Book Reviews: A Hedgehog and a Fox Walk into a Wine Bar …

So a hedgehog and a fox walk into a bar and they naturally fall into a debate about wine.

The clever fox, as anyone who has studied Isaiah Berlin’s famous essay will remember, knows many things and sees wine in terms of its complex contradictions. The hedgehog knows one big thing and returns to that again and again. The conversation ebbs and flows and many insights are revealed as the glasses are drained and refilled.

That’s the way I imagined this book review column developing although, as you will see, the plan breaks down a bit (for the better, I think) in the end.

The Fox: 50 Shades of Red

The fox in my story is Jamie Goode, the respected wine authority who frequently draws upon his science background to help us analyze and understand the world of wine. That’s what he did in his 2016 book I Taste Red: The Science of Wine Tasting.  The literature on sensory science is broad and deep and Goode does what he does better than just about anyone — he makes the science clear and applies it to questions that wine enthusiasts will find interesting and important.

The title of the book — I Taste Red — teases the reader a bit. How can you taste Red? Red is a color, not a flavor. How can that be? But taste is pretty complicated (a foxy kind of thing) and, while we assume that it is all about what goes on in your mouth, sipping and slurping, the brain actually uses a lot of clues to come up with what we think of as flavor.

Sue and I have experienced this in simple but memorable terms on a couple of occasions. We put clothes-pin devices on our noses during a multi-sensory perception demonstration at The Shard in London for Wine Vision 2014, for example, and popped jelly beans into our mouths. Nothing. No taste whatsoever. Then we removed the pins and suddenly flavor overwhelmed us. Where did that come from?

On another occasion we listened to music selected by post-modern winemaking guru Clark Smith. He switched tunes while we were tasting a particular Chardonnay and the flavor of the wine changed in our mouths from sweet to bitter. Incredible. I guess the part of the brain in charge of tasting wine overlaps with the part that enjoys music and sometimes they work in harmony but other times (like this one) dissonance erupts.

Topics covered in Goode’s book include wine and the brain, wine flavor chemistry, individual differences in flavor perception, and why we like the wines we like. He even analyzes the language of wine to see if what we say about wine affects what we think and what we taste — and if cultural differences enter into the picture. This chapter reminds me of my newspaper editor friend David who, upon tasting a particularly nice wine, complained that he couldn’t fully appreciate it until he developed a richer vocabulary.

So the science of taste is pretty complicated and interesting and I recommend Jamie Goode’s book to anyone who wants to know more about it. Which brings me to the hedgehog in this story, who is Nick Jackson MW, author of the new book Beyond Flavour: The Indispensable Handbook for Blind Wine Tasting.

The Hedgehog: To Flavour … and Beyond!

Nick Jackson worked very hard to prepare for the blind tasting part of the Master of Wine exams, but he was unhappy about his progress. He was pretty good at getting the right answer, he tells us, but he wasn’t confident. He couldn’t shake the sense that he was often just guessing. Flavor was his guide and, as the fox knows, flavor is not a simple reliable thing. But what else is there to serve as a guide in identifying wines?

His ah-ha! moment came when he realized that tannins (for red wines) and acidity (for whites) were fundamental building blocks. White wines can be known by their level of acidity, for example, the type of acidity, and the shape of the acidity. Chenin Blanc, for example, has high, bracing acidity with a crescendo shape. Crescendo! Think about that.

Chardonnay, on the other hand, has a more linear acidity structure — it remains the same during the act of tasting, pulling the fruit forward with it. Sauvignon Blanc, on the other hand, has jagged acidity.  Think about your experiences tasting these wines. Do these descriptions make sense? Jackson provides similar analysis for tannins in red wine. Structure, in Jackson’s able hands, is a tool that reveals important wine traits — grape variety, region of origin, even vintage, with special sections on sparkling, sweet, fortified, rosé, and orange wine.

Jackson’s book is intended as a guide for wine enthusiasts who are studying for blind-tasting exams like those in the Masters of Wine program. That would seem like a pretty narrow audience, but a peek at the book’s Amazon.com page reveals strong high sales ratings and more than four dozen reader recommendation. Maybe the world of people who need to identify wines in a blind tasting situation is bigger than I thought.

Or maybe there is another reason this book is so popular. I find the focus on structure instructive and that it adds to my enjoyment of wine. I rarely taste wines blind, but I always like to think about them and acid/tannin structure adds a new dimension.

Contradictions?

I said at the beginning that the fox and hedgehog dichotomy doesn’t completely hold here and it is true. I’m not disappointed, however, because that’s actually an important point in Isaiah Berlin’s original essay. While Jamie Goode tells us all the different perspectives that science reveals about wine taste, in the end he has some doubts. All these factors are there, he says, but isn’t a person’s taste  ultimately a single thing? Does it really help to break down taste into so many pieces when the actual experience of wine is or should be a harmonious whole? The fox theorist is drawn haunted by a hedgehog ideal.

Jackson makes a convincing case for his focus on structure and his students, many of whom are studying for the MW exam, benefit and sing his praises. But, towards the end of the book, he moves beyond identifying a wine to assessing wine quality. Is this wine good? Excellent? Great? He tells us that many students struggle with moving from objective to subjective. It is a more complicated issue that needs to be approached in a different way.

A hedgehog and a fox walk into a bar and come out a few hours later understanding more than  you might guess about wine … and themselves.

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