Tue 19 Feb 2013
I always read every word of every review written by Alastair Macaulay, chief dance critic for The New York Times. Macaulay, seen in the accompanying image, came to the Times from London in 2007. He writes primarily about ballet and from a standpoint that’s not just knowledgeable and experienced but deeply passionate and revealing. Often, Macaulay’s writing and his observations remind me of how I think about and write about wine, particularly in the sense that the physicality of ballet and its relationship to music and the physical and sensuous nature of wine and its relationship to the vineyard whence it originated involve paradoxes of the most minute and complementary sorts.
An ardent admirer of choreographer George Balanchine (1904-1983), Macaulay recently reviewed a series of performances by the New York City Ballet of dances that Balanchine had set to symphonic music. He writes, at one point, that ballet dancers need to display elements of “rigor and allure.” Instantly, I thought about how great wine ought to reflect the same paradoxical qualities.
By great wine, I mean any wine, no matter its origins, intent or expense, that might embody such a character. The little Côtes du Rhône or Maconnais, the Rosso di Montalcino, the zinfandel blend, the bargain malbec, the simple everyday wines that are so important and so necessary to the world of drinking wine with lunch and dinner because we just love to have wine with our meals — these can achieve greatness in their way. Then there are the wines with aspirations to excellence and exceptionality, authenticity and integrity that reflect faithfulness to grape varieties and specific locations. Such wines, with their potential for greatness, ordinary mortals (like journalists and wine bloggers) do not drink all the time.
By “rigor,” I mean the structure of the wine, based on acidity, alcohol and (in red wine) tannins, an innate mineral quality and an exterior (as it were) oak influence, all of which contribute to the stones and bones, that is, the frame and foundation, that keep a wine lively, thirst-quenching, vigorous, upright and potentially long-lived. At the same time, the heady “allure” of the wine works its way through fruit and all the attendant aromatic and flavorful fruity, spicy, floral aspects as well as through the texture (not quite the same as structure) that helps the wine lie so obligingly velvety or silkily or satiny on the tongue. Too much rigor and the wine is harsh, merely big, austere, sometimes even astringent and definitely unpalatable. Too much allure and the wine is soft, delicious, voluptuous, cushiony, perhaps really attractive but also merely pretty. What one desires in a great wine is to be fully aware of its rigor at every point and promise and equally fully aware of its allure, each bound inextricably to the other.
Later in the same review, Macaulay writes of principal dancer Sterling Hyltin and describes his performance in “Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements” as “alert, lustrous, refined and compellingly enigmatic.”
Oh, wouldn’t we like all the wines we encounter to display such virtues! This is the epitome, the wine that feels lively, attentive, present and there; the wine that offers a sheen and glow, a sense of sophistication and completion; a wine of elegance, poise and equilibrium; and finally, a wine that does not give everything away too readily, that keeps something in check, that allows a sense of inexplicable yet wholly satisfying wildness and mystery, a wine that slowly ravels its ambiguities and lays them out for our revelation and delight.
The differences between dance and wine are many. Dance presents the human body in movement, immediate, demanding, sensuous yet intellectual and above all, evanescent; each gesture and movement disappears as it is accomplished. Wine is about patience, silence and time, about an expression of earth and weather, yet it is above all a beverage meant to be consumed for pleasure, and once the wine has been consumed, it is as ungraspable as a forgotten pas de deux.