Tasting a sample of wine sort of sucks

Don’t get me wrong. I love big tastings where you get a chance to taste lots of wine. It’s an incredible opportunity for a wine writer to be able to taste, in the space of one day, perhaps 80 different wines. You rapidly build up quite a stock of tasting notes.

But there are severe problems for those whose professional life consists solely of quick tasting samples like this.

First of all, while this approach is fine for quick rough-and-ready assessments of commercial wines, it doesn’t serve serious wines well. In a tasting like this, I can spot the duffers from the good bottles, and it flags up potentially very good bottles. But it doesn’t tell me just how good those very good bottles are.

Perhaps this is why the besetting sin of winewriters seems to be that they aren’t very good (generally) at distinguishing among high-quality commercial wines and serious fine wines. And this might be why many of them fail to get really serious natural wines, for example: these are wines you have to have a relationship with, not a one-night stand.

Secondly, the most serious wines tend to have a temporal dynamic to them. They are alive, and change with time. If you taste a sample, you don’t spot this. If you sit down with a bottle, you have a chance of catching it. Great wines demand a response from the drinker. It is almost as if there is a dialogue taking place. We have a conversation with the wine that can last an evening.

Finally, palate fatigue can prevent even the best taster from making the fine discriminations that are the difference between top quality commercial wines and serious fine wines. And there is a very real difference, in my opinion.

The sorts of wines that really thrill me don’t reveal themselves straight away. You get a sense that they are serious; that there is more than meets the eye. But this takes some teasing out, glass in hand.

8 comments to Tasting a sample of wine sort of sucks

  • Simon T

    Totally agree Jamie. Have now been in the industry for 9years and whilst I recognise the importance of tastings etc, they leave me a bit cold / I think I’m a crap taster so I do the teenage retracting into shell routine. Drinking in the home environment however I find that I can let the wine envelop me and tease my senses and thereby give a more rounded judgement vis a vis my opinion – which I share with my alter ego through sincere and quiet reflection.
    On another note, what Slovenian wine for the match later ? I want us to stuff them but at the same time indulge them economically ! Please, please, please tell me that we will not struggle to break them down and that Capello will refuse to bring on Joe Cole out of sheer stubbornness…. Vamos Inglaterra!

  • TommyB

    I hate to start this comment on a dull note but Simon T, Jamie, I think this will be Englands last day in the world cup today (if I’m wrong I’ll comment later to apologise).
    The weather here in Lewes is stunning, so I think a Manzanilla sherry will be my tipple for the day. Back to the point – I can’t count how many times I have sat down with a bottle of wine making some tasting notes only to find that 3/4 of the way through it has changed dramatically. A Picpoul de Pinet I had the other day started off tropical and ended up reminiscent of a Vinho Verde! It happens all the time to me. I believe that if you’re going to write about a half decent wine the only way to get a true sense of it is to spend an evening to it, and then return to it in the future. The one thing you can’t do with wine is rush it! I hope you concure..

  • A very important posting, Jamie! I’m not as seasoned as you are with regard to big tastings, but for me (and I suspect for all but a tiny minority) they can only work as a screening. I post most of the tasting notes on my blog, but for my newsletter (very infrequent)I want to have tried the wine over an evening and with food in the comfort of my own home.

    Wines evolve over time, and some of the best only reveal their qualities gradually and over an evening. Sometimes the most rewarding sample is the one you find in the bottle the next day or several days later.

    Some of the show-stoppers at big tastings tend to flash and die when you try them at home. I wonder what this says about relying on scores and notes from big tastings?

    Correction: No I don’t. I treat them with skepticism.

  • Kwispedoor

    I fully agree, Jamie.

    Re the World Cup: apparently they finally found out how that disgruntled English supporter got into the England dressing room to confront Beckham…
    … Rob Green let him through!

  • TommyB

    I apologise.

  • Simon T

    I’ll give myself a bit more time now to select the fine German Riesling for Sunday !!!

  • Ben Smith

    An interesting post, Jamie. Having hosted many of these type of tastings I can confirm that there is a real element of chance involved – especially if the bottles are open for 5 or 6 hours (which they often will be so that people have a wide time range to come and taste in). Wines which looked bright and fresh on opening often seem to have really gone flat and dull after a few hours and conversely others may just be hitting their stride. The point at which the taster gets round the table can very much affect which wines stand out for them.

  • Spot on. Meagre samples, often served too warm, reveal little more than a deputised servers ungenerous nature. Wines, including fortifieds as I’ve recently found, do develop. There was a blog out there somewhere that reviewed a bottle on opening and then caught up with it a day later. Really intriguing stuff.

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