Pomerols, with crème de cassis and bitter almonds. Domaine Pierre Morey AOC Meursault Les Tessons 2004 This has a highly reductive nose, with roasted coffee notes, and some smoke. It's almost aggressive on the first approach; it needs time to open up, before the grilled brioche and buttery richness comes through.
Jane Anson is a wine writer based in France