PARSING is a grammatical term that has moved over into the computer world where it is applied to machine language and data analysis. From there it has passed into other fields including wine. “Parsing a wine” refers to looking critically at a wine to understand as much as possible where the grapes were grown and how it was made (the words and punctuation and grammar) based on how it tastes. And the reverse; looking at technical information – where it is from and how it was made – to predict how a wine will taste just as we read a sentence (symbols on a page) and discern its meaning. Both the analytical and predictive sides are useful to both wine professionals and consumers.
Any wine professional with aspirations for any of the now in vogue certifications offered by the Wine and Spirits Education Trust (WSET), the various sommelier organizations or even the Society of Wine Educators practices blind tasting, the object of which is to taste an unknown wine and accurately deduce its identity. It’s expression of minerality and level of ripeness may point to a place in the world. The character of the fruit and some of the winemaking tells (to use a poker term) as well as the overall style of the wine may confirm (or at least lend credence to) that place.
If I taste a leaner, lighter-colored (red rather than purple), more freshly-balanced wine with a strong limestone mineral expression and red cherry fruit accented with cola, violet, and maybe some spice, I hope that I will mentally place that wine in Burgundy’s Cote d’Or. By the same token, a balanced, fresh and lively, not-too-high-alcohol, purple-red colored, fuller-bodied wine offering a mix of red and black fruit with notes of tobacco leaf, cedar, and dusty gravel should make me think of the northern part (St. Julien, Pauillac, maybe St. Estephe) of Bordeaux’s Haut Medoc.
If the wine is good enough and its specificity of place comes through, it can be localized pretty accurately by an astute and experienced taster. For any of this to work, typicity has to come into play. The wine must be recognizably typical of the wines of that place. And the taster must know what wines of that place taste like. Which means the taster must have tasted (or better drunk) not just some St. Julien enough St. Julien from enough different chateaux and from enough different vintages to know how St. Julien tastes – which is to say he must know the typicity of St. Julien – and how that typicity differs from the typicity of Pauillac which is the next appellation to the north. Looking at the wines of St. Julien and Pauillac, my friend Carol Lane might say “They’re exactly the same, only different.” And she’d be right.
The object of blind tasting as taught and practiced by the certifying organizations is to be as accurate as possible about a wine is without going past the point of accuracy. So, if the wine you’re tasting blind is Ch. Leoville Barton and you say it is “a really fine St. Julien, maybe one of the three Leovilles …”, you are correct. But if you guess the wine to be Ch. Leoville Poyferre, you have gone too far and are now wrong. Not far wrong but still wrong. While the same skills come into play, the object of parsing a wine is a bit different than blind tasting in that, in parsing, we are looking not for identification of the wine but rather to identify the materials and techniques that produced the sensory symphony we are experiencing and (ideally) want to experience again, perhaps with some minor variations.
Why is that important? If we know where the grapes were grown and how the wine was made (the data points) in the various cases of the wines we like best, we can then look for other wines from the same or similar conditions (with like data points) and have a higher likelihood that we will like them as well. So parsing analytically means that we can begin to go the other direction, we can begin to predict, based on data, which wines we are likely to like.
In parsing predictively, we start not with the wine but with some or hopefully a lot of information about the wine. We might know where it is from, the blend of grapes used to make it, how the grapes were selected and sorted and whether any or what percent were crushed before going into what sort of tank for fermentation, the extractive and cap management techniques used, the time in the tank, the time in oak barrels, where the oak was grown, how long it was dried before it was coopered into a barrel (and maybe by whom), what percentage of the barrels were new, how long it was in barrel, and whether it was fined, filtered, or cold stabilized before bottling. We know who owns the property, who is the vineyard manager (or vigneron), who is the winemaker, and who is the consultant. If we know all of this, we know almost everything about the wine but how it tastes and the point of all this is that we now have a pretty good idea how the wine will taste. Of course we still have to taste the wine, not so much to confirm or discredit our prediction (which of course tasting will do) but more to begin to actually enjoy the sensory experience, the sensory symphony of the wine.
Learning to parse the wines we most enjoy drinking gives us the foundation from which to parse data points to make a prediction which makes it more likely that we will choose other wines we will most likely enjoy drinking. And enjoying more wine more is the object of the whole exercise. As we get better at looking at data and figuring out a likely preference for the resulting wine, we can then apply price criteria. If we like Ch. Ducru Beaucaillou but can’t afford it, maybe we find that we should try the lower-priced Ch. Hortevie or Ch. du Glana, both of which offer many of the dame data points as Ducru Beaucaillou. Or, if we like Ch. du Glana and we want to see what the next step (and it’s a pretty big step) up is, we may splurge on a special occasion bottle of Ch. Ducru Beaucaillou because all of du Glana’s data points are their and then some. Parsing wine helps us find the path to new experiences that we are more (maybe most) likely to enjoy.
While enjoying wine is at least the primary object of tasting and learning about wine, it must be noted that there is (that I know of) no other thing that we experience on the sensory level that also so engages our intellect as wine. Our analysis of wine actually becomes part of our enjoyment and appreciation of wine. Music may come closest but while hearing music may cause me to analyze the music but that critical act causes me, at least momentarily, to step away from my enjoyment (listening to) of the music. (Like trying to make out the lyric in the chorus of Manfred Mann’s Blinded by the Light.*) Eating a steak doesn’t make me wonder where the steer was raised, when it was slaughtered, how long and at what temperature the meat was aged, and where the cowboy and the meat cutter learned their craft. Eating bread – even fine artisanal bread – doesn’t make me want to know here the grain was grown or water sourced or if the baker favors … well you get the idea. But wine does. Wine – at least really good wine – engages us in a way that invites critical analysis, that encourages exploration. So wine satisfies us in the drinking of it and also has the capacity to satisfy or at least stimulate something esthetic or even intellectual inside us.
*“… revved up like a deuce, another runner in the night.” Really? Yes, really. So there it is … but you still have to make sense of it – which may be more frustrating than fun.