DOES wine have personality? It's a question that was raised recently in Neal Martin's Wine Journal (which can be found on Robert Parker's subscription only website) and evoked some thoughts and memories of bottles tasted.
First a definition or at least some notion of 'personality'. The Oxford English Dictionary defines personality as 'being a person; personal existence or identity; distinctive personal character'.
The implication is that each wine should have a distinctive personal identity by which it is recognisable when you meet it next time.
What contributes to this personal identity or character? Undoubtedly it has to do with aroma and taste. Wine colour is too widely shared to be personal to a particular wine.
Serena Sutcliffe in her seminar at World Gourmet Summit 2007 listed the following criteria of what makes a great wine:
- The wine must have personality
- It must have a beginning, middle and a finish.
- And was the grower successful in achieving the result he wanted with this wine?
It is often helpful to define a subject by describing what it is NOT. What kind of wines do NOT have personality? I would put in this group the face-less wines - those wines which are made with the same commercial efficiency and profit motive as Coca-Cola.
There are masses of wines which are made for the retail shelves of supermarkets and wine superstores. Those which are plonk, release from the winery (more accurately a factory) at two to three euros (S$4.15 to S$6.23).
Above this, there are the 'branded' wines made to a defined house-style. They may have a stated vintage so as to give them that little edge of superiority. They are mass produced meant for the mass market. You could call them the face-less ones! But the point is that they are recognisable after a fashion, but not memorable.
There is a third group, those wines which carry 'labels' but are made with a definite objective - to score 90 points at least. The producers know what appeals, what does not, and they cater to these tastes, whether consciously or subconsciously.
Do these have personality? The best answer to that is to taste a bunch of them blind, and see if one can distinguish sufficiently clearly between them. There will be slight differences between them, but it would be difficult to put a place, or winery name to them.
One could argue that on these grounds these wines have personalities, but that would be faceless ones. You might be able to put a general label 'New World' or 'Hot Climate' to them and it is unlikely that one could go further than that.
These wines serve a purpose. They are inexpensive or should be and here one would decry the high prices attached to some of them in order to give the impression that they are 'boutique' wines.
It is those which are honest enough to price themselves inexpensively or modestly so as to reach those who just want a decent wine at a decent price.
Having eliminated those who do not qualify (in my opinion) leaves those wines which are seriously and honestly made. Do all or should all of them have personality? If by personality one means could you recognise them again, the answer would be if their personalities are strong enough, if they have attributes that are exclusive to them.
I am reminded of the wines which I had the privilege of drinking two evenings ago and their personalities.
Echezeaux 1985, Domaine Romanee Conti
It was served blind except for the information that it was a burgundy. Here was a very fine and mature burgundy, you could tell from the nose alone. Colour was a limpid red with orange-brown tints. The nose was an exotic perfume of very ripe fruit - strawberries, over-ripe oranges, hints of mushrooms.
On the palate, very ripe fruit, delicate filigree texture with transparency of flavour, taste and aroma filling the mouth, long clean lingering finish. Would one recognise this wine again? More than likely. It has personality, and it sings to you.
What are the features of this personality? First the bouquet. Unmistakably burgundy, also very characteristic of the wines of Domaine Romanee Conti, especially the way the aroma in the mouth fans out like a peacock's tail (the oft-quoted attribute). As for the taste, the almost over-ripe fruit, and the delicacy.
Chateau La Mission Haut Brion 1975
Very dark colour showing maturity in colour. Very rich ripe fruit, blackcurrant and cassis, cedar wood and tobacco on the bouquet. Deeply flavoured, intensely concentrated fruit on the palate, very ripe cassis, flavours of coffee, chocolate and liquorice, fully mature but very fresh. The personality is unmistakable, strong, powerful and confident.
Chateau Mouton Rothschild 1982
Dark colour, more brown than the La Mission 1975. Pauillac character on the nose but not the refinement of a Lafite, nor the power of Latour. Lovely mature bouquet of cassis and cedar wood, medium-full body of very ripe fruit, engagingly complex, with flavours of blackcurrants, coffee, caramel and tobacco. Personality? Yes, and impressive too.
This bottle was more forward than I remembered it, possibly from bottle variation.
Puligny-Montrachet 1er Cru Les Referts 1992, Domaine Etienne Sauzet
Deep gold colour, rich very ripe fruit bouquet of very ripe tropical fruit, pineapple and bananas. Very sweet fruit on entry, medium body, good depth of flavour, but rather one-dimensional, lacking freshness and acidity. The personality is there, but not a strong one, indeed a bit dull and certainly not one that would make a long-lasting impression.
Not quite sure what happened to this wine, because it came from a highly-regarded wine maker, from a Premier Cru vineyard in one of the top white Burgundy villages, and from a great vintage 1992.
I am reminded here of Anne-Claude Leflaive's recent comments about the 1992 vintage. She is beginning to have some worries about the longevity of this vintage as she finds now that there may not be enough acidity.
The point is that any wine that is seriously and honestly made will have personality and character, and one is more likely to be carried away by those with strong and attractive personalities, but even those that are dull and almost nondescript may be remembered for just being that!