Though it may surprise you, I’ve only been to Paris twice. Both times were on the same trip in the fall of 1987 when my wife Carla and I went to Europe together for the first time. We stayed in the City of Lights at the beginning and end of our trek. Never having previously set foot on French soil, much less Paris, I utterly geeked out on art museums and cathedrals. Carla quickly had her fill of both, so we often split up for several hours at a time while I continued to gawk at incredible art in the Louvre, Musée d’Orsay, and other museums.
We also saw a myriad of Parisian sights together. One of the most remarkable was Sainte Chapelle. If not familiar, Sainte Chapelle is a royal chapel built in the Gothic style. It’s located in the medieval Palais de la Cité, which is on the island of Île de la Cité in the River Seine. The palais was the residence of the Kings of France until the 14th century. Sainte Chapelle was built to house precious Christian relics including Christ’s crown of thorns which had been acquired by Saint Louis. The chapel was constructed in just seven short years. It’s filled with 15 stunning floor-to-ceiling stained glass windows over 45 feet tall. The panes comprise over a thousand biblical scenes from the Old and New Testaments depicting the history of the world until the time when the relics were placed in the chapel.
I remember the day we saw the chapel. It was a sunny fall afternoon with the leaves on the trees showing shades of yellow and gold. I recall stepping inside the chapel and immediately stopping in my tracks, completely stunned. The interplay of light filtering through the majestically tall windows was dazzling to the point of almost being overwhelming. Trying to describe it fully is impossible. Words simply fail.
Sometimes words also fail with wine. To that point, I’ve spent the better part of the last three decades-plus trying to describe wine, both verbally and in written form. It’s a journey that’s involved a long, sometimes painfully slow process of building skill with olfactory perception and memory, not to mention pattern recognition–connecting the dots between impact compounds (a subset of the most important aromas and flavors), fruit character, and structure levels. It may sound like a lot—because it is. There is no hacking the process of becoming a professional taster. And one is never a great taster, but always in process of getting better at it. I’m reminded of the legendary cellist, Pablo Casals. When asked why he was still practicing daily at age 93 he said, “I’m beginning to see some improvement.” So it is with tasting.
Like many in the industry, my tasting notes are reductionist in nature. I break down a given wine into various components based on what it looks, smells, and tastes like. I learned this system over 30 years ago through the Court of Master Sommeliers and have used it countless times both in an internal context (when I think about and recall wines, which I do obsessively) and externally (when actually tasting and taking notes).
Some complain about using a reductionist grid, saying it coldly dissects wine. However, using any tasting grid is better than the previous old school philosophy of describing wines as “shy,” “insipid,” or “provocative.” Regardless, one needs a shopping list of sorts to evaluate wine in a meaningful way. Otherwise, being consistent in assessing a broad range of different styles would be a constant and daunting challenge. Regular use of a tasting grid also helps to establish benchmarks so future wines can be compared against a standard.
As good as any reductionist grid is, there are times when it fails–times when the combination of the wine in the bottle and context creates something that goes far beyond language. In this situation any attempt to describe what you’re smelling and tasting–either verbally or in writing—becomes difficult, if not impossible.
One of these “wordless wines” immediately comes to mind: the 1990 Domaine Ponsot Bonnes Mares. All great Red Burgundy is transcendent. Putting your nose in the glass is to be gently assaulted by a tsunami of aromas so complex it’s impossible to describe. The ’90 Ponsot was just that. The experience reminded me of standing in the nave of St. Chapelle and being inundated by brilliantly faceted light in infinite shades and colors that changed constantly with the slightest shift in atmospheric light outside.
Likewise, when I tasted the Ponsot, the aromas changed every time I put my nose in the glass. The wine showed extraordinarily complex layers of fruit, spices, sauvage, earth, and oak. The sum total shimmered like the surface of a quickly moving stream. After each time I smelled and tasted the wine, I’d put the glass down, smile, shake my head, and utter a quiet but emphatic wow.
The wine also had remarkable depth and concentration, but without being heavy. In effect, it was weightless. I’ve come to think that most great wines are just that—weightless. They show great intensity and concentration but without being heavy.
Scientists tell us that the left hemisphere of our brains specializes in reading, writing, speech, abstraction, and numbers. Regarding language, this area of our brain is where we put together concepts piecemeal by reading groups of individual words in sequence. The right, more ancient hemisphere of our brains perceives images as a whole, solves spatial problems, recognizes faces, and appreciates music. In thinking about the Ponsot Bonnes Mares, perhaps the overwhelming amount of sensory information presented to me in the moment confounded my left brain, forcing me to use my more ancient imaging/feeling right brain. Hence the difficulty in describing the wine.
There have been other wordless wine experiences over the years. Tasting five Goldkapsul Auslesen from the Saarburger Rausch vineyard made by the brilliant Hanno Zilliken was like sipping five variations of ethereal nectar. A magnum of 61 Krug was a perfect yet indescribable combination of aged fruit, dried exotic flowers, and truffled-earth, gently cradled by delicate bubbles. Over a dozen of Steven Henschke’s offerings tasted at the winery was a theme and variations on perfectly textured red wine made from ancient vine sources.
In the end, I know I’m not the first to struggle with words sometimes when it comes to describing what’s the in glass. And I won’t be the last. There will be times—and wines–when words will fail. In a way, it reminds me of how wine makes for a good life. And to always be on the lookout for the next wordless wine.