Best in Show (March 23, 2016)
Amazing what you can learn from watching dogs on television. I tuned into the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show earlier this year. They were transmitting the New York finals, during which a lone judge was tasked with choosing "Best in Show."
All the competing dogs were magnificent. The seven finalists included a puli, a whippet, a ridiculous white toy poodle that looked like a four-legged powder puff, a French bulldog, a brittany, a Doberman pinscher and the ultimate winner, a black Scottish terrier named Sadie.
I was curious as to how the earlier judges had whittled down the 2,500 entries representing 173 breeds to these seven canines and why Sadie came out as top dog. All the dogs in the show looked great to me but the judge was searching for attributes that I had no expertise in assessing – how the dogs stood, how they moved, as well as noting their physique and their personality.
Watching the program, it occurred to me that the same process is involved with judging wines. Wine writers, like dog show judges, are looking for characteristics that conform to a mental model as to what the wine should look, smell and taste like. In Ulysses, James Joyce wrote, "Horseness is the whatness of allhorse." This Aristotelian concept of the quintessential nature of a thing is what the serious student of wine brings to bear when judging a given wine, simply by asking the question "Is the wine varietally correct and does it conform to your expectations of how that particular variety performs in a specific terroir?"
One's personal taste is, of course, subjective. You may not enjoy the flavour of Sauvignon Blanc or Pinotage, for example, so you just avoid them. But within the category of Sauvignons and Pinotages there are the good, the bad and the ugly. And the wine professional has to put aside his or her personal preferences when it comes to assessing a product. For my part I would rather drink the glue they use to stick on wine labels than have to swallow a glass of sparkling Shiraz; but then, that's me. (Please don't share this intelligence with my Aussie friends.) However, I will put aside my prejudice when it comes to determining the quality of the sparkling Shiraz put before me.
The question is, "How do you determine objectively if a specific wine is good or not, even if you wouldn't order it in a restaurant?"
First of all the wine has to be "well made." This is a broad descriptor, which has more to do with negative concepts: Is it free from flaws? Is its colour true; is its nose clean? Are the flavours agreeable and is the finish long? When you order a wine in a restaurant you are about to make a financial contract with the management and it's in your best interest to make sure that the bottle in question is sound before you commit to forking out for it. That's why the waiter pours you a taste. Your first response is to look for faults. Are there foreign bodies floating around in it? Does it smell like your son's hockey bag? (A good idea is to sniff the butt end of the cork that the server has just removed. Since it has been in contact with the wine during its life in the bottle it will have picked up any off odours like 2,4,6,tri-chloroanisole – cork taint that smells like a swampy basement.) Or does the wine taste like lemon juice with a splash of vodka? Once you have determined that the colour, the bouquet and the taste are satisfactory then you can start praising the wine's virtues.
But when you have to write professionally about a wine you must deconstruct it, breaking down its components and then seeing how and if they come together. The ultimate virtue of a wine is balance – the harmony of fruit, acidity, alcohol, tannins and (if barrel-fermented or barrel-aged) oak. The greatest compliment I can pay a wine is to say that it's seamless. All of its parts work together. This will ensure that the wine has elegance and finesse. The next point of praise is length: how long the flavour lasts in the mouth once you've swallowed it. The French, bless them, have even devised a measurement to calibrate how long the flavour lasts in the mouth. It's called a caudalie, a term derived from the Latin word cauda (tail). One caudalie represents one second. A fine wine can have a finish that lasts up to 10 caudalies, or even longer.
For me, the added marker for quality is if the bouquet and taste of a wine have a floral grace note.
Those winning dogs, the best of their breed, no doubt had the harmony of form and their personality was the floral note that I look for in great wines. But on a purely personal level none of those canines could hold a candle to my eleven-year-old wheaten terrier – Pinot the Wonder Dog. And that's where the subjectivity in pets and wines comes in.