A blog about life, language, writing, and other trivia.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Tasting Notes: Semantics Edition

This is cross-posted from Grape and Grain, which explains two things about it:

1. It explains why I talk about the wine tasting as if you had been there yourself (most of Grape and Grain's readers were there, I suspect).

2. It explains why I assume that my reader hasn't spent a considerable amount of time reflecting on the shifting semantic terrain of words like "literally" and "decadent," as well as why I talk about rhetoric as if to laypeople instead of others who are in the biz. (For more on "literally," see Debbie's post on the abuse of words.)

Still, it seems like a good piece to post here, too, for anybody who may have access to these stellar wines.

Tonight’s tasting theme was “decadence defined.” Now, it just so happens that "decadence" is one of those words I’ve been keeping my eye on. In the last 30 or so years (in other words, since I’ve been old enough to pay attention), there have been a few words whose meanings have changed right before our eyes. Take “literally,” for example. I have always been taught that it meant "actually." But, to a number of people—and it sure seems like that number has been steadily increasing, though I’ll concede that, as I’ve become a more astute observer of language, I may simply notice it more—“literally” is essentially a word that marks an extreme or intense state. So, for example, the statement, “I was so mad I literally hit the roof,” could be taken to mean that you really went on top of your house, made a fist (or perhaps you’re a martial arts, open-hand type), and smacked your shingles. But for most people it just means “I was extremely mad.”

And so it is with “decadence.” At some point during the Reagan ‘80’s (probably about the same point it seemed like a good idea to make the film Wall Street), the meaning of “decadence” shifted from “being in a state of decay, either caused by or symptomized by (or both) conspicuous and extreme excess” (think Roman vomiting troughs and orgiastic parties) to “extremely desirable—due to conspicuous and extreme excess.”

Obviously, it’s this second term that applies to tonight’s tasting. But I can’t help wondering what it says about our culture that conspicuous, extreme excess continues to be considered, almost thirty years after the Reagan era began, a sign of fine living rather than an indication that the whole idea of the rags-to-riches American Dream has jumped the shark.

As for this tasting, what saves it for me in the end is that, despite its title, the wines in the lineup really aren’t decadent so much as they are rich and full-bodied (Ok, the prices may be decadent, but that’s why we have small samples of these wines and then go buy a tasty $9.99 bottle of Chilean Cab Sauv.) The Standish Shiraz comes closest—Wine Advocate calls it “opulent”—though even it cannot touch the outrageously syrupy, oozing nectar that is Mollydooker’s “Carnival of Love.” Talk about decadent. (As I said when I reviewed it, you should try it if you have a chance, but it’s almost too much to take.) In fact, the next closest wine in the lineup to being decadent—the “Clio” from El Nido—is definitely ripe and rich, but it is also so superbly balanced and precisely focused that it does not seem excessive at all when you drink it.

I don’t mean to quibble with Bill about terms: a) it’s his store, and he runs the show, and b) I’m sure the actual name for the theme of the tasting is of exceedingly minor importance compared to the formidable task of assembling such a marvelous lineup of rich, full-bodied wines. Indeed, this post may seem like a lot of energy to devote to something as ho-hum as word choice for a wine tasting theme, and you might even be thinking by now (if you haven’t stopped reading altogether), “Who cares?” I do, for one. Before I was a half-cocked amateur wine critic I was, and am, a professor of rhetoric. It’s in my nature to pay attention to the sometimes extraordinary meanings that inhere in mundane language, as well as to share what I find with others. And, if you have made it this far into this post, then I have done what I set out to do: there’s no way, after today, that you’ll ever hear the word “decadent” again without giving it at least a second thought.

Now, the notes:

1. Merryvale Profile 2002 ($99.99/bottle)

This wine has a great nose, with cassis, baked cherry, leathery spice, and just the right amount of toasty oak. The full-bodied palate reveals young, dark flavors of black cherry, bitter leather, chocolate, and spice with big, scratchy tannins dominating the profile (no pun intended). This is a wine to come back to in 3-5 years to see if it has come into balance, because if it does, it's going to be a knockout.

2. Lagier Meredith Syrah 2005 ($54.99/bottle)

The nose on this mountain-grown Syrah is big and fruity, with ripe plums and berries supporting secondary notes of spice and creamy vanilla. Full-bodied, with wonderfully bright acidity, it offers flavors of dark berries and black pepper with an enticing eucalyptus note on the finish. The tannins are nicely integrated. Try this syrah with grilled meat.

3. Conn Valley Right Bank 2005 ($54.99/bottle)

"Right Bank" refers to the right bank of the Gironde river in Bordeaux, where blends tend to be based on Merlot instead of Cabernet Sauvignon. And this wine is surprisingly Bordeaux-like, with earth and leather coming through on the nose and flavors of tart but ripe plum, tobacco, soil, and a hint of black licorice. Full-bodied with soft tannins, this is a beautiful wine that would pair perfectly with lamb or prime rib.

4. El Nido Clio 2005 ($59.99/bottle)

The nose on this very rich Monastrell blend from Jumilla, Spain makes you think it's going to be way over-the-top, even (dare I say?) decadent, with aromas of super-ripe crushed blueberries, vanilla, cream, and toasty spice. Nevertheless, the voluptuous but well-structured palate displays breathtaking balance, even finesse, with an almost refreshingly minty finish that makes you want another sip. You could drink this masterpiece of a wine with food, but why would you want to?

5. The Standish Shiraz 2003 ($79.99/bottle)

This Aussie Shiraz is big, thick and almost over-ripe. The nose offers pronounced aromas of caramelized sugar, smoke, and soft black olives, while the palate shows dark flavors of ripe blackberry, black olive, and a blast of black pepper. This wine is definitely indulgent, and it does a nice job as such, but it would be hard to justify buying a bottle when I know it's in the same price range as D'Arenberg's nearly perfect Dead Arm Shiraz and a number of other stunningly rich and balanced Aussie Shirazes.

6. Caldwell Red Wine 2004 ($104.99/bottle)

This nice, dark, full-bodied red shows flavors and aromas of very ripe, smoky plum, oak, and black olive, with some licorice on the finish.

7. Presidential NV 20-Year Port ($46.99/bottle)

Once you get past the formiddable alcohol (20%), there is a beautifully aromatic and tasty blend of caramel, vanilla, and orange/gran marnier waiting. A definite choice for those NW Ohio winters.

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