Bruce Anderson

Turning wine into words

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Words, words, words. Over a couple of sessions, we drank a selection of serious wines, starting with a Cantemerle ’05. As everyone else thought it was delicious, it would have been curmudgeonly of me to say that although it had been open for a couple of hours, it would have benefited from another five years. So I abstained from curmudgeonliness. Even so, although 2005 is a great vintage, it needs longevity. We moved on to a wine I had never heard of, let alone tasted, but was ready: an ’06 Clos Louie, from Castillion in the Côtes de Bordeaux. Only in business since 2003, it has pre-phylloxera vines: 70 per cent merlot, 27 per cent cabernet franc and only a soupçon of cab sauv. Seriously good, seriously promising, it is not yet as expensive as it is bound to become.

Then to Burgundy: a 2009 Marsanny from Bruno Clair. Marsanny’s reputation is growing, partly because viniculture is improving and partly because it is good value when compared with greater names. Bruno Clair is an excellent grower, but we drank that wine in a club. When a third bottle was called for, we were informed we had just exhausted the stock — at the moment when the wine had reached perfect drinking pitch. In a world beset by chaos, it might seem self-indulgent to dwell too long on a minor frustration. But the tendency of wine to be drunk before it is quite ready is one of the piquant inconveniences of the human condition.

As the evenings moved on, the conversation became more ruminative. We began with the difficulty of using words to describe wine. There is a constant risk of sounding pretentious, but given the complexity of a good wine’s taste, it is hard to avoid an overindulgence in grace notes. On the nose, a lot of good Riesling has a strong hint of petrol. That might sound off-putting: not so. Equally, an empty glass of Haut-Brion can smell like an ashtray. There is a powerful odour of tobacco, which does the wine no harm at all. The nose is crucial in assessing a wine, and in general, if it smells as if you are under the bonnet of a motor car, something is seriously amiss. But petrol-head Riesling, fag-packet Graves: nothing wrong there.

We moved on to a broader consideration of language, especially in the context of the arts. Believers in old European high culture, we all held cultural relativism in contempt. There is a canon, which is sacrosanct. To deny the superiority of Rembrandt to pop art would be as absurd as to deny the superiority of Haut-Brion to Coca-Cola. But how do we prove it?

There is an analogy with religion. The mystics can proclaim their insights. At the other end of the theological spectrum, the churches’ most powerful intellects can deploy argument and reason. Yet mysticism will only convince those willing to be convinced. The language of mysticism is the music of unknowing. But intellect only offers a more rigorous form of unknowing. It cannot bring proof. Everything comes down to faith.

A first-year philosophy student would insist that this is equally true of our belief in the natural world. Most of us conduct our daily lives on the basis of the plain meaning of plain words. Dr Johnson, as so often, stood four-square as a defender of common sense. Asked what he thought of Bishop Berkeley’s idealistic philosophy, he replied: ‘I refute him thus, Sir’ — and kicked a stone with his boot. So was Dr Johnson’s boot the wisest of all epistemologists? No first-year philosophy undergraduate would agree.

Can we move beyond vexation to a conclusion? In the case of the arts, religion and philosophy, we must fall back on faith. Wine might be easier. In a recent catalogue, Messrs Berry Bros. came out with their equivalent of the Johnsonian boot. Forget all about the intricacies of oenology and ask yourself: does the wine taste good? There you have it: one problem solved.