by Tom Hewson

Collecting Flavour

Every trade has its sartorial call-signs. The wine trade plays host to the fraternity-of-the-red-trouser, its membership made up of legs that appear to have filled, loafer-to-belt, with decades of luncheon claret. Whether it’s these, pins, badges or wine tour t-shirts (LADS ON TOUR LOIRE 2022 – LAUREAU – DOMAINE DES FORGES – DESELVAUX – #CHENINIGANS), there’s always a way, subtle or otherwise, to declare allegiance and signal to like minds.

Knowing an unhealthy amount about wine is just one of those things it’s best to be up-front about, after all. In fact, contemporary dinner-party best practice is to include it along with the standard dietary requirement questions: no gluten, tree nuts or lukewarm Viognier, thank you. Leaving such a revelation to casually dribble out long after the bottles are drained risks provoking a reaction not unlike that which might accompany the un-closeting of impossible wealth, or niche sporting prowess. Why didn’t you tell us earlier?!

Why didn’t they? Perhaps because they didn’t want to bore you. More likely, they didn’t want to shame you for that bottle of ‘Rosé by Nadine Dorries’ they’ve been forced to tackle like a trapped caver hacking off their own arm (best to think of it as an anatomy exercise). Whatever the reason, most are quite happy when an evening proceeds according to ‘don’t-ask-don’t-tell’. Or even just ‘don’t tell’, even if asked.

Perhaps this reticence is misplaced. All too often, the secret gets out, but the audience doesn’t actually get bored. The questions keep coming, the sense of fascination remaining alarmingly life-like as the busted wine obsessive pretends not to revel in the opportunity to explain the difference between Pinot Gris and Pinot Grigio (well, it’s a grey area…). These people are hungry. Ravenous! So have they bought any wine books? No. Do they follow any wine writers, or communicators, on Twitter or Instagram? The question lands with a perplexed thud. Neither has it occurred to them, or does it seem to hold much appeal. They appear to need a person, with a glass in hand a few centilitres in belly, to help them out.

Is it any wonder? Perhaps that most annoying of adject-nouns, ‘online’, isn’t all it’s cracked up to be when it comes to learning about wine. Wine Twitter feels more like the Parent-Teacher Association Whatsapp group than the school itself, Instagram the glossy magazine whose weight in your hand seems to lighten the closer it gets to your head. A search for Champagne on Tik Tok reveals the most popular account as one which consists entirely of phonetic pronunciation guides for Champagne labels. There is some clear-eyed, utilitarian genius there: here is something to look at. That’s all I’m promising.

All these enable a kind of wine learning, a sort of circumstantial wine-ology, that keeps the breeze of apathy away from the flame when the glasses are empty. It’s not this sort of learning, though, of what-goes-in-what or what-comes-from-where, that actually fuels a love of the stuff. That’s another kind, the kind that is entirely sensorial, abstract, resistant to codification, where blobs of flavour and shape and texture get filed deep in our archives, intact and un-dissected. They form their own relationships down there, long-term residents striking up conversations with newcomers, old-timers huffing and puffing in the corner, rooms filling up with cliques, loners and unlikely friendships. We collect flavour.

The doors to these deep archives only seem to open when stained lips are chattering, face-to-face. When there is some proper drinking happening, not just tasting (and certainly not any scrolling), when everyone is dipping in and out of five glasses at once and the music is playing just loud enough to prevent anybody from thinking too hard. Yes, a few party-poopers might feel the urge to crack open the wine atlas and check the location of that Barbaresco Cru, but the point at which anyone starts wondering which online resources might enrich the experience might be one at which it is better to simply press the fire alarm and call it a night.

Sometimes these sorts of tastings – drinkings? – even produce crystal-clear flavour-memories of wines about which we can know, on a technical level, absolutely nothing. Yet down they go, into the archives, learnt, fully-rendered. As Miles Davis famously replied to recording engineer Bob Weinstock when he asked the name of the next piece the band were going to record, “I’ll play it first, and tell you what it is later”.

And so it is for wine knowledge. There’s all the time in the world to study maps, winemaking techniques and vintages (and worthwhile it is, too). But, as the red trousers and natty wine t-shirts know as they send out their call-signs, there’s less time to find the people we need for the real work. The kind of learning that doesn’t feel like learning at all.

Photo by Dmitry Ratushny on Unsplash

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