Notes from the Cellar: Bitter. Sweet.

by Jeff Cox, Beer and Wine Merchandiser

This article was originally published in July 2010

“… bitter notes of grape skin, crushed rocks, iodine and forest floor wrapped around a core of focused sweetness. Confit, pure fruit essence wrapped in a taut embrace with austerity, the whole an alliance of agile nervosity, dancing in radiant waves of dissonance and resolution, a vibrant marriage of fruit and dirt …”

Mmmmm, now that sounds delicious. Not only does it describe any of a number of bottles in my cellar, it contains some of the components that often distinguish a great wine from merely pleasant quaff.

It makes me thirsty, puts visions of savory foodstuffs dancing in my head, and reminds me that Throckmorton and I are overdue for an episode of wretched excess. It’s a good thing, Martha.

It’s also the kind of description I’ll never write for publication, nor the sort of thing you’ll find in any wine literature — periodical or otherwise — written for readers of American English.

When it comes to adjectives, bitter just won’t fly. What most people are after is sweetness — although “sweet” is another word best used judiciously (somewhere in the self-styled sophisticates’ dictionary of received ideas it clearly states that sweet wine is for rednecks and other assorted mouth-breathing types).

A certain hot beverage megalith comes to mind. Think that Starbucks is about coffee? Think again. Coffee is just the code word for warm milk, quite often with a big squirt of syrup. (“Venti” is a genteel euphemism for “supersize it.”) But I digress.

In any case, “bitter” just sounds so, well … bitter. Likewise, taut (tense), iodine (bloody), tart (sour), austere (minimal), acid (lacking fat or sugar), dissonance (not harmonious), nervosity (might need medication or therapy). The list goes on, but you get the idea. Yikes.

A note of bitterness. It really is a good thing. What dissonance is to your ears and tension to the development of a plot, bitterness is to your mouth, and all the pleasure centers it arouses in your brain.

Children thrive on simple flavors, fairy tales and simple melodies in major keys. But then we grow up, find out that happily ever after isn’t quite so easy, discover Beethoven and Basie and a taste for beer.

Pleasure is all the deeper when it knows sorrow and harmony means nothing without dissonance. Bitterness? It resonates on the palate, dances with sweetness and sends the imagination through the looking glass to all the paradoxes and possibilities in the universe. Mere words mean everything.

Also in this issue

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