What it Says on the Bottle: Interpreting Descriptions

Tonight’s experience of a very good wine that was not what I expected is salutary.

I expect a wine with an advised drinking window of 2008 – 2013 to be in very good shape in 2011. Wines do not have sharp peaks of readiness; once you have got past the initial smoothing out period and any tendency to close down for a while, there ought to be a fairly wide and flat plateau of readiness.

I had somehow expected that a Syrah-rich Cotes du Rhone would retain some edge throughout its drinking window. Syrah is most famous for wines like St Joseph and Hermitage which are uncompromising and often described as peppery. In fact what we got was beautifully smooth and more suitable for sipping on its own in front of a winter fire than drinking with a meal in summer. The backbone that I look for in Syrah was missing entirely. We got a nice berry-fruit nose, but on the palate soft, smooth integration, with no sinewy edge, unmistakable Syrah fruit, but very soft. This is a winter wine for meals that are not too challenging.

The brief description reads “Dark and rich with hints of wild herbs and chocolate”. I think I was misled by ‘wild herbs’ which to me conjure up the garrigue, not a bouquet garni that is limp after hours in the casserole. I should have paid more attention to ‘rich’ which always sets off alarm bells; it usually means fat and sometimes even flabby. ‘Dark’ is OK, it says something about both colour and flavour that are true in this case. And ‘chocolate’ need not mean sweet or easy; I like my chocolate dark and dry, even salty – no hint of sweetness. So this is a case of perfectly honest descriptive writing conveying the wrong impression to me. I responded to the wrong ‘dog-whistle’.

I’ll put the remaining two bottles away until winter and bring them out for a gently dark meal – perhaps a vegetable lasagne with a mushrooms base. I’ll want a wine with more sinew for a beef casserole.

I am also going to re-evaluate the drinking windows of every other wine in my cellar. I suspect I would have enjoyed this wine much earlier, say 2008, when it was said to be only just ready to drink.

This is not a problem of cellaring; I have a real, underground cellar in a Victorian house. It is properly cool and dark, even a little damp – as near perfect as you can get without full electronic control. So it should deliver wines at their predicted dates.

Alternatively, perhaps I haven’t tuned in to the tastes of the Wine Society’s Rhone wine-buyer, who may like his wines a lot fuller and softer than I do – understandable if he spends his days tasting them unaccompanied while I only drink wine with food.

Perhaps the key to our tastes is that we love Montilla, Amontillado and Fino sherries. That very tangy edge is what we love with food yet too many winemakers work hard to round it off.

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