Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Advanced tasting part 1, the eyes

So you’ve taken your time, thought deeply about the wine you are drinking, and you may also have jotted some of these thoughts down. Are you closer to ‘getting’ or understanding this wine? Perhaps. Now it’s time to look at some slightly more advanced tasting techniques.

Advanced tasting
Tasting begins with the eyes. Colour is important in wine. It sounds silly, but the taste experience we have is quite heavily influenced by visual cues.

What we see prepares us for our taste experience without us realizing it. Even experts can be led astray: in rather naughty experiments, a French psychologist got experts to taste the same wine separated by a couple of weeks.

The first time it was labelled as a humble Vin de Pays, the second as a Grand Cru. The experts were fooled and used much more flattering terms to describe the same wine the second time round.

So as we come to a wine, it’s useful to remember this as we look at the colour in the glass, which is usually best revealed against a white background.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Learning to taste

It sounds a bit silly instructing people how to drink wine. I’m assuming that most people are familiar with the practice of drinking a liquid. Well, wine tasting is the same, it’s just that to do it well you need to be a bit thoughtful about it.

Pour a small measure, swirl it in the glass, and then take a sniff. Then put some in your mouth, swish it around a bit, and then either spit or swallow. All the time you need to be thinking the following sorts of thoughts:
  • What does it taste and smell like?
  • Do I like what it tastes and smells like?
  • What sorts of components can I taste or smell?
  • Does it work as a whole?
  • Is it simple, or complex?
  • As I think about the taste and smell of the wine, am I getting any fresh nuances, or does the experience change?
  • What sorts of food might this wine go with?

It’s no good just reading this, because it will rapidly be lost in some dark corner of your memory, never to resurface. To understand what I’m getting at, you need to be reading this glass in hand. If this isn’t appropriate or possible now, then make a mental note to come back to this page on a suitable occasion when you can actually drink.

Have you got a glass in front of you? Now go back to the list of questions above. Think about what you are drinking: it may help to have a notepad to hand to jot down and make sense of your thoughts.

Tasting takes time, especially if you aren’t experienced. I find the analogy of a Turkish carpet shop helpful. For most people, the taste experience is like looking at a rolled up carpet. You can tell it’s a carpet, but not much else about what it’s really like; in a similar vein, to most people a glass of wine is wine, usually either white or red, and dry or sweet. For many others, the taste experience is like leafing through a stack of plied up carpets. Now you can see a bit of the pattern, but not too much.

But if you take the time, and think about what you are dinking in a semi-analytical way, as you gain experience it will be like taking a carpet and unrolling it across the floor: suddenly the entire pattern becomes apparent. But there’s an uncertainty – and imprecision – associated with the senses of taste and smell: so however experienced we are, it’s often as if we are studying the carpet in the dim light of a back street shop in Istanbul with a pushy salesman at our elbow. We just have to live with this imprecision.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Tastes change with time

It’s also important to bear in mind that our perception of wine itself – how it ‘tastes’ – changes with experience. As you drink wine thoughtfully, you’ll begin to ‘get’ it better. It will say more to you. And your taste preferences will also likely shift. This is worth bearing in mind if you are planning to build up a cellar of bottles: I know chums who have bought enthusiastically the sorts of wines they liked when they were first developing into geeks, only for their preferences to change, leaving them with a cellar of wines in a style they no longer cared for.

Wine is best shared, but as you learn more and become more confident of your own tastes, you’ll begin to be able to appreciate a great bottle even when you drink it on your own. I remember when I first started tasting wine thoughtfully. I needed the second opinions of others to help me decide whether the wine I was drinking was particularly good or not. I guess that’s why critics who operate in absolutes—giving wine scores, for example—are so popular. They reassure people that the expensive bottle of wine that they are drinking really is incredibly good.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Why it's good to learn, and don't be afraid

First, let’s begin with three key introductory points:

  • Learning enhances enjoyment.
  • We learn best by experiencing.
  • As we learn, our tastes change.

I believe that you’ll have more fun with wine if you know a bit about it, which is the reason I’m writing this course. I’m assuming, though, that you don’t just want knowledge for the sake of it, and you don’t want to have to spend hours reading through a huge doorstop of a textbook. I’m also aware that entering the world of wine for the first time can be daunting. There’s simply too much information to absorb. Relax! The truth is, you are never going to know everything about this subject. Don’t be even the tiniest bit gutted by this revelation; rather, be relieved. The wine world is just so huge and changes so rapidly that it’s no longer possible for any one person to be a real expert on all the world’s wines (although some claim to be; dig deeper and you’ll find areas where their knowledge is superficial, or out of date, or both).

Good news: you can learn a bit at a time, slowly building up your knowledge base. Even better news: you don’t have to learn by reading large books – instead, you can learn on the job.

Last year I had my first experience of flying, and it was great, because as soon as we were up in the air I was given the stick and told what to do. I was flying, and I hadn’t looked at a single book or had any lessons on the ground. I didn’t have much clue about what I was doing, but that’s the way to learn. You move the stick, you feel its effects. Hence the goal of this course is to encourage you to drink wine, and think about it as you drink, picking up the relevant information at the same time. In that way, you’ll really learn, and what you learn will be useful.

First, though, you must leave you fear of getting it wrong behind. So many people come to wine scared stiff of making mistakes or being made to look stupid. I’ll let you in on a secret: almost all wine ‘experts’ are pretending that there are more absolutes and more certainty than there really is. In truth, much of what passes for the body of knowledge in wine is made up, imaginary and passes on from generation to generation without really being challenged. Experts don’t like to admit how incomplete and uncertain their knowledge really is, because there’s a risk that they’d be taken less seriously. It’s really OK to question things, even things said by experts.