Matt Kramer has written a delightful, little book that in a few pages provides an excellent treatise on the art of wine tasting. It’s a book every serious wine drinker should read. Kramer has always been one of my favorite wine writers. His books and articles always provide interesting insights on the world of wine, and this one is no different. It is a book addressed to the writers and readers of wine reviews, a fairly large audience.
The subtitle of Kramer’s book is “the seven essential words.” These are what he sees as the most important variables in evaluating a wine: insight, harmony, texture, layers, finesse, surprise, and nuance. The book argues in defense of his choice of these particular words and in so doing explains why these are the most important criteria to use in wine tasting. An underlying theme of the book is that most the wine reviews written today are not particularly informative or useful.
One would find little disagreement among professional tasters with the criteria Kramer has laid out, especially if one reads his definitions, explanations, and caveats of those seven words. However, they pose a challenge to those who would like to opine on wine. It’s easy for anyone to taste a wine, describe the flavors, and say they like it or not. That’s what most people do. But understanding, much less assessing, harmony and finesse and the rest of Kramer’s seven words requires both experience and knowledge.
Perhaps the most difficult of Kramer’s criteria is insight. He cites his own example of having published an entire book on Burgundy before an important insight came to him about the wines he had tasted. Insight not only comes on its own time, it also requires that one develop a familiarity with the grape, the terroir, and the winemakers, a familiarity that only comes with travel, visiting vineyards and cellars and having extended conversations about viticulture, enology and the wines. Very few of us have that kind of opportunity, and many that do may lack the open mind required for insight. Kramer’s writing, of course, is often full of insight, which is probably why he includes it as one of his essential wine words.
Other of Kramer’s seven words are easier to put into practice, but mastering them also requires experience tasting wine of a particular variety and place of origin. It’s something wine professionals are expected to do, but few consumers have the opportunity and financial resources required. Even many of the tasting opportunities offered to the trade, the exhibitions where people stand around tables quickly swilling and spitting, fail to offer the contemplative environment required to assess a wine.
As Kramer recognizes, the modern tasting note with its descriptors and point scores serves a purpose. Busy consumers need information to make their purchases, and a professional wine critic offers an evaluation at least as objective as that of the average wine merchant, of whom few consumers these days have ready access.
The lesson Matt Kramer has for those of us who write about wine is to be more thoughtful when evaluating a wine. That may mean that wine publications, which regularly tout the hundreds of wines they review, begin publishing fewer but better reviews. And the lesson for those who read wine reviews is perhaps to go beyond the reviews, become more introspective and knowledgeable about the wines they drink, and, as suggested by Kramer, develop a vocabulary about wine that is as layered and nuanced as the wines themselves.
Matt Kramer (2015) True Taste: The Seven Essential Wine Words, Cider Mill Press, Kennebunkport ME