The art of tasting

“Forget all rules, forget all restrictions, as to taste, as to what ought to be said, write for the pleasure of it—whether slowly or fast—every form of resistance to a complete release should be abandoned.”

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Do you bite your tongue when you see someone tasting badly, by which I mean tasting through a veil of prejudice, which is the physical equivalent of coating your mouth in a mixture of cotton wool, egg yolk and coffee grounds? A closed mind sups exclusively on suppositions and saps the life from the wine. Good tasters are adaptable; they can be critical, but they can also make the necessary leap of understanding.

Who assesses the assessors? I am an imperfect taster myself but I can spot slackness and complacency in others. As I pour wines into the glasses of the tasters I watch how they approach the act of tasting. There are a variety of responses which suggest to me that many are a long way from capturing the spirit of the wine. I say spirit, because the act of appreciation yokes the ethereal and the practical, that combination of intuitive and objective qualities.

Tasting in intellectual isolation may be the done thing but I believe that you should never reject a marker. Trade tastings are not like being a member of the Decanter or International Wine Challenge panels where you operate with minimal information in order not to prejudice your judgement. No taster, however much they flatter themselves and are flattered by others, is, however, a precisely calibrated instrument whose palate can objectively assess (in absolutist terms) the quality of wine. Outside the contrived milieu of competition tastings one should want to assemble as much information as possible in order to build a complete picture of each wine as it is being tasted.

And yet there are people who turn inwards and deprecate contact in order to focus. Tasting like automatons, they give nothing of themselves and they take nothing from the wine. Wine drinking is a social activity; these self ex-communicators have mentally detached from the pleasure principle. One of my bête-noires, for example, is pseudo-intensity manifested as over-agitating the glass, the compulsive taster’s twitch, which results in working the wine to death – classic analysis-paralysis.

“Live each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influences of each.” (Thoreau).

The most receptive tasters know how to balance analysis and enjoyment. They “feel” the wine rather than score it for correctness.

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I’ve seen tasters hold a wine up to the light, recoil, and tell me that a wine is out of condition because the colour is wrong or the wine is completely cloudy. Parroting tendentious half-digested WSET dogma indicates a taster who examines wines on a narrow spectrum and reduces everything to a standard Manichean good or bad.

If over-focusing can distort perception, not focusing at all doesn’t do any justice to the wine or respect the efforts of the grower. I have seen far too many journalists, in particular, entirely distracted from the task, constantly checking their blackberries, texting, tweeting and so forth. Better to not go to a tasting than to literally phone in your attendance.

Tasters become habituated by ritual. What is the rationale of tasting exclusively white wines followed by reds? You might as well taste by region (to gain an understanding of the region) or by grower. Physiologically, as well, it is important to break up the pattern of tastings. If you taste nothing but high acid whites your palate becomes over-adapted and it becomes increasingly difficult to determine quality. The same goes for tannic reds.

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Finally, there is the matter of assessment of quality. The wines at our trade tasting were made, or rather, crafted, by small growers – a few hundred bottles here, a few hundred bottles there, certainly not “manufactured” in commercial quantities. Yields are minuscule – 10-15 hl/ha would not be unusual. The elevage can be slow – some wines only released after several years in barrels. Yet I have frequently overheard mumbling about the wines being expensive. This is nothing to do with quality and everything to do with false perception. You might as well argue that none of the first growth Bordeaux represent actual value for money – they are variable in quality, they cost a minor fortune and they are fairly widely available. Marketed as a commodity they have “perceived value”. Our artisan wines are rare and unique; they represent the challenges of the vintage and an aspiration to make something truthful (and beautiful) without compromise. You shouldn’t put a price on that, and those tasters who blithely dismiss wines as being expensive have little idea of relative value and zero idea of aesthetic value.

“We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospection,” wrote Anais Nin. The truly proficient taster will be duly responsive at the time and then, later on, will recollect his or her impressions in tranquillity. The more I taste wine, the more I am reminded that I need to flip over my preconceptions and that I do not exist to have an adversarial relationship with wine. On many occasions the wine has challenged and surprised me over a period of days which suggests that first encounters are not always reliable and that my judgement can sometimes get in the way of my instinct. A salutary lesson; one should always be humble. Few professional tasters are.

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