Odd Pair: Wine and Legs (or Tears That Rhyme with Ears)
How many times have you been at a dinner party and heard some blowhard say something like the following (uttered with a fake British accent):
Photos by Jeremy Parzen. The legs of 2005 Langhe Nebbiolo Sperss by Gaja (Piedmont, Italy), tasted this week in Houston.
Observe carefully: After swirling the vinous substance in the crystalline vessel, you will note the "legs" -- otherwise known as the "tears" [rhymes with ears] -- of the wine illustrating the high quality of this noble enoic elixir. As those of you already initiated to the refinements of wine connoisseurship are surely already keenly aware, the length and width of the legs in this wine are testament to the elite vineyard where the grapes for this wine were grown and the countless hours of European artisanal winemaking skill that went into its vinification.
Well, folks, I hate to break it to you. The legs or tears of wine are fun to look at... BUT they don't tell you anything about the quality of the wine.
The main two components of wine are alcohol and water. When you swirl the wine in your glass (the "crystalline vessel") in order to aerate the wine (so that it will release its aromas and flavors more readily), the wine that rises toward the rim of the glass will create a film. As it falls, the alcohol and the water separate, with the water forming droplets as the alcohol evaporates (at a faster rate than the water). Those droplets are the legs or tears.
That's it. Period. End of report. That's all she wrote.
If you don't believe me, have a look at the entry for legs in the Oxford Companion to Wine, edited by the inimitable and utterly undeniable and absolute authority on wine today, Master of Wine Jancis Robinson. According to the OCW, the legs may be an indication of the alcoholic strength of the wine, but even wines with low alcohol -- like Mosel Riesling -- have legs: The "viscous droplets... may give some indication of a wine's alcoholic strength. But note that some of the finest German wines may have only 7 or 8 per cent alcohol but still form very obvious tears."
O, and the 2005 Langhe Nebbiolo Sperss by Gaja?
I tasted it the other day in Houston with Gaia Gaja, daughter of legendary winemaker Angelo Gaja. She was visiting Texas this week and I had the good fortune to have lunch with her at Tony's. (Those are Gaia's cowgirl boots, right, which picked up on her last trip to Texas.)
Sperss (pronounced SPEHRSS) is Piedmont dialect for something lost. In Gaja mythology, it refers to the fact that the winery could not produce Barolo after it stopped making wines using grapes grown by other farmers in 1961 because it did not own any vineyards in the Barolo appellation. When the winery finally purchased Barolo vineyards in the village of Serralunga in 1988, Angelo Gaja decided to call the wine Sperss as a nostalgic homage to the "lost" wines. It was labeled as Barolo until 2000, when Gaja declassified the 1996 vintage (or re-classified it, as daughter Gaia likes to say) to Langhe Nebbiolo, presumably because he wanted to add small amounts of Barbera grapes to soften its tannins in its youth. (Barolo is made from 100% Nebbiolo grapes.)
Gaja Sperss is one of the world's most coveted and collectible wines (you can pick up the 2005 at Spec's for just $268.41). I was impressed with how generously the wine -- opened a few hours earlier -- revealed its fruit. The wine rewarded me with gorgeous, classic Barolo notes of earth and tar and a "nervy" acidity -- as the Italians like to say -- that held the fruit and savory flavors in a splendid symphonic balance.
And the legs? As you can see from the boots above, Gaia sure knows how to use them!