Quixotic Connoisseurs

The terminology of modern wine-tasting is fussily analytical. Maybe it's worth heeding our sensory impressions, a la Sancho Panza


In Don Quixote, Sancho Panza is travelling with the “charitable squire of the wood”, and begins to feel thirsty. Noticing his unease, the squire reassures him: “Methinks we have talked till our tongues cleave to the roofs of our mouths; but I have got something that will agreeably moisten them, at my saddle bow.” He then produces a large leather bottle of wine, and a pie containing a whole rabbit.

Sancho needs no encouragement. He crams huge portions of the pie into his mouth, and then rounds off his meal by lifting the bottle to his lips, and “gazing at the stars a whole quarter of an hour” — Cervantes’s pleasantly hyperbolical way of saying that he took a long swallow.  

But then Sancho, unexpectedly, does something rather refined — he unerringly identifies where the wine comes from: “But tell me, Signior, by the life of what you best love, is not this wine from Cividad Real?”  The squire is suitably impressed: “You have an excellent taste . . . it comes from no other part, I’ll assure you; and has, moreover, some good years over its head.” This is Sancho’s cue for some wonderful bragging: “You’ll never catch me tripping in the knowledge of wine, let it be never so difficult to distinguish. Is it not an extraordinary thing, Signior Squire, that I should have such a sure and natural instinct in the knowledge of wine, that give me but a smell of any sort whatever, and I will tell you exactly its country, growth, and age, together with the changes it will undergo, and all other circumstances appertaining to the mystery.”

He then goes on to explain why he is so unerring. Is his sure and natural instinct the result of his unflagging commitment to drink? On the contrary — it was in his genes: “By my father’s side, I had the two most excellent tasters that La Mancha hath known for these many years; as a proof of which, I will tell you what once happened to them. A sample of wine was presented to them out of a hogshead, and their opinions asked concerning the condition and quality; . . . one of them tasted it with the tip of his tongue, the other did no more than clap it to his nose; the first said the wine tasted of iron, the other affirmed it had a twang of goat’s leather; the owner protested that the pipe was clean, and the contents without any sort of mixture that could give the liquor either the taste of iron, or the smell of goat’s leather: nevertheless, the two famous tasters stuck to the judgment they had given; time passed on, the wine was sold, and when the pipe came to be cleaned, they found in it a small key, tied to a leathern thong. By this your worship may perceive, whether or not one who is descended from such a race, may venture to give his opinion in cases of this nature.”

Whatever one may think of Sancho’s opinion that skill in judging wine can be inherited from one’s forebears, this anecdote about intimations which are initially dismissed as fanciful or impossible, only in the end to be vindicated, resonates deeply in Don Quixote, which is a novel simultaneously committed to two warring propositions: on the one hand, that what the imagination perceives is truth, and on the other that the imagination perceives only delusions and errors. When the apparently far-fetched impressions of Sancho’s relatives turn out to be simple fact, the blankness of the opposition between those two apparently irreconcilable positions softens into something more nuanced, and more interesting.

I was recently put in mind of this detail of Don Quixote when going to the various big press tastings of the 2010 Burgundies which have been put on in London during the past few weeks. These can be quite serious affairs. They are held in large, often imposing rooms. A crowd of journalists, some rather down at heel, others suspiciously sleek and prosperous, shuffle around sniffing, sipping and then spitting often over a hundred wines. Sancho Panza, swigging from a leather bottle and munching through a rabbit pie, would have stood out in their company. 

My own preference on these occasions is to be quiet and anonymous, acknowledging the few people I know with a smile or an inclination of the head. This policy of self-effacement means that, as I ghost through the room, I overhear what other tasters are saying about the wines. Their language is very remote from that of Sancho’s uncles. The modern professional fashion is to eschew impressions of taste, and absolutely to shun the more baroque developments of that way of assessing wine (“A wine that will remind you of a stroll through an Alpine meadow in early spring, when the sun has just kissed the edelweiss”, etc, etc). Where that mode of appreciating wine survives at all, it does so in the pungently degraded language of some wine writers, who praise a wine by, for instance, talking of “gobs of bright cinnamon-stashed red-fruits, supported by traces of brioche, crushed stone, forest-floor, pencil shavings and cigar-box”. The hectic piling up of comparisons, and the vulgar avidity of such prose, is its own discommendation.

Instead, the modern taster’s language is apparently more objective, apparently more analytical. But it is really just a rhetoric. They like, at the most elementary level, to talk of fruit, tannin and acidity, but only very sparingly to attribute qualities to these components of a wine (single words such as “bright”, “harsh” or “soft” are about as far as they’ll chance their arm). However, they will inquire earnestly about yields, soil types, and practices in the cellar. What kind of oak were the barrels made of, and what degree of “toast” did they receive? How often was the cap punched? Was there any batonnage or remuage? Was the wine filtered? Others focus on the vineyard. Was there a green harvest? Is the vineyard bio-dynamic? How were the vines trained?  How old are the vines? And, even, what kind of vines are they? I should explain that when our modern adepts pose that question, they are not, as you might imagine, simply inquiring about the varietal (pinot noir, sauvignon blanc, etc). As I overheard one say: “There’s no point in just saying that it’s chardonnay — you’ve got to get the clone number.”

All of these more objective facts about how a wine has been produced are, of course, of interest, and may even be illuminating when it comes to understanding a particular feature of the impression a wine makes in the mouth or on the nose. But the judgment of wine, like the judgment of anything, is not about merely furnishing information. It is about discrimination, or the application of intelligence to information. It is also about not being mesmerised by the information you are given if your impression tells you something else. Sancho’s uncles were not to be moved from their assessments, notwithstanding the — as it turned out, misleading — assurances from the winemaker about how his wine had been handled in the cellar. We need to return to the laconic sagacity of Sancho’s uncles.

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