What makes a wine or a meal memorable? We talk about wines and foods being "unforgettable" and "the best I've ever had," but is that enough to make it memorable, to literally fix it in our memories?
I had a glass last week that got me thinking about wine and memory, and I came to the conclusion that many wines insert themselves in my memory using other memories as neurological shoehorns. It happened like this...
Most Tuesday nights I get together online with a group of fellow wine lovers to have a virtual tasting via @ProtocolWine. We meet virtually, via Twitter (details below), to share thoughts and ask questions of the winemakers, in this case the extraordinary family of people of Ferrari Winery who make sparkling wine in the Trento DOC, near the Italian Alps. While the wines could carry the Italian term Spumante, it is nothing at all like that most famous wine of the genre, Asti Spumante. That wine is slightly sweet and artificially carbonated. The wines of Cantine Ferrari are dry, and are made in the so-called classic method (also used in Champagne), with the bubbles infused in the wine through a second fermentation in the bottle. This approach is enshrined in the DOC regulation - Trento DOC is strictly for white and rosé sparkling wines produced in the classic method and made in Trentino.
Last Tuesday, the wine in the spotlight was a vintage blanc de blancs, an all-chardonnay wine from the 2007 vintage called Perlé. This is a particularly meaningful wine because it was Giulio Ferrari, founder of the winery, who first brought chardonnay to Trentino in 1900. Perlé is a terrific wine, notable firstly for its shimmering pale yellow gold color and fine bubbles. As soon as I started pouring the wine, a cloud of yeasty goodness billowed toward me, not the yeastiness of uncooked bread dough but the aroma of freshly baked brioche. Soon the yeastiness gave way to a profusion of aromas rose from the glass - now the bread is lightly grilled, there is a hint of lemon drop, a bit of bergamot (the citrus fruit beloved of perfumers whose peel flavors Earl Gray tea), a bit of honeydew melon.
And then came the apples and this is where it gets geeky. Chardonnay has a propensity for a green apple aroma, but in sparkling wines and especially Champagne, the secondary fermentation and bottle age often conjure aromas of red apples (more the skin than the flesh) or baked apple. But the apples I smelled in the Perlé were different, somewhere between red and green, between skin and fruit. The sensation was aromatic but not the sweet apple aroma like you find in cider.
It was an apple aroma I knew well from my boyhood in Vermont, the heart of New England apple country. When I was five or six I would climb apple trees with my friends and we would pull down the hard apples that hadn't ripened well. They were pitted and a bit forlorn looking, very different from the symmetrical fruit that is cultivated for modern markets and in which flavor takes a back seat to beauty. There was something else in my glass as well, a faint hint of honey in the background, another boyhood memory of dipping those hard under-ripe apples in fresh honey to sweeten them a bit. The aroma of honey was there in the wine as well. Acacia honey is not an unfamiliar note to the lover of blanc de blancs, but the melding of aroma and flavor with the flashback to a boy in a red flannel shirt climbing a tree in Vermont? That was new. And memorable.
When I teach wine classes I emphasize how important it is to make notes about wine. WSET, whose curriculum I teach, has a very carefully constructed regimen for tasting notes, and I insist students to use this as a guide, a starting point. I also suggest they add a note at the end that will help them remember the wine not as a mixture of chemicals but as a living thing. For anyone outside the wine trade, a tasting note is personal, it should help you remember what you liked and how you felt. And here, after having written thousands of tasting notes in my career, I was transported to how I felt when I was five years old. It got stranger too, as I caught a whiff of almond - not the sweet almond of marzipan, but that faint suggestion when I add a drop of almond extract to sliced apples when making a pie.
Talking with the winery team, I learned that Ferrari is dedicated to sustainable agriculture and they raise bees as part of their approach to balancing the environment in their vineyards. I joked that the bees must explain why I caught that hint of honey and they responded, "the best wines carry the flavors of vineyards - we consider it a victory when our wines taste like honey from our bees!" So, it makes perfect sense that they raise bees, and there is a honey note in their wine.
I was reminded of Proust and his aromatic madeleines, and I am happy with a tasting note that says simply, "Crisp, clean beautiful pale gold color with an appealing brioche aroma and hints of lemon drop, almond, honey, hazelnut and childhood apples." I could write a much more technical note, but in my private notebook, I will never forget the wine with a note like that - that makes it memorable to me. I think this is why I enjoy tasting with my younger colleagues. I appreciate the sharp crystalline palate of youth and their technical notes are keen and precise, but being older I have more memories. My favorite notes are perhaps less precise but richer, and in both our cases, our memories grow and our experience of a wine becomes more meaningful. We have memories, and memories form our future.
Want to join our Tuesday night get togethers? It's easy to eavesdrop - just log on to Twitter and search for the hashtag #WineStudio or search for @ProtocolWine. Despite the trade orientation, anyone can join in and the comments are fascinating - who knows, one might trigger a memory for you as well.