An­drew Jef­ford

‘Wine’s com­plex­ity repli­cates that de­liv­ered by cooked foods’

Decanter - - CONTENTS - An­drew Jef­ford is a De­canter con­tribut­ing ed­i­tor and the Louis Roed­erer In­ter­na­tional Colum­nist of 2016 for this and his ‘Jef­ford on Mon­day’ col­umn at De­­ford

Is there some fun­da­men­tal dif­fer­ence be­tween the flavours of wine and those of food? this ques­tion has long nagged me. If there isn’t, why does wine have such a hold over us? Why do fine wines sell at the prices they do? Why are there wine auc­tions, wine li­braries, wine tast­ings and wine cel­lars? Why, in­deed, does this mag­a­zine ex­ist? there’s no equiv­a­lent for fish, meat or veg­eta­bles, though these items are no less di­verse and are still more widely con­sumed than wine.

Al­co­hol is an an­swer. other al­co­holic bev­er­ages, though, don’t com­mand equiv­a­lent at­ten­tion, even if whisky comes close. We have to go back to flavour (and re­mem­ber that this also means aroma: a con­tin­uum, per­ceived in dif­fer­ent ways).

Food flavours are of­ten sim­ple: think of cel­ery, cu­cum­ber, let­tuce or bread. Foods, though, have an over­whelm­ing tex­tu­ral pres­ence which is ab­sent from wine. those tex­tures dis­tract – and grat­ify in them­selves, since in­gest­ing mass and sub­stance is a vi­tal part of sus­te­nance. If you eat a bowl of pasta with tomato sauce after a long walk, as much of your plea­sure will de­rive from chew­ing and swal­low­ing this fa­mil­iar and trusted food as it will from the taste of the dish it­self. the joy of a but­tered crum­pet, a freshly baked crois­sant or a slice of pavlova is in large part tex­tu­ral.

We’re par­tic­u­larly fond of fatty foods and sweet foods – but not be­cause of their flavours as such. rather it’s be­cause our bod­ies recog­nise that such foods are calorif­i­cally dense. A lit­tle of each would, in the pre­his­toric past, have car­ried us us a long way across the sa­van­nah, and much fur­ther than an­other hand­ful of tough roots.

there are a num­ber of rea­sons why we cook food. safety is one of them, and di­gestibil­ity an­other: the heat in­volved in cook­ing both kills bac­te­ria and breaks down the in­di­gestible tis­sues of many raw food items. Just as im­por­tant to mod­ern hu­mans, though, is that in as­sem­bling and trans­form­ing raw in­gre­di­ents, we can cre­ate flavours of greater com­plex­ity than those in­gre­di­ents pos­sess on their own. eat­ing dif­fer­ent foods to­gether achieves the same end.

hence the pop­u­lar­ity of ‘recipes’. they’re routes to com­plex­ity of flavour: that which sat­is­fies as well as grat­i­fies.

Good or fine wine has the hold it does over us, I’d sug­gest, be­cause it of­fers one of the most com­plex sin­gle-item flavour pack­ages we can put into our mouths, ri­valled only (if at all) by a great chef’s work on a sauce or a com­posed dish. Wine’s com­plex­ity repli­cates and even ex­ceeds that de­liv­ered by cooked foods... and it brings us the mood en­hance­ment of al­co­hol as it does so. this is why great wine is best part­nered by sim­ple food – to avoid a ‘clash of com­plex­i­ties’.

Where do these lay­ers of flavour come from? Grapes in fact seem to be less com­plex in flavour than other fresh fruits like peaches or nec­tarines; in­deed the sugar-acid bal­ance in grape juice makes it seem al­most in­sipid by com­par­i­son with or­ange juice or grape­fruit juice. It’s the trans­for­ma­tion of grape juice into wine via fer­men­ta­tion which in­creases its com­plex­ity to an un­par­al­leled de­gree.

this is partly be­cause it re­ar­ranges the bal­ance in grape juice: since sug­ars are con­verted to al­co­hol, acid­ity sud­denly swings into promi­nence when grape juice be­comes wine. But it’s also be­cause of the com­plex­ity of flavours which emerge from the ac­tion of yeast it­self, both as it is ac­tive in must and after it dies and sinks to the bot­tom of a fer­men­ta­tion ves­sel, to­gether with the ex­trac­tion of el­e­ments hid­den in grape skins for red (and or­ange) wine. the way in which wines are made, and the ves­sels in which they are calmed and ma­tured after fer­men­ta­tion, adds fur­ther lay­ers of com­plex­ity, as does bot­tle-age­ing it­self.

the re­sult, as all wine lovers know, is that a sin­gle sip of wine can speak to us, even sing to us. Wine truly seems to be more com­plex than al­most ev­ery­thing else we eat and drink.

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