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Wine and beauty   

Beauty. It’s a rather complex concept, once you start unpacking it. Objects, people, ideas and actions can all possess it, yet we can’t measure it or define it terribly well. It’s also something that is of immense importance in our lives. Can you imagine a life devoid of beauty? And how much time and energy do we spend pursuing it?

So, the key question. Why is it that beauty is so important to us? Why is it that we find a sunset viewed from the quiet stillness of a beach after a warm summers day particularly beautiful, and a grey February day on a litter-strewn 70s concrete tower block council estate particularly ugly? Or, tying this to wine, why are hilly vineyard areas such as the Douro (right) so much more beautiful than large, flat, industrial vineyards on the plains?

It seems that beauty is not entirely in the eye of the beholder. Scientists studying how we perceive faces have confirmed what most of us already assume to be the case. Some people are more ‘beautiful’ than others; it seems we can define beauty as it relates to the human face, at least in part. This raises a whole set of questions, which largely fall outside the scope of a piece like this. Evidently, if we have a natural propensity to all like the same faces, how come we seem to have rather different tastes when it comes to selecting our significant others? 

There are clearly many factors influencing choice of partner other than just an innately programmed sense of attractiveness. After all, we don’t marry faces, we marry people. And we don’t choose partners from a catalogue (unless, of course, you are planning to pick up a Russian bride from the internet, which I am told is now possible), and marriages tend to work better when there’s at least a degree of mutual attraction.

There are also explanations from evolutionary psychologists about what sort of landscapes we find appealing, defining features that we are likely to consider pleasant at an innate aesthetic level. So it seems that, at least in part, our sense of beauty – at least in certain realms – is biologically determined, to a degree. I keep having to put all these qualifiers in, simply because this is a complicated subject and we are dealing with many unknowns. Besides, I don’t want to come across as some nutty biological determinist. It makes sense, though, that something so important to us and which we invest so many of our resources in pursuing should be there for a reason.

Most often we think of beauty as relating to visual experiences – probably because vision is our dominant sense – but it also applies to other sensory modalities. A concept, thought or act can be described as beautiful or ugly, as can a piece of music, or a meal. Most intriguingly, beauty can exist in the absence of any external cues. I remember having a post-operative shot of something mind-altering after day surgery: I felt a strong internal sense of beauty that then attached itself to my rather dull surroundings. Everything was beautiful, for a while. 

Can a wine be beautiful? We make aesthetic judgments about wines all the time, and while it’s not all that common to hear a wine described as beautiful, I don’t see a reason why this shouldn’t be the case.

Frequently, our aesthetic appraisals of wine involve a sort of continuum, according to the relative niceness of the wines being tasted, and often other factors such as how well they reflect their origins (how typical are they?), in terms of both terroir (e.g. ‘a great Gevrey-Chambertin’) and varietal expression (e.g. ‘this is a really good Cabernet’). But occasionally, I will drink a wine that I might describe as ‘beautiful’. Interestingly, some wines can be rated very highly, and be immensely enjoyable, but not be beautiful. I’d probably be more likely to describe a perfumed wine as beautiful than a structured one. Of course, related terms such as 'pretty' and 'sexy' are also used to describe wines, each with a subtly different emphasis. Robert Parker has used on at least one occasion the phrase 'a whore of a wine'. Strangely, I think this was complimentary. 

So continuing this theme, how de we decide whether a wine is beautiful or ugly? Is there any logic to our aesthetic appreciation of wine? Is it an instinctive, more-or-less automatic response that follows the tasting act, or is it more a more considered, intellectual assessment? I think it’s a bit of both. When I have a wine in my mouth, there’s an immediate hedonic response ('hmmm, nice', or 'uh, yuk', for example). This is then followed by a procedure where I attend to the wine, I examine it, I think about its various components, I compare it to the templates of previously drunk wines stored somewhere in my memory. This results in a more considered response, which no doubt has its origins in the instinctive ‘gut reaction’ phase of tasting.

Of course, not all people are looking for beauty in their wine. They want just a glass of wine. The wine might, at best, elicit a response of ‘tasty’, or ‘nice’, but that’s it. It’s like someone leafing through a catalogue of paintings, as opposed to taking the time to stand in front of them in a gallery. To a degree, if we want to find beauty in a wine, we have to look for it. We also have to know what we are looking for – learning and context are very important in wine tasting. Related to this is the subjective element; we each find different wines appealing. This brings me back to a familiar theme: in tasting, our response to the wine is as important as the properties of the wine itself. To conclude, then, I’ll state that I think wines can be beautiful, but it’s the combination of our understanding, our perceptive abilities and the characteristics of the wine that can create that beauty.  

The philosophy of wine

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