Karen MacNeil food educator, writer and consultant,. Karen is arguably one of the most well known personalities in the wine industry.
Karen has received the prestigious Outstanding Wine and Spirits Professional of the Year ( James Beard Foundation) and the 2005 Wine Educator of the year. Karen is the author of the award-winning book “The Wine Bible”. This book has been called the most comprehensive and authoritative book on wine written by an American author
Karen also treated PBS viewers to the Emmy winning TV series “Wine, Food & Friends with Karen MacNeil”. Additionally, she and her husband own and operate the winery, Fife Vineyards.
Wine matters because of this connection. Wine (and food) cradle us in our own humanity. Drinking wine–small as that action may seem–is an affirmation. It reminds us of other things that matter: love, friendship, generosity.
Are there, say, ten key big ideas that, if you understood, would give you the framework to understand all the wines you’d drink the rest of your life?
I think there are. I decided to tackle three that would be on my list: structure, complexity and ripeness.
Here’s some of what I shared about structure.
- Understanding structure is critical to understanding any of the “powerful” red varieties: cabernet sauvignon, merlot, syrah, nebbiolo, tempranillo, malbec, to name a few. I just don’t think you can understand these wines unless you understand structure.
- While structure is hard to articulate, you can easily taste or sense it —and the lack of it. The wines I used to demonstrate this were a Beaujolais-Villages (no structure) and a wine I adore: Lagier Meredith Syrah from Mt. Veeder (lots of structure).
- So what is this thing, structure? It’s the sense you have that the wine has a well established form. I think of it as the architecture of the wine. (A wine with a great structure will often remind me of the soaring outlines of a cathedral). The French often describe structure as the skeleton of the wine, as opposed to it’s flavor which they describe as the flesh.
- Where does structure come from? In white wines, it usually comes from alcohol or acidity; in red wines, it comes from tannin, a component in the grapes’ skins and seeds. Thus, wines with a lot of tannin (like cabernet) also have a lot of structure. Beaujolias is made from gamay grapes and gamay does not have much tannin. As a result, Beaujolais lacks structure; it feels more flaccid in the mouth (though its flavors can certainly still be attractive).
- Generally speaking, an impressive structure is something you find in fine, expensive wines, not in bargain carafe quaffs, however serviceable they may be.
- And finally, structure matters when pairing wine and food. Foods with a lot of structure themselves—like a meaty, thick steak–need wines with commensurate structure (like cabernet), or the food experience will dwarf the wine experience.
Coming soon: complexity and ripeness, two more of the ten big ideas that make learning about wine easier.
Complexity is the holy grail. Complexity is what takes wine out of the immediate and makes it a sustained pleasure. Let me explain. Complexity is the phenomenon of having to taste a wine over and over again because the wine reveals itself sequentially over time. As such, complex wines cannot be evaluated in one sip. We must sit with them. Wait and see what flavors emerge in 10 minutes, in 20, in 45. Complex wines slow us down; they cause us to have great conversations while we are drinking. Complex wines hold the element of surprise. A wine you thought you disliked on first sip, all of a sudden changes course, and now you’re compelled to finish the bottle. No other beverage has this ability…has this power. To me, one of the most fascinating aspects of this is: we never know how long a critic spent with a wine. If a wine is truly complex…if it reveals itself over time…if the critic spent just one minute tasting it in a line-up of other wines…then what?
the definition of “physiological ripeness” for wine grapes was simple and concrete. It is neither. In fact physiological ripeness is an ideal, an unrealizable goal: the perfect overlapof the development of many enologically important components of the grape skin, seeds and pulp. When considering whether an individual grape is “ripe” one could consider the sugars, acids, pH and potassium in the pulp or juice, the anthocyanins and tannins in the skin, the tannins in the seeds, and the aromatic compounds present throughout.
During ripening each of these things is changing with time: some are going up, some are going down, some are going up and then down. “Physiological ripeness” is that moment when all of these things are in “perfect balance” — exactly where they must be to yield a wine of complicated and soul-satisfying deliciousness. Except that it never happens.