Getting to know a wine

Does our relationship with a wine – or, indeed, a type or class of wines – change as we get to know it or them?

I think it does, and this is one of the reasons that I think of the practice of wine tasting as an interaction between us and the wine – one in which we bring quite a bit to the process. We are certainly not acting as scientific instruments when we taste.

Think of the parallel situation of getting to know a piece of music. You have quite a different experience hearing a song the first time than you do when your are coming back for the 20th listen.

When I was at school, in the sixth form (ages 16-18) you were allowed out at lunchtime. It took about 20 minutes to walk down the hill to the centre of town, and one of my favourite ways of killing a lunch hour – apart from playing football with a tennis ball in one of the quads or wading through old Wisdens in the library – was to wander down to Scorpion Records, a second-hand shop.

Once I’d splashed out (much of the time was spent simply browsing) I relished the chance to get home and listen to my purchases. There was real anticipation. But many of the albums were a bit disappointing first time round. The good ones often took several listens before they really grew on me.

I guess what is happening when you listen to a song you know well is that in your mind you are playing through an internal version of the song at the same time as listening to it. You know how you get a song in your mind? It’s usually buzzing round, but in an incomplete or distorted form. When you play the mental song at the same time as listening to the real thing, there’s a richness and satisfaction that comes from having the details filled in. Of course, you can get to know a song too well, and then it can become annoying.

Some songs are easily accessible, but you tire of them. Others, you don’t seem to tire of at all.

The parallel with wine? I wonder whether, when we taste a wine or type of wine we know well, this sort of thing is going on. Our previous experience highlights flavours to look out for. We interrogate the wine, asking it pertinent sensory questions. We are reminded of aspects of the wine we had forgotten about. It adds to the richness of the experience.

It could well be that previous experience or even book knowledge about a wine will change our actual perception, just as I reckon that possession of a certain vocabulary for smells and tastes commonly found in wine might alter our perception of the wine. That is, the words we have for wine act like pegs on which we can hang our otherwise fleeting and faint sensory experiences.

It all sounds quite complex, but in this complexity lies part of the thrill of wine.

12 comments to Getting to know a wine

  • Good points, really agree with this. It’s all about the romance of wine, how it’s variable and it changes over time, how our tastes change over time, how we interact with it differently at different times. It’s the main reason I struggle with the routine use of 100-point ratings.

    Do wine writers make sure they’ve given every wine the chance to grow on them like a good album before they publish a rating for it?

    The same with other snapshot situations like wine awards and en primeur – is there a risk they favour technically good wines but discriminate against the slow burners?

  • A brilliant analysis. As someone who was a music anorak before I became a wine enthusiast I have known for sometime that the instantly appealing songs on an album often play second fiddle to the less accessible but often superior tracks after repeated listens. There is also the pleasure of over indulging in an album and putting it away for a while and coming back to it after many months. In fact the older I am getting I realise that although I own 500 LPs, I know less than half of them well and only really listen to about 20.

  • Daniel

    Your LP analogy is brilliant Jamie. Except that while even a brilliant album can fade as familiarity grows, this is rarely the case with wine, which also changes over time and vary by bottle as well. This is why the most fulfilling relationships are so often with cases rather than bottles. A six pack is rarely enough to really ‘know’ a wine, even if they are increasingly all I can afford.

  • @Simon O’Hare,

    Excelent point! Totally agree with you

  • Ben

    You say that “possession of a certain vocabulary for smells and tastes commonly found in wine might alter our perception of the wine”. This reminds me of the old argument that language comes before thought. We are generally given the view that we have self-conscious thoughts and use language to apply them. Others, like myself, would argue that language creates that sense of self-consciousness in the first place, and without language, this does not exist in the same way. Given that, is there any truly objective – or even just shared – experience of wine at all? Blind tastings would stipulate that there is not. That is not to denounce informed opinion on wine, but it is to suggest that it’s the result of language, smell recognition, labels, knowledge of producers, reigions etc, and not really intrinsic to the wine as a substance at all.

    But of course that it true of everything, not just wine. Just saying. :)

  • Lee Newby

    Some wines are pop, some classical then some are Björk. I agree each needs to grow on you unless you know the style very well.

  • Ben C

    I think some very good points here, Jamie. I wonder whether you might give some examples of what you are talking about. Als , does it apply to specific wines from specific vintages, or more generally – even across a whole region or variety?

  • Patrick

    Excellent points – especially about those wines/songs too immediate with their charms (for some reason I’m thinking Californian Pinot or Big Aussie Shiraz here) which bore after a while.

    I think you do also build up (impose?) a relationship with a case – changing over time as the wine ages and with the differing circumstances of each bottle’s consumption (be a bit sad if you could only listen to a CD 12 times though). There’s also ‘living with’ a bottle over 2-3 days and seeing it evolve

  • some great points here – I agree, there’s also the repeated tasting of the same bottle of wine through an evening, which I didn’t mention.

    Shared experience of the same wine is really interesting. I love the way a discussion about a wine can enhance the perception for both parties.

  • I agree but have a completely different take on this.

    I love to have the same wine through and entire meal.

    I know people are big on ‘tasting menus’ – a wine paired with each course.

    For me, I’m just getting to ‘know the wine’ around the time they swap the glass out for another type.

    I’d rather drink the same wine with the entire meal, see how the wine evolves with different flavors. That, to me, is a real luxury.

    julie@womenwine.com

  • gdfo

    I cannot agree that it is all about the romance of the wine at all.

    What this is about is liking a wine and enjoying it repeatedly and realizing that there are settings that a different wine would be better suited to.
    You usually to not drink the same wine all the time anyway. Unlike a music CD or record, there is limited production of the particular wine you might like, even non vintage regional products. I think it is more common that folks buy more than one wine and consume them per particular setting.
    No matter how much you might like a music recording there does come a time when you need to listen to something else too. But a CD lasts as long as you take care of it, a wine does not.

  • William

    Jamie,
    I agree with your premise. I also take note of how we perceive our appreciation of things at a point in our own lives. I am reminded of how I loved powerful, bold, and highly ‘structured’ wines in my youth, and now look for finesse and balance as an indicator of quality and aesthetic enjoyment. Gives credence to the phrase ‘before its’ time’…
    Cheers,
    William
    William

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