Claire Bullen discovers the wine of emperors
Illustration: James Albon
Wednesday 05 January 2022
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Katie and I were playing a game. How could we describe the experience of drinking a wine without using tasting notes or flavour descriptors?
It was early in February 2020, and we sat by the fire in Noble Rot’s front bar and passed glasses back and forth, windows foggy with the heat of bodies packed closely together and our collective aerosolised breath. I don’t remember who first thought of the game, though we both followed the wine writer Marissa Ross, whose descriptions have a way of straying into daffy vignette: Of one wine, she writes that it “tastes like the kind of skin contact you want to drink AND the kind of skin contact you want to have with SPF & a hot stranger on a tropical isle”; another “tastes like the sweat dripping onto your lips before you do a perfect ten dive into the deep end of a refreshingly cold punch bowl of pineapple limeade garnished with floating gardenias. All topless btw.”
Maybe there was something to all this—maybe we did have to find a new language to talk about wine. After all, how revealing can a cold recitation of flavour notes ever really be? (Or worse, the pedant’s catalogue of chemical compounds—pyrazine, linalool, rotundone?) How much does overwrought label copy actually capture the juicily sensorial experience of opening a bottle, pouring that first glass, and pressing it to your lips? When someone tells me that a wine is ozonic like the hottest day in July, and smells like sitting in a backyard pool next to a fig tree while eucalyptus sways in the breeze, at least I understand something essential about its bearing, about the olfactory emotions it might conjure when it meets my nose, how it might feel as it moves through my flesh.
Our attempts began halfway between short story and perfume ad. A white wine from Tenerife was like wandering in a botanical garden, cliffside and overlooking the sea, full of both familiar flowers and spiky and irregular tropical plants. We were warming up; it was harder than it seemed to avoid the obvious, not to describe a Pinot Noir as walking into a patisserie and finding a cherry and almond tart cooling on a windowsill.
And then we ordered a glass of Château Dereszla’s 2013 Tokaji Aszú 5 Puttonyos. I think I almost choked on my first mouthful.
I blame the paucity of the English language: After millennia, we still haven’t worked out a robust way to describe the experience of tasting and smelling beyond reaching for obvious and immediate comparatives. A wine is smoky if it tastes like smoke, citrusy if it whiffs of lemon; berry-like if, well, you know. After tasting the Tokaji Aszú, with its ferocious complexity and dripping opulence, I had to restrain myself from reeling off my own reflexive list: Honey! Toast! Oranges! No, apricots, half-dried, still gooey in the middle. Caramel! Hazelnuts! Peach, somehow! Cinnamon! (If the Martini was, for E.B. White, the elixir of quietude, Tokaji Aszú has to be the elixir of largesse.)
But that wasn’t the game. So I tried again. The wine was plush and rounded and ample. Just like wearing furs, I told Katie. Yes! But not just any fur: ermine. And not just wearing, but draped, positively swaddled. (I didn’t know it then, but Tokaji Aszú was savoured by kings and emperors, including Catherine the Great and Louis XIV.)
I continued. It was being naked underneath all those furs, naturally, except for diamond jewellery. For all its abundance, the wine had a scintillating acidity—like human warmth next to bracingly cold marble. Okay, so it was being sumptuously heaped in furs and anointed in precious stones, rolling about in some cold but lavish room, preferably in the Winter Palace, though Versailles’ Hall of Mirrors would do. I filled in the gilding like Midas, the wine’s aureate appearance equal to its sensibility.
It was absurd. It was the truth. For a while, we sipped in contemplative silence, plumbing the wine’s viscous depths. The fire flickered near my elbow, warming my back, while cold blasts of February coughed through the room every time the door opened. The Tokaji Aszú slipped down our throats, goldly, and I felt queenly as I drank it.
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