I hear voices. That is to say that – when I am tasting wine – I sometimes (well, fairly often) hear voices coming from the wine. Which is different from hearing voices in my head telling me to “stay home and clean the guns today.” I just want to be clear on that.
So what voices do I hear?
Well, sometimes it’s a corporate spokesman and sometimes it is a farmer. Sometimes it is the strikingly beautiful pure tenor of a solitary winemaker and sometimes it is a chorus. Sometimes the chorus is tuned up and in sync but other times maybe the cracks are showing or it becomes elevator music (which brings me back to the corporate spokesman).
Sometimes I hear the grape variety or varieties. A single variety can be interesting but add a couple of back up singers (think “Cabernet Sauvignon and the Bordeaux Babes”) and things can hop. And sometimes a duet (Sauvignon and Semillon) or a trio (Grenache-Syrah-Mourvedre aka GSM) is the top of the scene. When GSM plays at the Chateauneuf, all their local buds sit in but after Counoise and Cinsault in the harmony, and maybe Bourboulenc, they kind of all fade in together.
Sometimes the very earth talks. Limestone speaks with an elegant reserve. Clay offers more fruit and freshness. Slate gives a thrilling trill. Quartz combines the thrill with a fun sort of elegance. Gravel speaks with a dusty authority. Sand is all about fruit and elegance.
Sometimes it is technique talking. Do I hear the tenor of punch-down or the quiet bass of pump-over? Do I hear the bubble and hiss of barrel fermentation or the whisper of a temperature controlled tank?
Sometimes the very barrels speak, maybe with a French accent or an American twang or even the exotic tones of Hungarian oak. The yeast can whisper and even slip into a harmony. Even the cellar can talk, but only rarely and I really have to listen.
Most of these are good voices but sometimes the leather-jacketed, gum-smacking flaws intrude with the strident, discordant voices of TCA and oxidation and barnyard.
When do I hear these voices? Usually only when I’m tasting or drinking from proper glasses in a quiet situation where I can pay attention to the wine. But sometimes they are so loud and insistent that they can intrude into Syrah in a red Solo cup at a tailgate. Not all wines speak and not every wine that speaks has anything to say that I want to hear.
What do their voices say? Most often, they try to tell me where they are from – but I don’t always understand. They tell me about who owns the vineyard and who made the wine, what kind of grapes they used, and how they were grown. Sometimes they talk about the weather but less often than you might think. They speak of how the wine was made and aged and even bottled. If I really listen, they can tell me where the wine was made (as opposed to where the grapes were grown)
When I taste Leoville Poyferre, I hear the male rhythm of the Cuvelier men (the owners) acting as the bass for the soaring freshness of the female winemaker. I hear Cabernet Sauvignon coaxed into letting loose while Merlot and Franc (and, is that Petite Verdot?) sing along. I hear French oak and malo-lactic in barrels adding layers below the melody. Whispering through it all, I hear the gravel and freshness of St. Julien. The song of Poyferre is different from its neighbors but many of the notes are the same. It is more exuberant than Leoville las Cases and somehow more modern than Leoville Barton with whom it shares the most in common.
When I taste a Mugneret Gibourg Chambolle Musigny les Feusselottes, the close harmony of the winemaker-owner sisters interweaves with the theme of Pinot Noir in its uniform diversity along with the limestone exuberant (is it from Chambolle or from the ladies?) elegance along with the subtle, supple oak. Here, even the cellar, wet and cool and coated in a unique flora, speaks. Its voice is quiet and easy to miss amongst the joyous harmony of the other elements but like a haunting fiddle track, its depth and nuance and informs the rest of the parts.
When I taste a Lancelot Royer Cuvee des Chevalier Blanc de Blancs Brut Grand Cru Champagne from the town of Cramant, I am thrilled with the violin (almost fiddle in its joy) solo of Chardonnay from a vintage paired the string orchestra of the long-aged, fractionally-blended reserve wines along with the quiet brass (more French horns and trombones than trumpets) of the cellar and time. The vivid specificity of place (Cramant) comes through as a sort of interwoven percussion track keeping everything in focus. Intermixing with all that is the stately country charm, almost a reel, of the family owner/grape-grower/winemakers.
With a Donnhoff Estate Riesling, it is the firm, focused, controlled voice of Riesling that carries the melody even as the deeper notes of sand and quartz and even slate roll like the bottom end of the piano and the almost aristocratic voice of the owner provides the middle. Still, there is purity, precision, and joy here that come both from the owner and the confluence of grape and exposure, terroir and technique. The fewer elements combine for a different kind of complexity. These and other voices are there but sometimes a seemingly important voice (such as technique) is not evident. Nevertheless, it may be adding to the richness of the wine’s sound with out singing loud enough to be detected. Of course, sometimes the perfect blending of many voices along with all the voices of the orchestra (think fourth movement of Beethoven’s Ninth) is the whole point.
These wines and many others speak and do so with beauty – but it is not always so.
Some wines have the corporate monotone of the committee that can’t or won’t become a choir. Rather it is more of a multi-voice corporate rap but without any edge or other redeeming value. In some wines the earth speaks, not with elegance or freshness but as dense black dirt or as bottomless, wet, black clay that is more about, well, dirt than terroir or place. Sometimes the winemaker tries but the voice breaks and the wine is somehow flawed. Some wines try to blend too many different grapes or too many different places or too many disparate techniques or … and the sound gets muddied and indistinct. There is no joy in hearing these wines but they do speak and in their speaking and even singing, they still tell us about themselves.
Wine has so much to say if only we learn to hear the voices. Are you listening?