The Boston Phoenix
August 10 - 17, 2000


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Body language

Can a wine really be `orthogonal'?

by Thor Iverson

It was my first wine tasting. I was just developing a taste for wine, and the thought of actually assessing it in public was pretty intimidating. Nonetheless, I had dragged myself to a wine shop on a balmy Saturday afternoon, and my intense curiosity helped calm the anxiety. That is, until I came face to face with the Body. (And no, I'm not talking about the governor of Minnesota.)

The store's habit of printing up helpful guides to the day's wines, including tasting notes from the store manager, was invaluable to novices who, like me, lacked confident palates. "Cherries, mushrooms . . . " I read in the notes to the first wine, thinking: okay, I know what those words mean.

But then: " . . . this wine is round yet orthogonal." And then the guy next to me described the wine as "broad-shouldered." I began to wonder if I'd ever understand wine.

The jury's still out on that, but I did finally figure out what the word "round" means. It's part of a vocabulary used to describe one of the more esoteric aspects of wine: body. This isn't just another Gallic way to compare wine to a woman's form (get a French winemaker started on "legs," the tracks of wine that remain on the surface of a glass after you've swirled it, and you'll be treated to some rather fanciful digressions), but it's not exactly a rigorous science, either. Body may be a bit difficult to describe, but it has significant implications for the wine. In particular, it is the most important factor in matching wine to food.

Simply put, body describes the feel of a wine in the mouth. And just as skim milk might be described as light-bodied, whole milk as medium-bodied, and heavy cream as full-bodied, wines have a "weight" that can be sensed. In fact, after we've examined, smelled, and tasted a wine, body brings a fourth sense into play: our sense of touch. (Listening to wine remains, for now, something that will make people slide their chairs away from you.)

What we perceive as a wine's body is mostly the result of two things: the alcohol and the sum of the wine's flavors. As explained in the January 14 edition of "Uncorked," the higher the alcohol content, the weightier the palate impression. The intensity and character of flavors are a result of the microscopic solid stuff that makes it all the way from grape to glass. Add those two factors together, while setting aside the distractions of acidity, tannin, and sugar, and you have body.

The trouble starts when wine writers get fanciful with their body language. Terms like "mouth-filling," "fat," and "thin" are reasonably understandable, but "round," "angular," and "blocky" are definitely playing in metaphorical left field. It takes a little imagination to decipher this Euclidian gobbledygook, but a few glasses of wine always help lubricate the neurons.

And what does this all have to do with food? The conventional "white wine with fish and white meat, red wine with red meat" wisdom is seriously deficient. Does the same wine go with both poached river trout (a light dish) and a tuna steak in mushroom cream sauce (a heavy dish)? Does the same wine go with both pungent grilled steak and thin-sliced beef in a vegetable-laden stir-fry? No and no.

A better way to think about food and wine is: "light wine with light dishes, heavy wine with heavy dishes." It's true that whites are usually lighter than reds, but heavy whites (like gewürztraminer) are great matches for the big flavors of pork sausage, and light reds (like regular, non-single-vineyard Valpolicella) are just delicious with all but the most delicate of fish dishes. And besides, with this rule you don't have to decide whether pork is red meat or "the other white meat."

Of course, an obsession with body image can be taken too far. One self-consciously trendy wine magazine has replaced words like "thin" with goofy name-drops: "hips like Gwyneth Paltrow, with lips to match" is a typically useless descriptor. We're all for trashing stuffy wine nerdology here at "Uncorked," but come on.

Morgante 1998 Nero d'Avola ($12). A Sicilian beauty, bursting with strawberries and well-balanced. The "Don Antonio," at $26, is a reserve bottling with an intriguing herbal character and intense fruit and tannin. It should have a long life ahead. Both delicious wines, and great deals for the price.

Stonehaven 1997 Cabernet Sauvignon Limestone Coast ($15). Bargain-priced, this medium-bodied but somewhat monolithic Aussie red tastes like what would happen if some plum jelly fell into a vat of zinfandel. Nevertheless, it's tasty and has the potential to age two to five years, at which point it might be a little more expressive.

Columbia 1997 Chardonnay Yakima Valley "Wyckoff Vineyard" ($19). Finally, an American chardonnay I can recommend! (Mark your calendars, tell your grandkids.) Smells like crème fraîche and mushrooms, has an undercurrent of decaying leaves and white pepper, and tastes as unmistakably Burgundian as any chardonnay I've had in recent months. Of course, it's from Washington. Age it a few years, or enjoy it now.

Tiefenbrunner 1998 Lagrein "Castel Turmhof" ($19). The temptation to call this soft red wine from Italy's Trentino Alto Adige region "light" would mistake the firmness and the exquisite balance on the finish. This wine will fill out its empty corners with age, and its primary flavors of black cherry and fennel will give way to mineral notes. But it's an intellectual challenge now, especially if given some air time in a decanter.

Thor Iverson can be reached at wine[a]

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