Telling It Straight, Keeping It Simple

This diatribe will be a two-headed monster about a couple of items that I think others have been thinking about as much as I have. Then again, I don’t have much else to do but ponder matters as it seems my action mode has slipped into neutral.

The two topics, unrelated except that they both refer to adult beverages, are the use of wine terms and the recent trend towards enormously complicated cocktails. See, I told you my pondering mechanism was in overdrive.

First, wine terms. Wine is a complicated item to describe, but it falls to just about every wine drinker to put into words those emotions and experiences that we enjoy through our senses, mostly those senses dealing with the nose and the mouth.

Words are tough, and the long-ago song lyric, “It’s like trying to tell a stranger ‘bout rock and roll,” states the dilemma perfectly. But words are what we have to communicate, so maybe the clarification of a few terms is in order.

Two terms, “acidic” and “acetic,” are crazy-close-together (go ahead, sound them out loud) and mean sort of the same thing but not in the same direction. “Acetic” is a sensation a wine picks up when it is not in good order. The wine becomes vinegary and quite unpleasant.  “Acidic” is a good thing and provides important structure to a wine, evidencing itself on the back of the palate. A wine’s acidity supports its structure, allowing you to enjoy the wine with food. Yet you know that too much of a good thing … OK, point made.

“Grapey” and “corky” sound like they should work nicely because wine is made from grapes and is usually sealed with a cork. Both are very bad things. “Grapey” means the wine presents no or low character and is merely a gob of sweet fruit flavors. “Corky” means that the little bacteria that are naturally present in the crevasses in a cork have infected the wine, giving the wine a wet cardboard bouquet and flavor. Neither descriptor is a compliment to the wine. 

“Forward” is good. “Backward” is bad. A wine that is forward means that the better things about the wine are coming at you in force: fresh, bright fruit; good structure on your tongue; pleasant mouth-feel. And in the end, the acids are kicking in, providing another pay-attention-to-me moment. “Backward” is the term used on wines that are not quite in balance. Usually applied to young wines, backward can translate into too much of an acceptable thing in one place. Sometimes the alcohol is prominent; sometimes it’s the acid. But something is not playing well in the sandbox with the other characters.

“Lush” and “flabby” would seem like one side of the same coin. They are polar opposite. “Lush” means the fruit is just oozing from the wine, coating your palate with pleasant experiences, and the fun just keeps coming and coming, even after the wine has left your mouth. “Flabby” means no structure, no importance and no fun. Many low-cost wines are flabby because that is what the winemaker can easily deliver at a low price. Plenty of ripened fruit and no structure work together to give you … what? Not much pleasure.

“Oaky” and “smoky” have the makings of a great barbecue, but in wine, not so much. “Oaky” is really a derogatory term, usually suggesting that something in the vinification process did not come through as planned, and so the winemaker decided to leave the wine longer than usual in new oak barrels to mask a fatal flaw. Wine is not about biting into trees but rather about enjoying grapes.

Judicious use of oak is important to wine, but it is a background flavor. If you can taste oak in a wine, that’s not good.

“Smoky” actually can be a good thing, unless the sensation is like Liquid Smoke, which is badly artificial and way too strong. That being said, some fine wines from the Côte-Rôtie in France possess an enchanting smoky character –– not too much but just right.

Here’s the deal: First of all, learn your palate. Learn about flavors and scents. Know where salty, sweet, bitter and sour hit you on the tongue. Drink lots of wine (that’s the joy of learning about wine), and think about what is going on in your nose and in your mouth.

Then pick up on a few terms that most wine drinkers use and are in agreement on. Here you will learn the fine art of communicating about sensory experiences. That’s fun and is cause for endless conversation.

Part Two: Keeping It Simple.
At one point in the movie Amadeus, the Austrian emperor, Joseph, commissioned Wolfgang Mozart to compose an opera. Upon hearing the music, the emperor was dismayed.

“There are too many notes,” the emperor says. “The human ear can only hear so many notes before it is overwhelmed. And your piece, Herr Mozart, has too many notes.”

I am beginning to understand that inane logic when it comes to cocktails.

It is a thrilling time for the Cocktail Culture. We have finally come to the understanding that fresh is good, machines are bad, and handmade is the only way to go. Cocktails today are excellent, with the finest ingredients, no limit to what can work and talented professionals dedicated to their craft at the helm.

But lately, I have been experiencing a wave of cocktails that have, simply, too many ingredients –– or at least too many ingredients for me to fully appreciate.

The other night a lovely and talented mixologist made an incredible holiday drink, a really delightful concoction. Then she proceeded to top her creation by grating fresh nutmeg into the mix. ‘Twas an Ingredient Too Far.

The nutmeg was pungent and delightful, as it should have been, freshly grated and all. But it was not necessary. It completely masked the brightness of the cocktail. In fact, that was about all you could taste, the nutmeg.

I have no idea how many ingredients in a cocktail are enough. Of course, it varies. But there should be a rule of thumb that once you get to X ingredients, stop. Consider carefully the next ingredient you add.

Maybe the palate is limited and can only decipher so many ingredients. At some point, the mixologist goes right by a good drink and completes one that is mediocre.

The Emperor Joseph would understand.

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