14 Feb 2011

Wines that are different (and wine of the week 12)

The "tall poppy syndrome", is a term applied to the way in which all things that are different, things that stand out in a crowd, are often rejected, denigrated and finally cut down by whatever is the current doxa.

This obviously extends to the field of wine, as to most other aspects of life. I suppose that one of the fundamentals of this rejection process has to do with fear that one might be wrong in one's assumptions. Or maybe just habit and laziness combined, in the sense that, to zoom in on the field of wine, one's tastes become used to certain flavour profiles and, liking them or finding them acceptable, tend to reject different profiles as being "not good" or "not so good". In this way of thinking and behaving, fashion, and a complex process of exchanges of opinions with others, mainly from one's peer group, play a considerable role. Individuals rarely like to stand out from the crowd, including by expressing themselves in favour of something or someone who has been rejected by the majority of others, and especially by others whose judgements are respected by that individual.

Of course, in the habit-forming process, past happy experiences are essential. This often strikes me in the context of wines that incorporate an oxydative maturing process during the period prior to bottling (and even after bottling in the case of older wines). The vast majority of wines, including now the finest wines, are drunk at increasingly young ages. Hence the aromas and flavours that derive from a drawn-out ageing process gradually disappear from the spectrum of most peoples' palates. Having been raised in England, where the consumption of Sherries as aperitive drinks has been current practice for some time, such oxidative flavours are part and parcel of my taste culture. Therefore, I suppose, I do not reject them as being part of what people now tend to call "defects" in a wine, unless of course they are over dominant or not complemented by other flavours that make the wine interesting to taste.

Oxygen is, ultimately, the key agent in the death process of foodstuffs, including wine, as indeed it is for us. And yet incorporating its effects into a wine through a carefully managed maturation process in the producer's cellar is perhaps the only way to ensure that a wine will have a long life, rather like injecting a tiny amount of a disease to encourage natural resistence in a human body in the innoculation process (I am sure that the doctors and oenologists out there will correct my imperfect understanding of this).

 How about some examples? My recent visit to Lebanon gave me food for thought on this question. Château Musar is a wine, both in its red and its white versions, which uses a gradual oxidative process as part of its maturing process. Like Vega Sicilia, which is Spain's most prestigious wine and which I had the good fortune to taste again recently, Musar is aged for many years (around 6 usually) before being sold. Its barrel ageing stage is not that long, usually around 2 years, the rest of the process taking place in bottle in the producer's cellar. Another critcism that is often levelled at Musar is the presence of some volatile acidity in the wines. This may be true, but so what? If the wine tastes good, does it really matter whether the laboratory rats consider that it does not fit in with contemporary canons of what is "correct" in wine making? And this acidity has in no way impaired the remarkable ageing capacity of Musar. The wines just do not fall apart, they evolve slowly, each vintage with its own profile, like the unique individuals they are.

So here are the notes I took on the Château Musar 2001, which I first tasted within a series of Lebanese wines that were tasted blind on January 13th during a recent trip to this country, and then again a day or two later at the Musar cellars.

The colour is noticeably pale and seems as if burnished. The nose is fine, showing age and considerable complexity, with hints (to me) of wax, spices, orange peel, tobacco and hay. The feel on the palate is very suave and refined. It has an almost burgundian feel on account of its delicacy. There is an incorporated freshness that makes it feel vibrant. Clearly apart from most wines, it is long and layered in its complexity. Its beauty is singular and, to me, moving.

Musar is not expensive, given its ageing capacity, and this vintage can be found for around 20 euros in Europe
On my visit to the cellars, I also tasted the following vintages of Musar red: 2002, 2003, 1998 and 1974. My two favourites were 1998 and 1974, which may reveal a tendancy for my palate to enjoy older wines, or indicate the capacity of Musar to age gracefully and gain in complexity with time. or a bit of both, plus the individual quality of these vintages.

On the right are the modernised cellars of Musar at Ghazir, north of Beirut. I expect that I shall return to the topic of Musar and include its very unusual and remarkable whites at a future date. And also to Vega Sicila, old-style Riojas (not all of which are necessarily good!) and the whole subject of wines that stand apart from the masses. 


  1. Hi David,
    Firstly, you are right about oxygen : given the wine produced the producer chooses the right method (from tiny amounts for base wines in Champagne up to no control for Oloroso in Sherry… And I really love the both by the way ! One might ask about the production of reductive wines… If one consider a state without any oxygen please organize a travel for the next flight in space !
    Secondly, volatile acidity is not a fault as long as we accept the taste : botrysed wines - especially Sauternes - generally have very levels of VA : we love that so it doesn't matter ! And in certains hot vintages - 2003 - VA helped to preserve the wines indeed…
    At last, my technical support to your post is certainly a way to compensate for my too young experience in wines so that I finish my text with a question : you love oxydized wines because - you said - you are English… doesn't it mean our taste is a question of education ? In other words does the wine industry have to educate consumers ?
    We often talk about elitism… Is it really a question of knowledge (Jacques Puisais shares this opinion for example)
    PS : if education is so important I don't understand why england plays rugby !

  2. Sorry : England
    I forgot some words but it is still understandable.

  3. Olivier, I will leave aside your remarks about England and rugby, that I will put down to your apprehension as to the result of the match on February 26th at Twickenham. You should perhaps also remember where rugby was invented.

    As to education and taste for wine, I am not suggesting that you have to be educated, in matters of taste as well as culture, to appreciate wine. This would be ridiculously elitist. What I tried to say was that whatever our past experiences in the field of taste (food or drink) may be, they will inevitably have an influence on what kind of flavours we enjoy today. Apart from people from the Jura and some English, only perseverance can transform (ie, "acquired" taste) the taste of a Vin Jaune into a pleasurable experience for most people.

    In the same way, I am sure that the youthful diet of Mr. Robert Parker influenced at least his initial tastes in wines when he started drinking the stuff.

    Education will equally modify taste, and I feel that it is especially important in order to widen people's taste spectra.

  4. Would you suggest curiosity is something increasingly missing ? Would you accept laziness is somewhere impoverishing the wine world?
    If so : who is responsible ?I would agree with Émile Peynaud : "The wine is the reflect of the degree of civilization of our societies" We are increasingly lazy !
    It is a just my opinion as for the rugby !

  5. Yes, I agree that people often lack curiosity, but they also open-mindedness and self-assurance, with regards to wine. I suppose that intellectual laziness could be a reason, but I would suggest that a more important one is people's lack of self-assurance, which causes them to take refuge behind either other opinions or an accumulated set of prejudices that avoid them thinking for themselves and lend them the appearance of "knowing", whether about wine or anything else. Hence you hear, constantly, silly remarks such as "Beaujolais is not wine" and so on.

    As for rugby, I am not so sure. Maybe for some teams. But look at the All Blacks. You can hardly accuse them of being lazy!

  6. In statistics as well, David, this phenomenon seems to have been observed. It is called regression to(ward) the mean. For more details, consult Francis Galton and textbooks on linear regression.

  7. Yes, and we can see it when "averaging out" notes given to a series of wines by a jury with several members, as I have just spent my morning trying to do. You end up with a sort of tasteless omelette!

  8. As the French put it, David: “On ne fait pas d’omelette sans casser les oeufs ». But, you are right, this type of omelette « me casse surtout les couilles ». Yet I retain the « Tall Poppy Syndrome”, a nice expression to enrich my colloquial English. Of course, my own rude tongue makes one think of “Gilles de la Tourette Syndrome”, a nice one to quote in public as well.

  9. Luc, I hope that none of us degenerate into the Gilles de la Tourette syndrome, even if we may occasionally revert to a little mild copralalie.

  10. Some further comments on volatile acidity. In some wines it positively adds something to the overall flavour and complexity. I'm thinking here in particular of old bottles of old fashioned Barolo, but most recently in a bottle of Mouton Rothschild 1975 which was exquisite (to a man who normally drinks chinon!).

  11. Yes Anchois, I agree. It also adds a light touch (the effect of the acidity) that can be welcome. Old-style Barolos, old-style Riojas, and old-style Bordeaux can share this. In fact probably many old-style wines, which may well explain why volatile acidity is increasingly rejected by the modern wine-making school. I am not preaching in favour of any stupid "it was better before" syndrome, as I believe that modern enology has hugely improved the quality of wines, but I am against an over rigid, analytical and formulaic approach to wine and its tastes.

  12. It is not so much a matter of « old style » versus « modern approach ». It is also the TYPE of volatile acidity we are talking about. I’ve heard the words “noble volatile” but don’t really know what is meant by that.
    Clearly, you have components (mostly ketones or aldehydes and lactones) which develop with time (probably in the presence of some bacteria and of slowly absorbed oxygen) and participate to the “ancient” touch which is not devoid of charm. They include furfural, ethanal, and derivatives hereof such as sotolon. Although one considers them part of the “volatile acidity”, they are sensu stricto different. Madeira is a good example.
    And you have components (mostly esters of lower organic acids with ethanol) which appear quite fast, sometimes even before bottling, are mostly of infectious origin (“dirty wine-maker syndrome”) and ... seem to appeal far less. Their origin is to be found in either accessory metabolic pathways of the yeasts, or the action of acetic bacteria in an aerobic environment on one hand, and the presence of lactic bacteria (and many a sugar) on the other hand. One is talking here about acetic, formic, butyric and propionic derivatives (I probably forget a few).
    To top the bill, some individuals are partial to a certain amount of acetic acid or acetates. In Burgundy, not-so-nice merchants call this “le goût belge”. You know what: I’m going first to take a sip from “le pot belge” and then crash my Belgian fist on their nose. They will then know of “le coup belge”.

  13. Hard to come back from a "coup de poing belge" like this. I had better go back to school! Seriously, it would interest me to know what is the volatile component that I like in some wines (ie Musar) and why (and maybe to what degree).

  14. Luc's treatise on volatile acidity has certainly helped to explain why I don't find it intrusive; I'd always understood that VA was a more generous term for vinegar (ie acetic acid) which is nice in its place but not so good in a glass of wine! The flavous of VA which I like I can, on reflection, think are more similar to balsamic vinegar than Sarsons, and altho I'm similarly ignorant about the constituents of balsamic vinegar the good ones are certainly as interesting in terms of complexity as a good bottle of wine.

  15. Mmm. Methinks we need to delve into this subject further. I agree about balsamic vinegar.

  16. Mij dunkt (= methinks) too that I must admit my ignorance about which volatile components are experienced as “nice” and which otherwise. I suppose it has more to do with proportions and balance, once again. Same holds true for cheese: anaerobic bacteria and Staphylococci alike contribute to the “pleasure” one derives from “strong cheese”. Yet, the very same bugs are responsible for the transformation of our pittance into ... faeces and for abscess formation.
    Another aspect is our individual sensitivity to any particular component. It is quite clear that, amongst them all, ethylacetate is felt as very pungent by most observers, even in small quantities. Me, for one, have a low perception treshhold for amylates (as in “Beaujolais primeurs” for instance) and don’t particularly like that. A psychoanalytical explanation could well be my father’s predilection for ... rotting banana’s.