This Is Your Brain On Wine
When it comes to wine appreciation, so little, perhaps nothing, is set in stone. This is true for the simple reason that no two brains are alike. The brain, that focal point for interpreting and translating what flows over our taste buds, is as unique as a fingerprint.
This was brought home once again upon drinking an oldish Sauterne the other night. The 1981 Rieussec is the product of a vintage in that French region that ranks for many as among the poorer in the past 30 years or so. According to many who rank vintages, the collection of Sauternes from 31 years ago was middling at best.
This wine, given a score of 86 points from Robert Parker, was considered the pinnacle of wines from that year and place by a man who has tasted too many Sauterne to begin to imagine. Only 86 points.
And I absolutely adored this wine, thinking it was extremely well balanced and a well ordered collection of honey, orange peel, brown sugar, and asian spice sitting on a viscous but not cloying foundation. Intense to a degree only, but still a wine that would be enjoyed twenty years from now.
Put alongside other Sauterne from other vintages, this 1981 Rieussec has a lot going against it. It would be neither as pure or intense as some older vintages. Nor would it be balanced as other examples of Sauterne both older and younger. It might get forgotten in a vertical tasting of Rieussec. At an auction of Sauternes from the past 40 years it likely would hold little interest among collectors.
And yet I found it among the best wines I've had in months…and I've had a lot of good wines in these past few months. But here's where we get back to the brain thing.
I don't know why it is, nor am I all that curious to know, but I do know this about my brain's reaction to wine:
1. I am extraordinarily partial to sweet wines
2. No matter how complex and intense, I am turned off by sweet wines that cloy
3. Sweet wine in every instance tastes better to me after drinking dry wine first
4. I'm close to incapable of properly evaluating wine quality outside of a comparison tasting.
5. My palate responds well to wines that have developed the symptoms of age.
When all these things combine, my brain lights up in some sort of cacophony of pleasure-related triggers and I smile and reach for more of the same.
I'm willing to bet that no two brains ever react identically to the same situation, though we may observe similar reactions. This is so crucial and so foundational in the realm of wine appreciation that I'm sure it goes a long way toward explaining the variety of wines that exist in the world, the deep and never ending trench that is filled up with words about wines, and the obsessive pursuit of new wines that so many people embark on all their lives.
The 1981 Rieussec was brought to my home by a young man who attended a small dinner party we hosted this weekend. He shows very good taste and thoughtfulness in many things, not the least of which is wine, women and manners. I don't know what he thought about the 1981 Rieussec he brought for us to drink. Before we could discuss our impressions, we ended up talking about the impact too much youthful exposure to steak has upon our adult palate and preferences. But I'm positive his thoughts on the bottle were somewhat different than mine. It's all about the brain.