Taste wine just like person


Jefford on Monday

(Originally published on Decanter.com on 2 April 2012)

In the same week that Decanter announced its Asia Wine Awards (I’m looking forward to tasting in Hong Kong in September), I found myself having an email conversation with a winemaker from Inner Mongolia.

Hansen Organic Vineyards
Image: Hansen Organic Vineyards © Bruno Paumard

Bruno Paumard works for Hansen Organic Vineyards, near Wuhai (‘zero rain! zero disease!’). The vines grow at 1,500 m (4,921 ft), survive on Yellow River water, and have to be buried every winter against temperatures which can drop as low as -30°C. But summers are warm and serene, with cool nights, and the finest quality Cabernet (like that which won ‘Best Wine of China’ last month in Berlin) requires, Bruno tells me, no adjustment whatsoever. It’s labelled, in best Jules Verne style, ‘Côtes du Fleuve Jaune du Désert de Gobi’.

That conversation came shortly after a dinner organised by UGC Présidente Syvie Cazes at Pichon-Lalande during which I had met a team from Xiamen C&D Wines – bright, multilingual, mostly in their twenties, and selling quantities of wine which left my eyes as big as the Pichon dinner plates off which we ate our Epaule d'agneau de lait, mousseline de panais. None of this, of course, would have happened ten years ago.

Nor would I have known about 品酒如品人. I hasten to point out that I don’t speak or read Chinese, so I am indebted for most of what I know about this concept to Tai-Ran Niew, a former Goldman Sachs employee turned wine student. The characters themselves equate to ‘taste wine just like person’ (though the second character is in fact ‘alcoholic drink’, and is one of the three characters used to describe grape wine itself). The first character, says Tai-Ran, ‘is literally “to taste”. But in Chinese it definitely has connotations of “judge”, “appreciate”, “analyse” and critically “to play”. The character for play, 玩 is often used for the appreciation of the arts, especially antiques, calligraphy, and paintings.’ The final character, too, is reverberative. ‘It encompasses everything,’ stresses Tai-Ran. ‘Not just the physical, but also the spiritual or emotional character of a person.’

The subject came up because of the frustration Tai-Ran and others feel (Ch’ng Poh Tiong has expressed this, too, in his column in Decanter magazine) about the sometimes patronising approach of westerners to wine communication in China. In contrast to many westerners’ assumptions, Chinese wine drinkers are not in any way fazed by the shopping list approach to tasting notes, even if they aren’t on intimate terms with a hedgerow, a boysenberry or ‘liquid minerals’. They just move on. It doesn’t matter. 品酒如品人 is the greater challenge: the appreciation, in Tai-Ran’s words, of wine ‘for its personality, moods and expressiveness’.

I like the notion that there might be a playfulness to tasting itself; it has often struck me that the process is taken too seriously and ponderously by those hungry to log their opinion and their score as the definitive one, to pronounce judgment on or find a fault in a wine before anyone else does, or to avoid the opprobrium of liking something which might be unfashionable among their peer group.

Coining descriptions for wines is not like discovering new chemical elements or producing an accurate survey of the Flow Country of Caithness. It’s more like describing the weather or the cherry blossom: what you are describing is changing ceaselessly, and your description, moreover, is entirely conditional on your perspective. Playfulness might indeed be an asset. (Indeed it is one of the things which makes Michael Broadbent’s notes such a pleasure to read.)

For me, too, ‘just like person’ is potentially much more interesting than ‘just like blackcurrant’, though western (and particularly Anglo-Saxon) readerships tend to dismiss any kind of tasting-note anthropomorphism as pretentious. Seizing on the personality of wines is surely a fruitful way to help bring their differences alive. Assigning moods to wines, too, is truthful to our experience of tasting them (though it underlines the inadequacy of point systems). The same wine can sing one month, and be grumpy and terse the next.

The phrase might also be interpreted as an exhortation to judge wines as you might judge people, and that, too, seems a very fruitful line of enquiry. Looking beneath the surface becomes important, as is setting aside the time to deepen the acquaintanceship a little. Unreasoning animus or attraction becomes significant. You might even care to attribute moral value to certain qualities in wines, and the opposite. Playfully, of course.

All of this leaves me very excited at the prospect of reading, in due course, Chinese wine writing translated into English – and of one day discovering the terroirs of Inner Mongolia. Our world has indeed changed.

Columnist Introduction

Andrew Jefford is a columnist for both Decanter magazine and www.decanter.com, Jefford has been writing and broadcasting about wine (as well as food, whisky, travel and perfume) since the 1980s, winning many awards – the latest for his work as a columnist. After 15 months as a senior research fellow at Adelaide University between 2009 and 2010, Andrew is currently writing a book on Australia's wine landscape and terroirs. He lives in the Languedoc, on the frontier between the Grès de Montpellier and Pic St Loup zones.

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Translated by Nina Fan Feng / 冯帆

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