Right, I know what a lot of you are thinking, will he ever stop going on and on about tasting notes? Fear not, from next week on we will focus on wine and estates again! For now, we still have the most important influencer of a tasting note to discuss: a taster’s palate. Objectivity does not exist in wine tasting as has hopefully become clear by now. It is also often the biggest lie told by wine connoisseurs, claiming that regardless of personal preferences, they can accurately judge any type of wine in the world. Needless to say, I firmly disagree with this statement.
If the only wine I had ever drunk is Bordeaux, I would not be able to judge the more delicate wines of Burgundy. If I would know nothing but Burgundian chardonnay, Riesling would hold very little meaning. Why is it then that critics who have made their name and fame with one region feel that they can use the exact same spectacles to look at the rest of the world? This is one half of a palate description, the wines you have drunk, studied and the ones that you remember, that sparked a deeper interest in discovering a region, type or style.
The other half of a palate is knowledge of your own strengths and limitations. Jamie Goode posted an interesting article about raw tasting ability the other day, presenting a lot of good research that I would recommend to anyone who remains insatiable after my recent articles. There are several professionals who assume that a good critic possesses some kind of innate tasting ability that makes her or him better suited for the job. Of course, if you are dependent on convincing a consumer to accept your advice instead of that of wine critic X than you would focus on any factor, whether it actually matters or not, that sets you out from the crowd.
I have the impression that there are few people who really try to discover what their palate is like. Too often people assume that you can become a good taster or critic just by tasting a lot of wines. This is a load of crap. People need to taste consciously and need to be able to reflect on current and previous experiences to discover first and foremost what they like and secondly what they can actually distinguish in a wine. For instance, after tasting countless wines in company of others I found out that I have a relatively high tolerance for acidity. I therefore know now that I have to adjust my view of a wine if I were to form an opinion for the benefit of other people. If I were to follow someone’s advice on a wine, I would need to know what he or she likes and what he or she can actually taste.
So, disclosure time! How would I actually describe my own palate? A good tolerance for acidity will be the key determinant for my view on a lot of wine. If you like German wines for instance, this is basically a sine qua non as Riesling wines are driven by the subtle interplay of acidity, minerality and fruit. When it comes to red wine, acidity will also play a major rule in my judgment next to structure and depth. I will look differently at a wine were the structure is largely based on vinification (oak) rather than on terroir or grape variety. I have a good tolerance for tannins, but when tasting a series of tannic wines my palate will freeze up and debilitate my search for subtlety.
I tend to prefer wine that is somehow more than the sum of all its components. Some people will call this type of wine complex but I can only agree with this to a certain extent as complexity can also mean that a wine has a lot going on without really being about anything, which I would not label a positive quality. An interesting wine has a sense of mystery in it, something that you cannot describe, something that evokes a memory that remains frustratingly hidden. Something that is yet essential to the wine because you feel it in your gut that it would not be the same without it. Any sommelier course will teach you to deconstruct a wine, identify aromas, flavours and structures that are derived from the grape variety, terroir, the vinificaton or age but very few of them will teach you how to build them back up. I would encourage everyone who is a bit serious about wine to do the exercise. Go through one of your better tasting notes, buy the wine you described previously and try to reconstruct it. This is incredibly difficult I admit, but it will force you to become a more focused taster.
I shy away from wines that are too much in-your-face, often designed to be instantaneously pleasing but not offering anything more, the equivalent of a vinous one night stand actually. There are a couple of wines that I simply don’t like for this reason, muscat or viognier, overoaked new world malbec or chardonnay. A wine needs to be subtle, packed with flavour but not giving everything away right from the start. It should be something that intrigues you, inviting you to discover what it has to offer if you are just courteous enough. Finally, it should be gratifying, actually containing some kind of payoff for your effort. Nothing that doesn’t come out as the wine will only be drinkable in ten years, nothing that you just happen to miss as a wine is going through a closed phase. I am drinking that wine now damnit, not at some point in the future that in all likelihood will not occur!
There you have it, everything that has occupied me with regards to the tasting of wine for the past month. I did say it in the very first post, this will partially be a personal journey through wine so this may have been a bit too much self-reflection for some readers but if you want to know what type of wines I will discuss in the future and more importantly why, this is pretty much the basic info you need.