Time does exciting things to wine as it is first made and then ages. How long grapes hang on the vine starts the ticking clock. What temperature did the picked grapes reach? How soon is it crushed, how hard, and for how long is it pressed? Once a wine is fermented from the juice, the real changes over time begin. How it is kept, filtered, adjusted, left alone, ignored and lavished with attention, all change the wine’s fundamental nature. Bottle it, and you put everything into slow-motion. Fast forward to the cork popping, and begin the third phase. How much air? Decanting, aerating, swirling, pairing, all make a difference. The wine clock goes from weeks to months to years to hours or even minutes.
In my research of ancient wines, particularly Phoenician and Roman eras, I’ve got to say, the entire Mediterranean was just as nuts over wine as they were over something called garum. Salted fish, particularly mackerel, was reduced into something that was a lot like modern Whorstichire sauce. And the ancient well-to-do to near-do-wells all wanted it in their recipes.
Exactly what was garum? Ok, you asked. Fish-gut wine. Fermented fish-guts. Highly-treasured over the whole Mediterranean Sea. Not exactly my cup of tuna.
People exposing their opinion of “fine” wine often fail to realize their opinion is rooted in the pure moment. You cannot take an argument that Merlot is passé or that dryer wine is more cultured if you don’t understand that to shift a few decades one way or the other changes the paradigm. Opinion is transient and entirely mutable to culture. There is no “this wine is the best for any time, place or mood.” Searching for such eternal truths is noble. Beating people over the head with it is just rude.
One of the primary uses for garum was as a marinade. The acidity helps break down meats and moisten them into juicy tidbits. The salt adds flavor. The fish adds flavor. Add fresh spices to the garum, and you get a flavorful bonanza of tastes that certainly appealed to a lot of ancient people.
Our wine-making at the beginning of the process is a lot like a marinade, as the acidity on the skins hydrolizes, extracts and alters the character of the tough, tannic wine. Oak is a lot like fresh herbs in the marinade, adding new and accentuating flavors in the wine. Long-term storage is like putting the marinating meat in the refrigerator and letting cool patience soften the dish.
So ask how the wine you are being poured was made. Inquire about how the wine was marinaded, because the Merlot from one vineyard can be the same cloned plants as the next, but the flavors entirely different.
And realize, as you rinse out your glass with water or slowly swirl the wine sample, you are adding your own touch of marinade to your tasting.