I’m in Hong Kong. My first time here. But only for two days, alas.
The reason? I was giving a talk at the Wine Trade Conference at the Hong Kong International Wine and Spirits Fair. It seems a bit bonkers to fly across the world (and suffer an 8 hour time zone shift) for such a short visit, but it’s the only way I could fit it into a crowded autumn travel schedule.
Besides, I love travelling, and the perspective it brings. Going to new places; meeting new people; being jolted out of comfortable routines. If you are always surrounded by the familiar, it is possible to live life almost automatically – unconsciously – but the forced change travel imposes allows you to take a step back and see things very differently. You can’t help but be conscious in an unfamiliar place.
So, Hong Kong. I’ve had a very brief introduction to this remarkable place. Bustling, busy, new, old. It’s only when you actually visit a place that it all seems to make sense. Just bring lots of business cards. Fortunately, I did, but one of my colleagues here came without any at all. Big mistake!
My talk? I was asked to speak about the future for Bordeaux En Primeur. It’s not a subject I’ve got any personal expertise on: I don’t go to the primeurs for a range of reasons. But I’m quite good at research, so I asked the opinions of some of the key players, and then synthethized those. The message? In a nutshell, it’s an excellent way of distributing wine, and it’s also a low margin model that enables the Chateaux to get their wine out to their customers quickly and without the need for each to employ a sales team. The courtiers take their 2%, negociants 10% and merchants 10%. The problem now is that the system is out of balance and the prices the Chateaux are asking are too high. For example, Berry Bros & Rudd, the UK’s biggest player, turned over £100 million in 2009, £60 million in 2010, but just £7 million in 2013. 2011-14 were all disappointing campaigns. And they make only 3% profit on their turnover. If the Chateaux don’t get their pricing right, they are going to kill this brilliant system for selling wine.
I was followed by Judy Chan of Grace Vineyard in China. Judy’s talk was super-interesting. After all, everyone is interested in hearing about what is really going on with wine in China. Judy joined the Chinese wine industry in 2002, so she’s seen a lot of change, and the she says that in China it is both good times and bad times for the wine industry at the moment. 10 years ago there were only a handful of wineries in China: now, China has nine different wine regions with lots of wineries. In Ningxia alone there are more than 300 wineries.
Judy thinks that they key to success for all these producers is to start marketing their wines to people who aren’t currently drinking wine. ‘The China wine market is still growing and very positive,’ she says, ‘but wine drinkers in China are still a very small group. It’s a big mistake if we try to target wine lovers. We should try to target people who don’t drink wine at the moment.’
She says that online sales in China are pretty convenient. Within a province, you can get your wine the next day; across provinces, you can get it within 6 days maximum. One of the advantages of online sales is that it gives wineries lots of free information about their customers. Wechat, one of the leading social media platforms in China, has an online store. If you like a post, you can simply click to order.
Last month Grace launched a sparkling wine called Angelina exclusively through its Wechat online store. Judy chose to promote this only through social media with no advertising, as a sort of experiment. It has sold well. She also mentioned the impact of the Chinese anti-corruption campaign. In the past, a lot of wine sales were through kick backs, rebates and having friends in government, she says. This has caused a lot of players to leave the industry. ‘You see the birth of the real consumer,’ says Judy.
So, it’s my last couple of hours here in Hong Kong. It has been a good experience, and I’m sure I’ll be back to explore the wine scene here in more detail.
Caught up with David Ferreira of Portuguese winery Mouchão yesterday to taste through their wines. I remember visiting Mouchão back in 2005, and since then I’ve had a soft spot for them. This is one of the classic wine estates of the Alentejo, and I love the labels, too: understated and immediately recognizable. Mouchão introduced Alicante Bouschet into the Alentejo: a teinturier grape with red flesh, it does really well in the region, and the Mouchão estate wine, reviewed here, contains 85% Alicante Bouschet, together with 15% Trincadeira (Tinta Amarela in the Douro), fermented in lagares and then matured in large, old casks. Also worth checking out: their affordable Dom Rafael red, a blend of equal parts Alicante Bouschet, Trincadeira and Aragonez.
Mouchão 2010 Alentejo, Portugal
There’s lovely depth here: spicy, powerfully structured, and driven by sweet cherry and plum fruit. This is youthful and could do with further ageing. I really like the dense but well balanced fruit. More a traditional-style Alentejo red than a modern blockbuster, but it means you can cellar it with confidence. 93/100
Penfolds are possibly Australia’s leading red wine brand. They make a series of celebrated ‘Bin’ red wines that culminates in one of the planet’s most famous wines, famously once described by Hugh Johnson as the Southern Hemisphere’s first growth: Penfolds Grange. On Monday, I popped into the head offices of Treasury Wine Estates EMEA in Twickenham to taste through the new releases. Here are my verdicts.
Overall, it’s a very solid line-up of wines. The style is very nicely judged: the wines are ripe and generous, but there’s a freshness and good definition, too. These are wines that will age. And each of the wines is different: as well as sharing a family resemblance, they are true to their own identity (or Bin number), which is of course interpreted through the lens of the vintage. The possibly exception here is Grange. The 2011 vintage of this celebrated wine is quite different: it’s still Grange, but not entirely as you might expect. I really liked it, but found it a bit surprising.
These aren’t inexpensive wines. Penfolds are shrewd in their pricing and don’t want to let others make their margin. But the Bin 28 and 128 (not tasted here) are usually good value for money (around £22), and the mid tier of Bins 150, 407 and 389 are pretty ageable and not crazy expensive (£40-50).
All the wines with the exception of Grange are available under screwcap, but Penfolds say that in Europe everyone wants the cork-sealed versions. Of this line-up, the first two were screwcapped, the rest under cork.
Penfolds Bin 28 Kalimna Shiraz 2013 South Australia
Brooding nose of sweet blackcurrant fruit with some blackberry and black cherry. Sweet, powerful palate of sleek black fruits with nice definition. This is ripe but balanced with lovely purity to the fruit. 93/100
Penfolds Bin 150 Marananga Shiraz 2013 Barossa, Australia
A relatively recent addition to the Bin Series range, this is aged in 500 litre puncheons, with a mixture of American and French oak. Taut blackcurrant and black cherry nose is brooding and focused. Very fresh, linear pure black fruits palate with a slightly stern, spicy, savoury edge. Good structure and real potential for development. 94/100
Penfolds Bin 407 Cabernet Sauvignon 2013 South Australia
Aged in a mix of French and American oak. A mutiregional blend. Lovely sweet blackcurrant fruit nose with a hint of tar and some savoury blackcurrant bud character. Sweet, focused palate with a spicy twist to the ripe blackcurrant fruit. Finishes spicy and grippy. This is so varietally true, and it’s really appealing – and already beginning to drink well. 93/100
Penfolds Bin 389 Cabernet Shiraz 2013 South Australia
This classic is a blend of 51% Cabernet Sauvignon and 49% Shiraz, aged for 12 months in American oak (28% new). It’s concentrated and brooding with dense blackberry and blackcurrant fruit, with a sweet texture and a touch of creaminess. Dense, with nice purity and concentration. This has sweetness to the fruit but also lovely structure. It should age really well. 95/100
Penfolds St Henri Shiraz 2012 South Australia
Famous for spending 13 months in large, old neutral vats rather than barrel, the St Henri is a favourite of the wine trade: it’s almost as if there’s a moral premium attached to it not being touched by oak flavour at all. This is fresh, supple and detailed with a nice concentration of sweet black cherry and blackberry fruit, and an appealing stony, grainy texture weaved around fine-grained tannins. Lovely balance here: a ripe wine but beautifully balanced with real potential for development. 94/100
Penfolds RWT Shiraz 2013 Barossa, Australia
This is a bold example of Barossa Shiraz that spends 17 months in French oak, of which 57% is new in this vintage. Very fine, expressive, ripe, sweet and structured. There’s great concentration here and a slight creamy edge to the smooth blackcurrant and blackberry fruit. Very stylish and pure: sleek without being over-ripe. You can drink this now, but it has real potential. 95/100
Penfolds Grange 2011 South Australia
2011 was a tricky vintage, and only about half the average production of Grange was made this year. For only the sixth time this multiregional blend is 100% Shiraz, and it spent 17 months in new American oak. Aromatic, warm, sweet spicy cedary nose with hints of tar alongside the lush black fruits. The palate is sweet and savoury at the same time with some undergrowth and cedar, warm spiciness and a hint of mint. The fruit profile is blackberry and black cherry, but the driving force here isn’t fruit, but the savoury spiciness. There’s potential for development here. 95/100
This is a new wine from Raventós I Blanc, formerly a Cava producer, but now working outside the DO (interestingly, BBR in the UK have decided to continue labelling this as Cava in their wine list to avoid the danger of confusing their customers). It’s described as a blanc des negres, and is a blend of 30% Xarel-lo, 20% Xerel-lo Vermell, 20% Sumoll, 20% Bastard Negre (this is a local variety that used to be misidentified as Mourvèdre) and 10% Parellada. These grapes are sourced from Vinya Més Alta, which is at the top of theSerral hill and has stony soils, farmed biodynamically. The wine is aged on its lees for 42 months and is bottled with zero dosage. It’s pretty serious, and I really like it.
Raventós I Blanc Textures de Pedra Blanc des Negres 2011 Conca del Riu Anoia, Spain
Full yellow colour. Rich and quite toasty with a buscuitty edge to the citrus, pear and white peach fruit. There’s freshness and concentration here, with just the faintest trace of pithy bitterness in the background. Lovely complexity, showing real bite and personality. There are even some cherry and herb notes, lovely depth, and a little bit of grip. 93/100
I got two emails today about restaurant wine list competitions. It got me thinking. What does a winning wine list look like? What is the perfect wine list?
It all depends on your perspective. As a punter, a perfect wine list for me would be one populated by the sorts of wines that I love at exceptionally keen prices. I remember dining at Rekondo in San Sebastien, which has an enormous cellar full of old wines that are now cheaper than cost – because the owner over-bought at a time when wines were much cheaper, and hasn’t pegged the prices on the list to wine price inflation over the years.
That’s a geek’s paradise. But from a restaurateur’s perspective a perfect wine list is one that generates profit. Restaurants need to make money, and a wine list is one way of doing this. A well crafted wine list can serve two functions: it can satisfy the needs of customers, giving them the sorts of wines they want to drink, and it can generate profit. The two need not be exclusive, and the best performing lists are usually the ones that manage to do both.
I’m realistic. When I dine out, I know restaurants need to make a certain amount from my table in order to stay in business, so I’m not upset that wine is marked up (although often it is marked up a little too much). But what is really frustrating is bad wine lists, where the selection is dire. I often go intro a restaurant with an intention to buy some nice wine, but end up despairing at the hideousness of the list, and opt for a beer or a negroni instead.
I especially hate off-the-peg wholesaler-generated wine lists. These are where the restaurant isn’t interested in wine, and ends up getting a list of appalling soft brands (wines with made-up restaurant-only labels so consumers can’t compare prices) from their wholesaler. Often, the wholesaler will pay the restaurant a backhander of some kind to foist an exclusive list on them. Even if you want to spend money on decent wine in these places, you can’t, because they don’t have any.
A perfect wine list? It would have no soft brands. It would be compact (anyone can create a huge list), and each wine would earn its place. It would offer diversity, and be sourced from several suppliers. There would be some classics. But the famous names (Sancerre, Rioja, Marlborough Sauvignon, Chablis) would be very good examples of these wines, and priced so that they appeared further up the list, so that people would explore a bit until they got to them. The perfect list would have a bit of geek bait hidden in there, but most of all it would offer a toolkit of wines that the sommelier could use to match the menu. It would also have an excellent by the glass selection (perhaps using Petainer/Coravin/Enomatic to keep the wines in good condition), with a range of pour sizes (75 ml/125 ml/175 ml). And the pricing wouldn’t be too greedy, with a cash margin coming into operation as the price creeps up. Most of all, the list would have a personality. It wouldn’t try to do everything (there’s no pleasure in huge cover-all-bases lists), but would instead have a sense of identity.
Such a list could work for the customer, and also for the restaurant. Do you have favourite wine lists? Those that are expertly curated, and sensibly priced? I’d love to know.
This is a remarkable wine. It’s made from Zinfandel, which I admit to be a grape variety that I normally avoid. But this is a Zinfandel like no other. Weighing in at just 12.5% alcohol, it has the most amazing perfume and freshness. It’s truly beautiful, and I drank this happily over a couple of evenings. (But don’t worry, dear readers: under normal circumstances, this is the sort of bottle I would sink happily in a single sitting: it’s just so thrillingly drinkable.)
Chris Brockway’s Broc Cellars is an urban winery based in an industrial unit in Berkeley, and he describes his winemaking as ‘low wattage': reds are made whole cluster, fermentations are natural, very little sulfur dioxide is used, and everything is basket pressed. There’s a really nice article on Chris and his wines by Eric Asimov, here. I am so happy that wines like this are coming out of California.
Broc Cellars Vine Starr Zinfandel 2013 Sonoma County, California
12.5% alcohol. Really detailed, fresh nose of red cherries, violets and fine spices. Juicy, bright, supple palate with a hint of sappy greenness and seductive, sweet liqueur-like red fruits. Superbly fresh and drinkable, with a slightly meaty edge to the vivid fruit. Lovely purity and finesse here. Quite enthralling: the perfumed nose on this wine is so exciting. 94/100 (£25 The Wine Society, Roberson)
On Saturday I was a lucky boy. I got a late invite to the Rugby World Cup final from Wakefield/Taylors, the Clare Valley winery, via new Wakefield employee Adrian Atkinson. It was a remarkable day, beginning with lunch at the Bull’s Head in Barnes (above, the view from Barnes Bridge – it was a glorious day), and then followed by the build-up to the game at Twickenham. It was a tremendously enjoyable game: New Zealand put their stamp on it; Australia fought back with a couple of tries; and then New Zealand came back strongly to win it in style.
Just released: the new vintage of Veuve Clicquot’s flagship Champagne, La Grande Dame. It’s the 2006, and this year it is 53% Pinot Noir (Grand Cru: Ay, Bouzy, Ambonnay, Verzy and Verzenay) and 47% Chardonnay (Grand Cru: Avize, Oger and Le Mesnil-sur-Oger).
Champagne Veuve Clicquot La Grande Dame 2006 France
Disgorged January 2014. Yellow/gold colour. Fine, rich, toasty nose with ripe apple and pear notes. There’s generosity and richness on the palate with a lemony twist and keen acidity. Lovely ripe apple and white peach with just a hint of pithiness. A rich, structured style that needs a bit of time to settle down, but it’s pretty serious. 94/100
I mentioned a while back that I’d taken part in a tasting of English sparkling wine versus Champagne. Organized by counter-culture wine publication Noble Rot, it pitted a carefully selected quartet of English fizz against four very good grower Champagnes, and four very good Grand Marque Champagnes. It was a fair fight: all three quartets had been well chosen, and there was a ceiling on price, so like was facing like.
The tasters were an eclectic bunch, including some very fine wine palates, but also some gastronomically fine non-wine palates. For full details, read the next edition of Noble Rot, which will be mailed early next week. TheTelegraph jumped the gun a bit and published the results ahead of the embargo, which is why I’m not linking to the article here – nor have I given it social media love (for the record, this isn’t the fault of their excellent wine writer).
The big headline? When the results of all the tasters was totted up, English wines occupied spots 1 and 2. That’s a striking result. As a fan of English sparkling wines – it’s a sector I’m really excited about – this is a great result. But I’d urge a little caution here: in the tasting some of the non-sparkling wine specialists were giving scores with a crazy range, which could hit some of the wines hard. We were asked to score out of 20, and some were giving some of the wines low single-digit scores (even one of the wine specialists did this). This is nuts: this is a really strong line-up of wines. I think it’s because less experienced tasters score hedonically (how much do I like this?) rather than for quality (I may not like the style, but this is a really good example).
So I thought it might be useful to publish my own blind scores and notes (unedited, save for a tiny bit of tidying up). As well as scoring out of 20 for official purposes, I also scored out of 100. Below my scores, I’ve published the official results. Here we have my ranking, the tasting note, and in brackets the group ranking.
1 Champagne Taittinger NV France
Linear and pure with fine citrus, pear and white peach. Impeccable balance here, showing subtle toastiness and lovely citrus fruit. Very pure and refined: stylish stuff. 94/100 (group position 4)
2 = Gusbourne 2010 England
Very appley, distinctive and pretty. Open and a bit toasty with lovely depth of flavour: pear, apples, spices and fine fruitiness. Quite light but just so distinctive. 93/100 (group position 9)
2= Champagne Chartogne-Taillet Sainte Anne NV France
Open , quite appley nose with a hint of herbs. Tight, lean and focused on the palate with some appley, slightly oxidative notes and keen citrus fruit. Lovely complexity and harmony with a long finish. Beautiful. 93/100 (group position 10)
4= Champagne Marguet Cru Extra Brut NV France
Superbly balanced. Subtle toasty notes and a bit of appley richness on the nose, with nice lemony fruit. Really elegant and refined with fine bready toasty notes and some subtle oxidative characters. Very fine. 92/100 (group position 8)
4= Nyetimber Classic Cuvée 2010 England
Very refined and fine. Subtly toasty with attractive pear, peach and citrus fruit. Linear and precise: a really pretty wine. 92/100 (group position 2)
6= Champagne Frerejean Freres Brut NV France
Complex toasty nose with nice savoury, nutty hints. The palate has lovely fruitiness combines with honey, toast and pear. Broad and stylish with nice richness. 91/100
6= Champagne Pol Roger NV France
Lemony and crisp with bright apple and pear fruit. Lovely lemony focus here, showing precision and purity. There’s a touch of sweetness. So focused yet has a little richness. Pure. 91/100
8= Champagne Bereche Brut Reserve NV France
Faint pink edge to the colour. Taut, citrussy and lively nose is quite shy. Lively appley palate with citrussy acidity. Lemony and quite structured with a savoury, dry character. Still youthful. 90/100
8= Wiston Cuvee NV England
Very lively, complex and citrussy with a distinct toastiness and high acidity. A real mouthful: intense, primary, linear and quite pretty, but just so youthful and intense. 90/100
10 Champagne Veuve Cliquot Brut NV France
Lively and bright with lovely lemony fruit and a bit of toastiness. There’s a sweet core of pear and apricot. Rich and balanced, this is a crowd pleaser with lovely harmony. 89/100
11= Hambledon NV England
Some creamy/dairy notes on the nose. Sweet, lively and fresh with keen lemony acidity. Very bright and quite tart with precise, intense lemony character. Linear and pure. 88/100
11= Champagne Savart L’Ouverture NV France
Extremely appley, oxidative nose of lemons, baked apples and pears. The palate is concentrated, fresh and appley with crisp fruit. Linear and distinctive in an oxidative style. Complex and broad: maybe too oxidative? 88/100
Professor Barry Smith (above) is an academic philosopher with a particular interest in flavour. A keen wine geek, he organized the first symposium on wine and philosophy back in 2004, and then published the first book on the topic in 2007 (Questions of Taste). More recently, he was founder and is co-director of CenSes – Center for the Study of the Senses. Hosted by the Institute of Philosophy (University of London), this is an exciting multidisciplinary forum for philosophical and neuroscientific research on the nature of our sensory systems and perception. [And in a real coup, they have got one of Britain's most famous scientists, Professor Colin Blakemore, on board.] I visited Barry to interview him about some topics relevant to my new book, and while I was there asked him some questions on the objectivity of wine flavour, which I thought I’d share here.
I began by asking Barry about his own background as a philosopher. How is it that philosophy can help neuroscience? Or would he no longer describe himself as simply a philosopher in the classical sense?
JG: What can your discipline, philosophy, give to neuroscience that can help here? Or would you consider that perhaps your discipline has changed a bit?
BS: Our discipline has changed a bit. We have always been interested in the nature of experience and the nature of perception. If you ask philosophers what their core business is, it is objectivity and subjectivity. This is one of the reasons I have got into this area. All the great wine critics go on and on telling you things, and then they say, of course, taste is subjective and it is all a matter of individual opinions. And then they tell you which vintage is better than another, and which domain is better. And I think, hold on, I thought it was all subjective and a matter of opinion. So is this just autobiography? If so, why should I care about you? They don’t really believe that it is entirely subjective.
People must feel obliged to say, it is subjective – like what you like. But then they behave entirely as if it was objective.
Entirely as though it was objective. I noticed this clash between what they say – the official line – and what they actually do in practice, which is to rate and give very normative pronouncements about which Domaines are better, which Chateaux are producing better wine, and which vintage is better. So they do have very clear judgments about this. In their favour you might say that they are confusing the perception of the flavour of a wine with evaluating it purely hedonically (I like, I don’t like). I am very hung up about this. A lot of ordinary tasters think the whole point of tasting is to come up with a verdict: thumbs up, thumbs down. If you give someone a wine and ask what do you think of that, they say, I quite like it, or I don’t like it. You think: I wasn’t asking that: I was asking what do you think of it? Not, how is it for you? But, can you tell me more about it? What do you notice? What is going on?
I think when critics say it is all subjective, they are saying your preferences are subjective. But there must be difference between preferences and perception. For example, I don’t see why critics couldn’t be very good at saying this is a very fine example of a Gruner Veltliner, or this is one of the best examples of a medium dry Riesling, but it is not for me. Why can’t they distinguish judgments of quality from judgments of individual liking? It seems to me you could. You know what this is expected of this wine and what it is trying to do: is it achieving it? Yes, but it’s not to your taste.
The general public don’t always separate hedonics from flavour perception. They don’t always separate liking from how something tastes. It is usually due to a bad argument. The bad argument is that you taste the wine and I taste the same wine; you like it and I don’t like it, so you say to me it can’t taste the same way to you as it does to me. If it tasted the same way you would see it was lovely and you’d like it. But why is that the case? It might taste exactly the same but you like that flavour and I don’t.
So there’s a step that’s missing, which is a separation of hedonics from perception.
Yes. We can do that in principle. Philosophers might be interested in whether liking was an intrinsic part of tasting. Is it that whenever you taste something, you can’t separate how it tastes from whether you like it. That is, if you like it, it would taste different from if you didn’t like it. As a philosopher I am interested in that separation. If you can’t separate them, how can you acquire a taste for something?
That is very interesting. Obviously our tastes aren’t static. Hedonics is interesting, but it’s not the most interesting thing. Whether you like something or not can change with time. It is not stable over time. But is perception stable over time? This is the Heraclitus scenario.
Suppose I didn’t like something. The first time you taste alcohol or beer you don’t like it. Then there’s a time when you really like it. Does it taste the same to you now as it did then? Some people say, no, I didn’t like it then and if I like it now it must taste different. Or, if it tastes exactly the same way before and after, what explains the change in my liking? Is it nothing to do with how it tastes? Is it just that I sort of flip? This needs to be explained. It is little bit of a paradox.
I suspect it tastes pretty much the same.
I think it tastes very much the same. I have had experience of this. When I was a novice taster, I tasted lots of great white Burgundies and thought this was the epitome of white wine. I remember reading about Condrieu as one of the world’s great white wines. So I rush out, buy this expensive Condrieu, put it in the fridge, get ready – I’m very excited. And I open it up and I don’t really like it. I was surprised. I thought: why do people like this? I was disappointed in me as much as in anything else. Then I was talking to someone a little more experienced in wine. They said: don’t you love that bitter apricot kernel flavour? Don’t you like the oiliness of it? I suddenly went back in my mind and thought that is exactly what it tasted of. It was oily and fatty and had this bitter apricot character. I thought: that’s right. They said: it is really good with salty seafood. I suddenly could put all those things together in my mind. Without changing how I remember it tasting, I thought: I want to try that again. Now thinking of it with those descriptions and with that way of articulating and expecting it to be like that, I loved it. Now it is one of my favourites.
So this is like the way changing the name of the dish changes the liking of the dish.
I think it goes further than that: it directed my attention. It was like the blast of a whole symphony. Here’s this single thing: did I like it? No. Then my attention is directed to those apricot flavours, to the slight bitterness – to the voluptuousness of it and the oiliness of it. Now that I recognize those, I am kind of understanding what the parts are and why the behave together as they do, and it completely transformed my experience of it. Does it taste the same as it did? Yes. But the way I experienced that taste is different because someone has directed my attention to it a different way.
This is an issue I find interesting. If we a vocabulary for wine, this gives us hooks on which to hang perception. Without those hooks we wouldn’t give certain facets of the flavour attention. Sometimes the language we have for flavours in wine can make us approach the wine slightly differently. You experience the wine the same, the taste is the same, but you go into the taste in a different way.
You go into the taste in a different way – the way you experience that very same taste. People say: it had a different taste. I say, no, it is only if you are identifying its taste with your experience of it that you think it is the same. It is the same taste but a different experience of the taste. So I have to believe in objective flavours for me to say there is a different way I experience that flavour.
This brings us on to the issue of objectivity. In the past I have argued – perhaps erroneously – that the taste is not a property of a wine because it only exists as a taste when it is tasted by a taster. Your position, if I am correct, is that you have the molecules – the various components of the wine – and they construct flavour, which is separate from the perception of the wine. Then how we experience that flavour is subjective.
Yes, that is subjective, and it is variable. Not only across individuals, but it is variable in an individual across time, and across different conditions. The way I like to do this is to say, here’s the chemistry (the volatile and non-volatile elements). And people often go from talking about the chemistry to talking about how amazingly varied our perceptions of wine are. They ask: how could we ever get laws that go from the chemistry to all this variation in perception? It must mean that there is no such thing as objective taste. What I say is, you need an intermediate level. We need a level in between the chemistry and the variable perceptions, and this is flavour. Flavours are emergent properties: they depend on but are not reducible to the chemistry. Then these flavours are things which our varying and variable perceptions try to latch onto. Each flavour perception is a snapshot of that flavour. We don’t even want to think of it as static: we want to think of a flavour profile: something which itself evolves and changes over time. As a professional taster you are taking snapshots in each of your tastings and trying to figure out what the flavour properties of that wine are that will continue to endure and alter as the wine ages. How would it taste if it was a degree or two colder or warmer? You make predictions and then you can go back and sample it later and say, I was right: I figured that it needed another hour in the glass and needed to be one degree warmer and it would change like this. The thing about which you are making the predictions is flavour. This is what depends on but is not reducible to chemistry. Now you have two tough jobs instead of one, with this intermediate level. One task is to say, what is the relationship between the chemistry and the flavours that emerge. The second task is what is the relationship between individual flavour perceptions and flavours? These two jobs need to be done independently, but they have to reach the same terminus. Having this intermediate level gives you the job of saying how does my individual experience as a taster lock on to flavour, and how does the chemistry give rise to flavour. Don’t try going from the chemistry to perception, you need that middle level.
And how would you get to the flavour?
You do it by prediction. I think it is very interesting that winemakers are making a wine, tasting it, which at a very early stage of its life is understood by them to be a wine that will need this amount of time and development. It might need to stay a little longer in barrel, or it might need to be bottled after 12 months, or 18 months, or whatever. They are making predictions from the early experience of what it will be like, on the basis of having made many wines before, and tasted them early and late. They are building up predictions about that underlying flavour profile. Then, like Heraclitus, you are dipping into the water at different time. But when you make a prediction and you confirm it, this gives me a sense there is something you are getting objectively right.
So there is a temporal dimension to flavour?
That is right. This is why I think it is not just a flavour as a moment; it is a flavour profile in a wine. You, as a taster when you taste the wine in barrel or when it has been bottled, and you taste it after four years, five years, ten years: you have expectations. You know some of its trajectory. That thing has gone on having that evolving flavour independent of your moments of tasting, but you are making predictions about it.