What is an aesthetic experience, how do you define it, how would you recognise it? To be honest …. I haven’t a clue! Immanuel Kant was one of the first philosophers to have addressed these kinds of questions, and he characterises aesthetic experiences as “those pleasures associated with occasions when one judges something to be beautiful.” Most theorists agree that aesthetic experiences are identified partly because of an emotional involvement of the experiencer, but I’m still not getting anywhere, though maybe that’s because as a scientist I need hard evidence, data, facts, something measurable, something objective and reproducible. John Dewey is a little closer when he argues that aesthetic experiences are the most complete, the richest, and the highest experiences possible. Hmmm, it begs the question as to whether I have ever had an aesthetic experience.
Well, I think I have and a very specific one comes to mind, wine related too. It revolved around THIS wine, a Grand Cru Furstentum Gewürztraminer from Domaine Weinbach in Alsace. But before I describe the actual experience, start with some knowledge that we were aware of as we drove to the domaine from our base in Ribeauville.
At the foot of the majestic hill going by the name of Schlossberg, surrounded by vines and roses, lies Domaine Weinbach. Named after the little stream which runs through the property and planted with vines since the IXth century. It was established as a winery in 1612 by Capuchin friars. These vineyards, to this day surrounded by ancient walls, are specifically named Clos des Capucins. In addition to this, the estate’s history is well remembered through the image of a monk which fittingly adorns their labels.
After being sold as national property during the French revolution, it was acquired by the Faller brothers in 1898 who then left it to their son and nephew, Théo. Théo Faller was a prominent figure in Alsace winegrowing and an ardent defender of quality wine production. He developed, expanded and enhanced Domaine Weinbach. In 1979, Colette -Théo’s wife-, Catherine, Laurence Faller and their team pursued the family’s passion for the great wines of Alsace and its unrelenting commitment to delivering excellence.
The Weinbach terroirs, rich and diverse, beautifully unite exceptional geological characteristics (granite, marl, limestone,…), topological characteristics (most plots are on the hillside), climatic features, and optimal sunshine exposure : this forms the beneficial microclimate of the valley of Kaysersberg. Each terroir leaves its mark in each of Domaine Weinbach’s wines, and has particular affinities with different grape varieties.
Grand Cru Furstentum: Covering the villages of Kientzheim and Sigolsheim, between 300 and 400m of altitude, the brown soils of the Furstentum are rich in limestone and pebbles with surface bedrock. This marl, limestone and sandstone terroir dates back to the Jurassic period. The marl conveys power and structure; sandstone conveys elegance, edginess and complexity. The Furstentum area benefits from a southern exposure, and its peak is a cluster of calciphilic Mediterranean plants. The slope is quite steep, which optimises sunshine for this type of water- and warmth accumulating soil. It was quoted in the inventory of vines which were the property of the monastery of Basel – 1330. This terroir favours beautiful ripening in the Gewürztraminer vines and overall the results in a wine of a remarkable aromatic complexity, great finesse, and a considerable storage potential.
The Aesthetic Experience
The whole experience was multi layered and multi dimensional involving some cognitive stuff such as history and geology as well as family memories, then the sensory flowing from visual, olfactory and gustatory stimulation, and of course the affective/emotional part of the experience as the brain responds to all of these inputs.
Our research into this wine was deep and far reaching. Featured in “101 Wines to Try Before You Die” it was second on my list after having tasted the best Chablis in the world two days earlier actually in the village of Chablis, and we had driven across France into Alsace to seek it out. In her book Margaret Rand says “This is the Gewürztraminer grape at its finest (and) ….. Weinbach’s wines are like no others in Alsace“. So our anticipation was literally off the scale! Historically we knew that vines had been planted here since the 9th century and the first winery created by Capucin monks (an order within the Franciscans) in the 1600s, hence the vineyard’s name Clos des Capucins.We drove through the beautiful villages of Alsace from our base in Ribeauville and entered the walls of the domaine through rows of vines and parked outside their rather grand building. We were met at the door by Theresa and were shown into a room that reminded me of a room in my grandparents house back in the 1950s, but the oak panelling and Edwardian style solid wood furniture marked it as being much older. The words “elegant, refined, classy” all sprang to mind.
We began the tasting with a Pinot Blanc, very common in Alsace but less so elsewhere. It was a palate cleanser, a warm up wine, often described as being nondescript and without character, but it added to the occasion as Theresa said “we always start a tasting with our guests this way, it paves the way for what comes next”! Theresa then left the room and returned after a few minutes with a 2017 vintage Furstentum Gewürztraminer on a silver tray, opened the bottle and poured about half a glass into each of 4 glasses on the table. There was almost a reverential formality to this simple act which was building up the tension and anticipation even more. A swirl and a sniff followed revealing a spicy aroma with an absolute burst of rose petal which made me wonder if the placement of roses on our table was “deliberate”.
On the palate there was a definite sweetness, a characteristic of young Gewürztraminer wines, but it was a wine of such structure and complexity I had to use the word “lush” to describe it! I know I don’t have the vocabulary to describe the overall sensory experience of tasting this wonderful wine.
And now, 3 years later as I look back at my notes, my memory of it is of the TOTAL experience; being in a vineyard that dates back to the 1300s, in a building dating back to the 1700s, in a room from the past too, and drinking a wine that towers above most others in this entire region of France. The process of the tasting led by Theresa also added an extra layer of elegance ……. of course we couldn’t resist buying a couple of bottles …… one bottle remains in my collection that will continue to grow and develop from its nascent self into a mature gem. But that’ll take 10 years, and yet we will still remember that tasting as the finest of total aesthetic experiences.
You cannot separate vision and flavour. How the wine looks, the tasting environment, the mood in the room and even your own interoceptive state will all feed into the experience of the wine.