The Art of Tasting Burgundy Wines:
Feel vs. Flavor
As we approach the near infinite universe of tasting wine, understanding, remembering and most of all joyfully consuming, we are drawn to the “quick fix,” the study of wine which is based upon charts, summaries, endorsements, labels and brands.
Vive le quicke fixe, assuredly, but it is great fun to learn of another expanse. One that takes time – time to taste, time to experience, time to understand, time to consume – all with love of life.
One quick entrée to the subject is flavor. “I taste vanilla, grapefruit, caramel, cigar boxes and, yes, even pencil shavings.” Here in Burgundy, however, one speaks of how a wine “feels” and less of flavors. The appreciation of aromas and flavors has its place because our senses of taste and smell are so closely linked.
Another universe awaits discovery.
Notably, it is the way in which wine stimulates the palate – the sense of touch
and feel in the mouth which is the “grail” of wine lovers Burgundy.
We can “simplify” the search for fine wine as the search for balance, substance, texture, minerality, complexity and aromatic persistence – all properties, or “descriptors,” which concern the totality of the tongue and palate as a sense of touch and feel.
Three essential sensations on the tongue are potentially cloying sucrosity, mouth-puckering astringency and mouth-watering tartness. Each is a negative when it is not in balance with the other two. Because of Burgundy’s great minerality and natural vivacity (acidity), balance is key. All myriad of descriptors must emerge as salient but not dominant in a balanced wine.
The natural concentration, extraction of tannins and phenols, weight, “body” (shoulders, squareness, fat), all when experienced vis a vis the originality and typicity of a wine from a specific terroir – this is the cornerstone of greatness. Substance results not only from the “offerings” of millesime (vintage year), “green harvest,” and terroir (specific location, exposition to sun, water supply, soil content), but from the winemaker’s private recipes for maturation, maceration, alco-fermentation. When we speak of substance, we also speak of the “attack” or initial approach of the wine on the palate. “The substance of a wine should always reveal itself with a suppleness in the attack”(1). Fine Burgundies reveal a flexibility in the substance and as the wine is moved around the mouth, no harness is felt with the acidity being detected subsequently and not initially in the attack. This one of the intangibles of Burgundy Wine.
Thickness and fabric analogs – taffeta vs. silk vs. velvet in feel are exciting elements of the “feel” of wine. These result from development in the barrel, and choices of origin of oak, percent of new oak, racking techniques all drive the process. In general, it is preferred by the winemakers (vigneron) to interfere as little as possible and let the wine make itself – expressing the terroir, complexity, substance and developing textures quite naturally. Texture depends upon the quality of the tannins and adjectives such as thick, delicate, succulent, creamy, hard, plump and fleshy come to mind. The experiences of different textures in wine “feel” differently in our mouths as do fabrics with our fingers. Understanding starts there: silk not velvet, powder not grains, water not glycerin, etc.
Essential to the joy of Burgundy tasting is the remarkable minerality which results from the various manifestations of the eroded limestone of the Cote d’ Or. This is a topic for another newsletter, but suffice it to say that the minerality of Burgundy brings the wine to life, emphasizes the aromatic freshness and is underscored by the marvelous acidity typical of the region.
Complexity exists in young Burgundies, but is revealed gloriously with aging. A wine which reveals more and more with each taste, a wine which is original, yet typical of a place or terroir, a wine which is seemingly inexhaustible with the use of time in tasting – such is the product suitable of devoted search.
Fine wines of Burgundy exhibit great “length in the mouth.” This is also called “finish” or “sap,” and is counted in seconds. The intensity of wine before such intensity begins to decline is a source of great excitement and fun for wine lovers a/k/a “winos.” The counted seconds are called “caudalies.”
The sense of unfolding on the palate – the use of time is required to detect and identify the essential feel of great wine. In milliseconds, the substance, textures, complexities and persistence are revealed in one noticeable experience after another. Let your eyes be drawn in by the glass, the color, the moment. Then close your eyes and begin the journey of seconds and minutes which the way of the palate and feel. At this moment, the Burgundy aficionado begins to draw the wine over the entire tongue and palate by pulling in the sip with short successive breaths (grumage). The wine may be direct and square shouldered and walk a straight path as does Pommard “Bertins” or it may pause, step side and reveal yet a greater expression as does the famous “La Tache.”
It is a journey to be taken over and over in a lifetime and is within us – always renewed with each new expression of a vintage year. We try to put it all in words: intensity, delicacy, finesse, class, suppleness, opulence, sumptuousness. In the end, we find that we are eternal students and that the wines are indefinable.
- Cliff Young
(1) “Burgundy Grand Crus” by Jackey Rigaud This is a direct quote, but I want to credit this book for helping me “gel” my thoughts in general on the subject of tasting Burgundy. I owe this wonderful book a great debt.
Vintage Ratings 1900 > 2007