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Tasting wine? Don’t try so hard

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I wrote a post recently, “Aromatic whites, including Albarino, come of age,” which was sort of a general musing on the new popularity of these wines, a development I fully support because they can be lovely. Among the comments my post got was this one, which I’m reproducing in full because I want to make several points:

Hi there. I recently put together a blind tasting that largely focused on white spanish varietals: verdejo, viura/macaebo, and albarino. I also poured what I thought could be some imposters (e.g. pinot grigio). I generally found that the spanish varietals were quite difficult to tell apart…from my research, the albarino is typically represented by the combination of more intense aromatics (especially peach and stone fruit) and having the most bracing acidity – compared to verdejo and viura macabeo.

From the limited selection of wines I showed…this premise seemed to hold true. HOWEVER, all the wines did seem VERY similar to me…I think it was difficult to tell the difference between them. Of course, knowing what specific qualities differentiate the grape varieties would be helpful, lol!

Soo…..I’d love to know your thoughts! Do you think my assessment of albarino is correct? If not, what might I be missing? I’d really like to understand more of these great spanish whites.

My first reaction was, My goodness, what is it about us that makes us work so hard to find the slightest minute differences between wines? I replied,

I agree that these whites all all very similar. Perhaps you’re trying too hard to tell them apart. It’s a distinction without a difference.

I’ve always thought there’s a strain of behavior in our wine crowd that tries to over-sciencize the art and pleasure of wine tasting. We go about it like laboratory technicians, or MBAs studying the tax code, instead of people who simply love wine, and love talking about it. Personally, I never got too deep into that kind of thing. When I was starting out, I’d hear debates between people with a lot more experience than I had about whether that aroma was peach pit or apricot pit, and I’d think, “Jeez, is this the club I’m trying to join?” Another version of the debate was whether or not the wine was “lightstruck.” It seemed so pointless to me, because one person was going to stick with what he found, the other person would stick with what he found, they’d never agree, they were talking past each other, and it was all unprovable anyway. So why even bother to have the debate?

I’m not saying we should dumb down our wine tasting conversations. But I do think beginners, especially, over-sciencize it. They think that Master Sommeliers and Masters of Wine and Famous Wine Critics sit around and detect these distinctions with pinpoint accuracy, and so they should try to do it, too. The fact is, as one gets more experienced as a taster, one loses interest in what kind of stone fruit the wine smells like, or exactly which berry shows up in the middle palate. Instead one begins to think and write in terms of more abstract elements, such as structure, grace, elegance, harmony, precision, focus and balance–or the lack thereof. These are very easy to discern, if you understand what they are. (And blind tasting is the best way to do it.) We might not all be able to agree on precise aromas and flavors, but, in general, experienced tasters will agree on these more sublime qualities.

  1. Tasting palates are like fingerprints—everyone is different.

    The idiosyncratic aspects of wine enjoyment is such that even within the uniformity of thought on the elements of wine tasting there is simply too a wide variation to get so fretful. One’s man’s “forest floor” is another’s “mulch pile.” So what?

    Also, I’m not sure if Ann Noble’s Aroma Wheel started all this or if RMP’s evocative tasting notes was the culprit, but there is no question that newbies get discouraged, if not turned off, by their inability to articulate all the aroma and flavor nuances that professional wine critics seem to ferret out.

    And no worry anyway, with Google Nose just around the corner, we won’t have to swirl, sniff and savor–all we’ll have to do is “point and click” just like with our electronic check deposit.

  2. Tom–

    Let me assure you that neither Ann Noble nor Robert Parker nor Harry Waugh or George Sainsbury were the first to discuss wines by nuance and analogy.

    I have seen tasting notes from the 1870s in which First Growth Bordeaux (then at 9% alc and acidity that could strip road tar–and thus demanded 20 years in the cellar just to be palatable) were discussed in organoleptic terms. I suspect it has always been thus, and that Thomas Jefferson probably had similar conversations about wine.

    Why else would it be so popular if it did not taste good? (you may remember this topic from another blog). It is, has always been, taste and not chemistry that makes wine so fascinating and an object for discussion.

    But then, you knew that. I am just putting the idea on the table before the “authentic”, “natural”, “Chardonnay with a purpose” crowd arrives to take way my pleasure.

  3. Steve, I find that commenter’s question very genuine and well intended. S/he’s right – those wines can be hard to tell apart in a blind tasting, even among the wine-experienced. In the spirit of “what grows together, goes together,” Spain’s refreshing whites make great companions to so many Spanish seafood and tapas dishes, or for sipping without food on a hot day (ditto for their roses). Perhaps some of that sameness is more a reflection on that aspect of Spain’s traditional cuisine. Sure, their reds could never be accused of sameness, but the foods Spaniards enjoy with them make more forgiving pairing partners than shellfish and lighter tapas.

  4. carlos t says:

    In the place where I currently live wine is something rather new. For just only 20 years the importation has been allowed and what was here before is/was rubbish.

    As a result the drinkers are somewhat new to wine too. A huge amount of them want to impress people and come up with terms and aromas no one can perceive. These people are called eno-obinoxious, in free translation. From just recently shredded Chinese tyre to coca-cola vintage 2004 they can sniff it all.

    I should say that people who live in different continents have different olfactive memories. Everything that is tropical is easy for me to identify. The same can’t be said for European spices, herbs and fruits that so often are described on the bottles. White berry? What the hell is that? Fresh Spanish mushrooms?

    And lastly it doesn’t hurt to know what very important traits each grape has in order to know whether the wine has the minimum requirements for aroma and taste for those grapes. It’s easy and fun to learn and train the nose and the tongue.

    Or for example, it can’t hurt to know that beautiful aroma of green pepper in that Chilean cabernet is a bad sign. The grape was harvested too early, too green. Next time don’t be fooled, don’t buy this kind of wine.

    Those are the things i can remember why knowing where you put your nose and mouth is important.

    And nowadays when on recreational mode i am just concerned about the pleasure the wine gives me. Occasionally some fruit or substance pops up, but i keep on doing what i’m supposed to. Have fun.

  5. Carlos: Shredded Chinese tyre! Thats a new one. So is fresh Spanish mushrooms.

  6. Larry Brooks says:

    All professionals need a language or lingo if you will in which they can communicate. Flavor professionals are no exception be they winemakers or perfumers. Amateurs and consumers have no such need, but some desire it nonetheless. It’s harmless and if they enjoy it who cares really? I will state that at my dinner table we have very strict rules about wine talk. You’re pretty much only allowed to say, “this is delicious” or “let’s open something else.”

  7. Larry Brooks, I like your table rules! I’d add a third: “Is there another bottle?”

  8. Hooray – thank you – speaking as a person who deals with tasters at the Fredericksburg Winery (Fredericksburg, Texas) I promise you people try to make tasting too hard. When husbands and wives differ in what they perceive in their tasting I try to explain to them their taste buds are unique to them as an individual. I have had guests get mad at me when they ask “what flavors am I going to taste” and I tell them “I don’t know your taste bud are different than mine”. Trying to explain that the words we use are strictly a vocal try at describing a perception and that attempt complicates things sometimes helps to explain differences. The other thing I try to do is to explain that an individual’s perception is base upon their culture. We have found that most folks from Wisconsin definition of a “hot” salsa is significantly different than what is defined as a “hot” salsa here in Texas. We have also found that a person who drinks eight Dr Pepper a day has a different perception of the concept of “sweet” than a person who does not even use sugar in their coffee.

    Vive la différence!

  9. “Lightstruck” is a very real defect. Sauvignon Blanc is often in clear glass, and if you leave a bottle in the sun for even 20 minutes you will get the lightstruck character. Try it with some leftovers! What goes on is that the sulfur containing amino acids composing the normal residual proteins (and there are always some in spite of bentonite fining) react with light, releasing some sulfur compounds. In the case of sparkling wine, where producers go easy on the bentonite (as severe protein removal is at the expense of the mousse) this is a relatively common problem, especially in clear glass.

  10. Bill Dyer, thanks. I was thinking of a specific tasting with some notable critics, where one of them found multiple examples of “lightstruck” wines, but none of the rest of us did.

  11. george kaplan says:

    If you serve wines with food people learn fast. In tastings less so.

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