When I was learning “how to appreciate wine”, I seem to remember being told that a quality wine could be identified by its length and complexity. I am not sure I was totally convinced – shouldn’t the wine taste nice too, or doesn’t that have anything to do with quality? Anyway, it seems now that length and complexity have been replaced by sense-of-place, at least by critics and wine writers if not wine educators. In many ways I find sense-of-place as a sign of quality even more disconcerting than length and complexity.
Setting aside anthropomorphic objections for a moment, I really struggle to understand what a wine having a sense-of-place means. If it implies that it is different and interesting, and that it is not created by wine makers in response to a spec from the marketing department, that does sound like a good thing. But I think the implication is that the wine smells and tastes in a way specific to its area – essentially it is another way of saying that it has typicity, or is typical of its terroir.
I might just about allow that a regional specialist might have an idea about what sense-of-place means for the wines in their area of speciality. But even then most experts seem to be reluctant to describe the typical flavours, and seem to find them difficult to identify when tasting blind. However, my scepticism turns to cynicism when journalists are flown out to some unlikely region and declare the wines to have a strong sense of place. Do they really know what wines from that area taste like, as opposed to the wines just around the corner for example? And even if they do, are they than able to rate the sense of place and declare it to be strong or weak? I don’t think so. Maybe they are actually merely saying the wines are different and interesting. Who knows?
Also, there seems to be an implicit assumption that the wines with a strong sense of place come from a good place. Given a choice between a Montrachet with a slightly deficient sense of place on the one hand, and a wine from the irrigated plains of South Eastern Australian with a strong sense of place on the other, I’ll take my chances with the Montrachet thank you very much.
Perhaps a large part of my argument depends on my assertion that the writers of tasting notes are poor at identifying regions of origin. I could easily justify it, and will do if asked. But I don’t want this to come over as anti-expert/snob/connoisseur rant. I prefer to leave it more as an appeal for more meaningful wine language – a defensible language that stands a chance of being understood by newbies.