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In praise of austerity

By Dave Buchanan
In the most recent issue of Wine Spectator magazine, columnist Matt Kramer reported that at a recent tasting one guest described a wine as austere, saying, "And that's not a good word in my book." Perhaps, mused Kramer, today’s wines taste (and are made) the way they do because austere is considered a pejorative. So what’s wrong with austere? I’m not sure I want a wine that tries to convince me in the first 30 seconds. I want it to wait for the right questions instead of shrilly throwing out guesses like a game show contestant. What I mean is wine shouldn’t deceive us. Why can’t a wine be austere and still be drinkable and lovely? Why should the wine demand to speak first, yelling at us of its massive nature while still in the glass? I prefer instead a wine that gives us time to consider its complexity with the same deliberation you would give a beautiful sunset or ponder a relationship that went an unexpected direction. Alice Feiring, whose name you read here occasionally, wrote about Kramer’s column and asserted, “We like austere! It might mean that the wine is an approachable 13% alcohol, maybe it didn't have its tannins erased and just maybe it is interesting instead of NyQuil-esque." And New York Times wine critic Eric Asimov wrote a fascinating article that appeared last January in the International Herald Tribune about tasting some Barolos he termed both austere and sensuous. "Call it intellectual if you want, but to me few wines go for the gut like Barolo," Asomov wrote. At a recent dinner party, a friend suggested that an older wine would be good “once it opened up.” Funny, I thought, the wine is open, showing a calculated reticence typical of its mid-90s vintage and 13-percent alcohol (a well-received California cabernet sauvignon sadly no longer available). Its age was showing a bit but the fruit and tannins were balanced and there was the barest whisper of oak. It was austere, and very good.