by Martin Walker
One of the biggest problems with wine is people like me who try to write about it. Almost anything to do with the human senses is very difficult to put into words. How do you define the delicacy of a mother’s touch, the intimacy of a lover’s caress, or the kindness of a stranger’s helping hand?
And wine affects so many different senses which interact with one another. Obviously wine affects most our sense of smell and taste. But it also involves our sight. If you doubt this, there is an interesting experiment: see how often you can tell the difference between a red, white or rose wine once you are blindfolded. The colour of a wine in a glass, whether pale or golden, light red or deep burgundy, subtly affects our expectation of its taste.
Researchers at the ISVV (the Institute for Wine and Grape Science) in Bordeaux have tried to put the different kinds of taste into categories. They list seven primary tastes: truffle, blackcurrant, liquorice, pepper, mint, grilled and sous-bois, which suggests a taste between undergrowth and woodland.
Then they suggest that there are thirteen secondary tastes, including smoke, leather, tobacco, coffee, cedar, chocolate, caramel, ashes, vanilla, stewed fruit, animal, soot and wood. I think I know what they are trying to say but when it comes to defining the difference between soot and ashes, smoke and grilled, I suspect most of us would give up.
But there are some useful ways to deepen your enjoyment of wine. Sometimes this is called educating the palate, which sounds rather pompous. I think of it more as coming to appreciate the small but important differences in the taste of wine and I had a particularly useful experience recently.
It was at the Foire des vins in Le Bugue and I came across a stall for a wine I had not encountered before, Château Vignal La Brie in the Monbazillac region, very close to the wine school of La Brie. Madame Négrier suggested I try her Bergerac Sec to begin, a very agreeable and fresh white wine, mostly from the Sémillon grape with about ten per cent each of Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle. At 5 euros a bottle, it was good value and better than most Bergerac whites. (And so it should be, with a fine location tucked close under the hill slope that leads up to Château Monbazillac.)
Then she suggested I try what she called a more serious wine, something rather special. It was much the same wine, albeit from favoured parts of her land, but it had been kept on its lees while ageing in oak barrels.
When I sniffed the bouquet, I knew this was a much richer, more complex wine with several different aromas. And when I tasted it, my eyes widened, my eyebrows shot up and I gave an involuntary grunt of pleasure and respect. This was a very remarkable wine, with a depth of flavour and a richness of taste that I admired. It was not a wine I would want to drink every day, but would be just right for a special occasion or to share with close friends who appreciate good wine. At 9.50 euros it was a bargain.
I do this kind of double tasting quite often. I am a profound admirer of all the wines of Château de la Jaubertie, but it is instructive to try alongside one another the standard red and white wines, and then to try their Cuvée Mirabelle, which at around 16 euros are among the very best wines the Bergerac produces.
My old friend Pierre Desmartis of Château la Vieille Bergerie is one of the great masters of white wines, and has a whole series of gold medals from the Paris show to prove it. His standard Bergerac Sec is lovely, fresh as springtime with a charming sense of almost girlish innocence and costs 6.50 euros. His Cuvée Quercus white, at 9 euros, has all the subtle power of a beautiful woman in her prime.
These wines, from the same vineyard, have a very great deal in common and yet they are markedly different and it’s fun to try and work out just what those differences might be and how to put them into words.
The other way to try and appreciate these delicate shifts in taste is drink a flight – a series of the same wines from different vintages. I had a memorable afternoon tasting eight different years of the magnificent and lordly Pécharment reds of Château de Tiregand with the owner, François-Xavier de St-Exupéry, and I was struck by the variety in taste and structure. My notebook, however, testifies to the near-impossibility of defining in words the differences between them.
But that almost mystical mystery of taste is half the fun of enjoying wines.
Martin Walker, author of the best-selling ‘Bruno, chief of police’ novels, is a Grand Consul de la Vinée de Bergerac. Formerly a journalist, he spent 25 years as foreign correspondent for The Guardian and then became editor-in-chief of United Press International. He and his wife Julia have had a home in the Périgord since 1999 and one of his great hobbies is visiting the vineyards of Bergerac.