It doesn’t take much exposure to wine to understand, then be overwhelmed by, its astounding, infinite variability. To know wine in its entirety is impossible, but the urge to experience its endless beauty is strong. We chase a constantly expanding repertoire of styles in a — perhaps laudable, perhaps gluttonous — attempt to gauge wine’s true scope. It’s easy to lose track of the aesthetics of wine amidst sensory (not to mention marketing) overload. All of a sudden, we’re talking more about what a wine represents than what it is.
On a fundamental level, wine never happens until it’s drunk, so it’s worth putting that relationship back at the centre of wine appreciation. I’m not playing a postmodern game and suggesting a wine literally doesn’t exist until it is consumed. Rather, a bottle of wine isn’t complete if it’s never tasted. Until that moment, it is just liquid potential – an idea, a “maybe.” The ideas may be interesting or fraudulent, novel or hackneyed, but without tasting, they remain untested.
And that’s true of each bottle, even if one is familiar with other bottles of the same wine. Wine drunk at one moment will be different from at any other moment, its chemistry changed, its context shifted. The only chance we get to capture the beauty within a bottle is at the moment of consumption. If you believe this, as I do, then the idea of a trophy wine, one never intended to be drunk, is an obscenity. It makes a mockery of wine and its capacity to impart pleasure.
Ironically, we destroy wine in our attempt to appreciate it, which makes the drink even more tantalising. Unlike a beautiful painting, one can’t revisit a wine exactly as it was the first (or second, or third) time. The slight sadness I feel when I open a rare bottle is, I think, related to the fact that drinking a wine involves both the creation and the elimination of its beauty. If wine doesn’t exist until it is drunk, it only ever exists in that moment too. And when it’s gone, all we have left are our memories of it, subject to the same distortions and inaccuracies as our memories of loved ones who have died.
If a bottle of wine does have any sort of life beyond being drunk, it’s in the minds of those who were there. I’ve often wondered why I, and thousands of other wine lovers, are driven to write about the wines we love. Perhaps our notes are eulogies of a sort, reminders of what we liked and didn’t like, written in the knowledge that a bottle consumed can no longer speak for itself. All that’s left are those who remember how beautiful it really was.