What makes someone a good taster? Is it the ability to identify 1001 aromas with a quick sniff of wine? Is it the ability to correctly identify a wine blind? Or does the number of synonyms and metaphors used in a tasting note judge it best? One of the most obvious determinants is of course experience. If you drink a glass of wine every now and then, good luck developing some kind of ability to select a wine you would like. If you go from tasting to tasting and spit out more wine than you drink on average (sad but true sometimes) than it is a different matter. Experience enhances your ability to assess a wine, to come up with a method that allows you to judge it on a technical level (is it correctly made or not) and on a sensory level.
Critics and wine writers alike will often claim that objectivity is key to being a good taster and I do agree that this is paramount in analysis on a technical level. When we get to judge a wine on a sensory level however, I think that objectivity can be thrown right out of the window as this is too tightly linked to the winetaster as well as the tasting environment. I have written before about the seasonal effect on evaluating a wine, but there are so many other circumstantial factors in play that it I am convinced that it is impossible to replicate a tasting experience.
The standard clause in investment advice is past performance is no indicator of future results, and the same can be held up for wine as well. Even professional wine reviewers are often wrong in assessing a wine and its potential. Decanter published a tasting report on Saint-Emilion (1)GCC 2011 and the scores where surprisingly low (only four highly recommended wines) especially as the initial report in 2012 had been positive. I can imagine that the people who bought wine en primeur would be anxious if they saw that what they had stored did not live up to the expectations of professional tasters, the ones that they counted on to give them some sort of guidance when selecting wine.
More importantly, a taster’s personal preferences will always influence his or her experience with a wine. For instance, I am not a fan of Bordeaux. I have tasted my fair share of claret but it just doesn’t appeal to me to the same extent that other regions do. Can I tell if a wine is well made, meaning balanced and integrated without any false notes? I like to think I can but at the same time I readily admit that I may not be the right person to judge whether this wine is good or not. A lot of critics tend to state that they can assess every wine style, grape variety or region in the world, but I honestly call bullshit here. I know what I like and what I don’t like, so I talk about what I like and not about what a good winewriter supposedly talks about. I am not a fan of Bordeaux or Alsace wines and even though I may present an estate or a particular wine from time to time, it will be more because I am surprised that I really liked it rather than because I feel I have to discuss every possible wine in the world.
I believe that disclosure of personal preferences when it comes to regions or styles is essential to one’s credibility. Let’s look at the world’s most influential winecritic, Robert Parker. He made his fame with Bordeaux, but his star rose so high that people followed his opinions for every other wine region, not taking into account that the style of Bordeaux is completely different from say Burgundy or Germany. An unfortunate consequence was that producers started catering to the Parker style, regardless of the fact if this was the style suited for the variety and terroir they were working with or not, just look at the Super Tuscans for instance, or the new modernized heavily oaked winemaking in Piemonte.
Luckily times have changed and people are paying more attention to specialized wine writers. You see this in the tasting teams assembled at Jancis Robinson or the Wine Advocate, but independent bloggers are also becoming more influential here with one of the best examples being Chris Kissack. I have been following the Winedoctor for several years now, and whereas he tended to be a bit all over the place in the very beginning, his decision to double down on the Loire and Bordeaux has really paid off and I consider him to be one of a select few of authorities when it comes to these two regions. He made a choice and he stuck with it. While someone may be able to assess a wine that he or she is not familiar with, this shows that a certain degree of specialization in a region or style in order to really “get” a wine.
As an aside, the same goes for wine merchants and sommeliers. Why do they so often need to represent every possible region? When presented with a 200+ bin list, I often wonder if the sommelier actually knows the wines that he is supposed to be recommending, or if he is just following whatever his X suppliers presented as the “top wines” of their regions. I prefer to do my wine shopping at merchants who are specialized to a certain extent. Focused, well versed in a specific region or style, they are often more reliable than a big supplier who has to have the whole world in his portfolio.
We are blessed in Belgium with merchants specialized in Germany (Vinikus), Spain (La Buena Vida) or particular regions in France and looking at the international wine scene, I have great admiration for Terry Theise. He really focuses on Austria, Germany and Champagne for his portfolio and by limiting the number of producers represented; he assures winelovers that he can really understand a winegrower or estate. I believe that you would be much better off following recommendations from specialized writers or a wine merchant with a focus instead of simply picking up whatever received the highest score (as always so conveniently marked with an ugly sticker), it will be well-worth the effort!