Towards non-binary wine evaluation

By , 22 February 2022



Tasting the Kleine Zalze Project Z Chenin Blanc 2019 next to its Skin Contact counterpart recently raised all sorts of questions about what is fundamentally at stake when it comes to wine assessment and appreciation.

The two wines come from the same old Firgrove vineyards, grapes picked at the same time, and both were fermented in amphorae, with the only difference between them being that the former received 12 hours of pre-fermentation skin contact while in the case of the latter, fermentation included a seven-day period on the skins.

My initial impression was that for all the Skin Contact’s flavour and texture, technique was obscuring variety and site. The more conventional bottling had greater purity of fruit and overall harmony and therefore seemed the “better” wine.

The stark juxtaposition of the two wines was leading me into some problematic binary thinking, however. Traditionally, we regard wine assessment as an analytical and quasi-scientific activity where any one sample is looked at in terms of correctness in the sense of freedom from flaw or fault. This is premised on the notion that with sufficient training, a taster can at the very least discern the winemaker’s intention (the winemaker’s purpose in creating the wine) or at most the impact of terroir (the notion that wines taste of “somewhereness” and that some sites generate more profound drinking experiences than others).

If you think about it, wine appreciation is riddled with binary opposites. There are some that are technical such as dry/sweet and reductive/oxidative but then there are those that are more allegorical such as elegance/power or lean/plush and then those that are outright political such as Old World/New World or masculine/feminine.

These binary opposites, and the stability of meaning that they supposedly facilitate, help to maintain the grand narrative of the established wine trade. Old World is better than New World; structured wines are masculine rather than feminine and therefore more age-worthy and investable and so on…

In particular, developed country gatekeepers insist a deep knowledge of first-growth Bordeaux and grand cru Burgundy and the like is essential in order to partake in the dialogue concerning fine wine precisely at a time when prices for these wines put them well beyond reach for most of us in so-called emerging markets.

The good news is that there aren’t any certainties and meaning is inherently unstable, whether it be wine or anything else in life. It’s perfectly possible, for instance, to have a wine showing both volatile sulfur compounds (reduction) and oxidation and equally for one person to like such a wine and another not to. Arriving at the definitive valuation of wine is nonsense given that stemware, serving temperature, ambient light, background noise and so on can all affect one’s judgement. Enjoyment, in turn, can be influenced by the assembled company and the food pairing.

What of the way forward? Being able to describe the sensory qualities of wine – visual appearance, aroma and tactile presence in the mouth – will always be important lest we descend into utter relativism. However, how the wine makes you feel is also vital in the same way that listening to your favourite composer is emotionally moving in a way that entirely transcends being able to read music.

As for who gets to participate, not having access to the most expensive wines in the world does not automatically nullify anybody’s ability to pass comment – the world of wine is vast and there is plenty of room for everyone.

Also important in extending the wine community is to focus on how the wine came into being – the people and the process that produces the wine. This comes down to storytelling and an effort to connect consumer with creator towards a shared human bond (a massive amount of the appeal of the Project Z from Kleine Zalze is that a big winery is prepared to undertake experimental winemaking and do so successfully).

Lastly, there are some binary opposites that really are unhelpful and need to be dismantled. If you still think “masculine” and “feminine” are useful as wine descriptors, then you’re out of touch.


9 comment(s)

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    Colin | 23 February 2022

    You lost me almost immediately when you used the term “non binary” in your heading. IT IS WINE EEDES!!!! NOT YOUR CHILDREN’S LIFESTYLE CHOICES!

    You talk about enjoyment? When I have to read crap like this about wine, the enjoyment is pretty much gone.

    Jurgen | 23 February 2022

    I’ll drink to post modern intellectual decadence, since it makes me -subjectively- ‘feel good’.

    Edi James | 22 February 2022

    The Z project Chenin Blanc costs R660 per bottle and the Vineyard Section R120. Non-binarily speaking, the Z should taste 550 percent better. 😉

    Logan Van Driel | 22 February 2022

    I agree wholeheartedly Christian, wine needs to become more inclusive and I disagree with Michael that it will make formal wine competitions irrelevant. Let the people have a say – people choice awards – this will never detract from professional assessment and encourage a different take on wine.

    Tim James | 22 February 2022

    Seems like you’re having the vinous equivalent of a midlife crisis, Christian. You’d better try resolving it one way or another before you give confident scores to any more wines. I wouldn’t quite agree with Michael that all you’re offering in return is touchy-feely comments, or that Winemag becomes irrelevant (irrelevant to what or whom? not to wine or to those who want informed, experienced judgements). But it does indeed render the practice of blind tastings nonsensical, a conclusion that many people have reached long since.

    Incidentally, in this regard, I don’t think your fourth para is correct or logical. Regarding “wine assessment as an analytical and quasi-scientific activity where any one sample is looked at in terms of correctness” is certainly NOT traditional, but I would say dates from the latter decades of the 20th century. And I can’t see the connection with (you say it’s premissed on) “training” that enables a taster to discern winemaker’s intention or terroir. Those are two very different ways of looking at/ tasting / discussing wine. The first, quasi-scientific way is indeed appropriate to competitions and scoring, and is eminently trainable; the second depends on intelligently and sensitively benefiting from wide and deep experience. There’s every reason to aim at having both, of course.

    But Christian, do please beware of taking too far that post-modernist, intellectually decadent conclusion that “there aren’t any certainties and meaning is inherently unstable”, let alone regarding it as “good news”. There are plenty of certainties about wine, I’d argue, even if they are historically and culturally based; and even if tastes differ, and perhaps develop and change as greater experience and understanding informs them and gives their holder increased justification in having them.

    Michael Fridjhon | 22 February 2022

    If feelings about wine take precedence over critical appreciation no doubt this will relieve the anxieties of every one who feels intimidated by the subject matter. There’s merit in that suggestion. It does risk being taken over by the education department who will reward all matric essays equally as long as the examiner is convinced that the paper has been imbued with “feeling.”

    On the other hand, the downside for WineMag is that it instantly becomes irrelevant, and all your category tastings – which bring in the loot which keeps you going – can be replaced with touchy feelie comments from whoever wants to share them.

    Kwispedoor | 22 February 2022

    Hi, Christian

    It may not be politically correct (and of course: some women are much more muscular than certain men), but you have to concede that when the words “masculine” and “feminine” are used amongst wine folk, everyone immediately knows the basic meaning that these terms are aiming to evoke.

    Sometimes it’s nice to be able to condense an attribute (or several attributes) of a wine into one word – even though it may not be a perfect word – that would otherwise have required a few sentences to describe satisfactorily enough. The word “elegant” comes to mind. It’s not at all a perfect wine descriptor, but most wine lovers above a certain level of engagement know what you mean when you use it.

    Which two sufficiently eloquent wine descriptors would you replace “masculine” and “feminine” with that would afford one the same word economy? I don’t use “masculine” and “feminine” much at all as wine descriptors, but if there are good enough substitutes, I will dump them altogether.

    Stanley Edwards | 22 February 2022

    The best way to share your story, create a more personal connection and give wine lovers more relevant content is to create an AR code. These can be used on our ‘talking’ wine tasting kits and the same AR code can create a ‘talking’ wine label. All easily accessible via your smartphone. Try some out –

    Rolff van der Linden | 22 February 2022

    Your closing sentence……………….WOKE!
    This is not necessary in wine appreciation.
    Will ‘white’ wine be declassified because it’s racist, and all wines must be gender neutral?

    NO no no no!

    Please stick to wine enjoyment, thank you!

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