Many too ask me how I manage to understand a wine, if it is even possible, or if it is some kind of natural gift, or a supernatural talent, or the fruit of years and years of experience. Leaving modesty aside, my response will amaze you: I myself have no idea how I manage it!
Certainly, experience does help, without a doubt, and without experience, what is at the outset an inspiration, a natural inclination, would perforce remain in that rather primitive and unformed state. But I maintain that there are things that go beyond techniques and that practical competency that one can acquire over time, and knowing how to listen to wine is one of those things.
This is not a type of listening that begins with opening one’s ears, nor does rely on a special gift that rewards those who have “more gifted” taste buds. Managing to listen to a wine depends to a great degree on our ability to know how to open ourselves to emotions, a quality that helps us to achieve a symbiosis with the wine we are tasting. The rest, I swear, will come of its own.
Today, the way things are going, one hears so much talk about a return to rationality, to the concrete, and at the same time we are urged to strictly control our emotions, to let our senses be. Well, if one wants to understand wine to its very fullest, I am sorry for the rational fanatics, but one cannot cut oneself off from the emotions and the senses.
Aristotle placed sensation on the first step of the ladder for reaching knowledge; for the Greek philosopher, the human mind, without experience given it by the senses, would be a tabula rasa.
I like to apply this same concept to the knowledge of wine as well.
It is certainly not by chance that my journey of discovery always involves the exploration, first by the senses and only then by the mind, of those two absolutely indispensible factors for making a quality wine, character and terroir.
Those who think that they can dispense with these are sadly mistaken.
And those who think that these two qualities can be created and quickly grafted, as it were, onto any grape variety are committing an even bigger mistake.
The Italian peninsula is renowned for its tradition of winegrowing, going back into the mists of time, and it is precisely this characteristic that gives value to its wines. Why then should someone obstinately construct wine in an artificial fashion, trying to give it, in the shortest time possible, an unnatural history and identity that can never belong to it, and which other wines have acquired along the course of centuries?
Faced with this wrenching of nature, the damage to our tradition is enormous, and the worst consequence is the inability to listen to a wine of this kind. These are precisely the wines that not even I, considered among the best sommeliers in the world, can manage to interpret, because they are artificially constructed, and the consequence is that the barrique confuses your brain and masks the true identity of the growing area.
Wine should, however, be like the earth: authentic, genuine, and original.
To give just one example: if in Montalcino the sangiovese grape flourishes, then why plant cabernet sauvignon or shiraz there? Italy is the country with the highest number of indigenous grape varieties, which amount to tradition, identity, emotion, and sense of terroir.
These are the fundamental concepts that will then allow us to interpret a wine, capture its emanations, grasp its deepest and most intimate qualities, in order to truly identify it and to appreciate it to the fullest.
I am opposed to subjecting wine to the vicissitudes of fashion; fashions come and go, and lack essence and permanence, over against class, breed, and elegance. Nonetheless, we can perceive an important tendency currently in the wine world, which seems to be increasingly imposing itself on today’s society: “everything back!” might be a suitable motto for this trend.
Indigenous grapes are being re-discovered, and new efforts are being poured into developing wines such as Prosecco, Lambrusco, and Sangiovese, which over past decades were often left in the shadow of the so-called important wines. In a word, Italy’s historical grapes have become stars on the eno-gastronomic stage these last few years.
It is incumbent upon us Italians to work as a team, as I always like to say, to promote that which already possesses, in itself, a historical importance that is unique in the world, and for which everyone envies us.
Listening to wine may be exclusive but it is not elitist: everyone can listen to wine, and we all should love it, treasure it, cherish the culture around it. The important thing, though, is that during your dialogue with it, bring to it your senses: be overcome, this is the trick.
The right relationship between the brain and the heart is not difficult to establish, while you listen to a wine: focus your sight upon the colours and their intensity, thrust your nose into the glass in search of the aromas and fragrances, of the scents of the earth and nature that you probably experienced as a child, still waiting for you in the depths of your memory, taste it with enthusiasm (though not too deeply!), so that all of your taste buds enjoy contact with the wine.
And lastly, fill your heart with wine and let it suggest to your brain the most suitable words for description.