Melvyn Minnaar: The power of wine to provoke emotion

By , 4 March 2020

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When last did you cry over a glass of wine?

We are pretty used to exercising our sharpened sensory skills and opening our sensual evaluation to wine in judging it, but emotion? Yet…

Alice Feiring, American wine writer, recently confirmed in an article that appeared in The World of Fine Wine that when it comes to great wine, for her, “One of the most critical considerations [is] its power to provoke emotion”.

As things stand, the pseudo-science of wine evaluation and rating (an increasing industry with egos, competitions, money-making and auctions all in the mix) relies on sensory perception, memory of such, and some acuteness and accuracy of both: smell, taste, vision (less in these days of natural’ or ‘orange’ wine than in good old days) and touch (well, in a odd sort of tongue, cheek and mouth way).

But emotion? How does that fit in? And what kind of emotion are we talking about?

It’s worthwhile considering the definition of ‘emotion’. Collins Dictionary says: “1. variable noun:  An emotion is a feeling such as happiness, love, fear, anger, or hatred, which can be caused by the situation that you are in or the people you are with; 2. uncountable noun: Emotion is the part of a person’s character that consists of their feelings, as opposed to their thoughts….the split between reason and emotion.”

It is quite simple to see how this comes into play when someone says “I love/dislike …. (wine X)”. It’s when asked “why?” that reason has to make an appearance. But even if that remains unanswered or fobbed off, initial emotional response remains a fact of that wine’s life.

In fact, it is one of the, call it romantic, notions that make wine the intriguing beverage which sets it apart from the hordes of others that contain alcohol – in itself a drug known to fiddle with mental states and one that kind of came along with humans and their existential mishaps.

When you get that chance to experience a glass of GS Cabernet 1966 (prize for best wine overall in the 10-Year-Old Wine Report –  well done, Morné Vrey on that super sweetie that came out tops), there is no doubt a fluttering of the heart. When you come across a Madeira made more than a century ago. Or a wine of your birth year still marvellously alive. This is the way we respond to awe, and it is what we expect. And, of course it is rooted in nostalgia, memory and history.

Although this is the same sort provocation that Alice Feiring is suggesting, what of the new, the first-experienced, the truly unknown. If one discounts memory and tasting experience, how does ‘emotion’ feature in the evaluation? And how do you indicate or taste it? Poetry?

Perhaps this is exactly the crux – and once again the parallel marker of greatness, of worth of significance in wine and art. It falls upon one. It is a wine or artwork that has power to stop the moment of encounter – even before you apply your mind. It’s a confrontation that makes a stand for invention of creativity as in and for itself. The new, the unusual.

The great American conceptualist Cy Twombly (he died at 83 in 2011) found a particular poetic voice in what his fellow artist Donald Judd once criticised as “a few drips and splatters and an occasional pencil line”. Others talked about Abstract Expressionism.

Untitled (Bacchus), 2008 – Cy Twombly.

His most famous work is a series of paintings under the title Bacchus, comprising mostly large dwelling, scribbling circles of raw red – “the colour of wine and blood”. Two of the paintings are in the Tate Collection in London.

I saw a number of the panels together at the Venice Biennale shortly before Twombly’s death. I burst into tears.

  • Melvyn Minnaar has written about art and wine for various local and international publications over the years. The creativity that underpins these subjects is an enduring personal passion. He has served on a few “cultural committees”.

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