Joe Fattorini: just what makes a wine ‘comforting’?

In lockdown, consumers are reverting to the familiar rather than the experimental. Freud would have had a field day on the psychology of our choices…

Words by Joe Fattorini

Joe Fattorini

Psalms 104 is newly relevant in the era of lockdown, with its shout-out to “Wine that makes glad the heart of man”. It certainly does. For millions of us, while there is so much to sadden our hearts right now, wine is more panacea than profligacy.

But what sort of wine? I’ve been speaking to merchants across the country on a daily basis. What are they selling? What are they recommending? What’s popular? I’m reminded of a passage from Otello, in which Iago reassures Cassio: “Come, come, good wine is a good familiar creature, if it be well used.” The recommendations are for ‘comfort’ wines. Familiar wines. Versatile wines.

Côtes du Rhône recommendations are almost universal. The Fair Isle sweater of wine. Rioja too, with its ready-to-drink classification system and alluring sweet vanilla. After the tenth merchant told me they were selling a lot of Rioja, I remembered a conversation with a psychologist last year. He explained to me that vanilla is the world’s most popular flavouring agent; it’s also a principal flavour compound in breast milk. So here we are, locked away at home, facing a scary, uncertain, dangerous world. You don’t need to be Freud to work out the appeal of a lick of American oak.

These wines share a common terroir. Not a physical one, though. This terroir is a piece of mental real estate, more spiritual than temporal. Horace would have recognised it. “Libera vina,” as he had it; wine the “loosener”. His poems and descriptions of wine weren’t of flavours, but of personalities. Languid; charming; fiery. Andre Simon did it too. “Graceful”, “wholesome”. Anthropomorphising the contents of the glass.

It’s an approach to wine tasting that’s become much derided by wine professionals. Ann C Noble created her famous Flavour Wheel apparently in response to the imprecision of words like “elegant”. But while professionals might not like it, regular wine drinkers do. A study by a large merchant some years ago asked what words enticed people to buy wine. Forget the accurate, precise flavour descriptors. What people wanted to buy were “soft” chenin; “rich” Chianti; “elegant” Macon; “smooth” barbera; “lush” grenache; “fun” sparkling wine. We look for wines that share the traits of people we’re comfortable around.

Flavour wheel
Ann C Noble's Flavour Wheel

But while wine has become an intimate comfort, it’s stopped being a public display. And that’s also influencing what we drink. “Conspicuous consumption of valuable goods is a means of reputability to the gentleman of leisure” wrote Norwegian-American sociologist Thorstein Veblen at the end of the 19th century. Right now, we are gentlemen (and women) of enforced leisure. We have the time to become Veblen’s “connoisseur[s] in creditable viands… in manly beverages and trinkets”. So why are we not drinking the smart stuff? Because our “own unaided effort will not avail to sufficiently put [our] opulence in evidence”. In other words, you can’t show your largesse if nobody else is there to share it.

How much of the wine we usually drink is not for ourselves, but for the benefit of others? Right now, we’re drinking only with those we love and know most intimately. And there’s no point indulging in displays of “pecuniary strength” with someone who sees your bank statement and knows you secretly love watching Police Interceptors. There is the exception that proves this rule – every lockdown special bottle appears carefully curated on social media, of course. “Oh, this old thing? We normally have Grand Cru Burgundy in Valentino leisurewear on a Friday…” But that’s a whole different column.

So sit back. Take stock. Look at what you’re drinking today. This is the wine you really love. These are the wines that truly makes glad your heart.