The challenges and controversies of wine tasting have to do with wine’s intrinsic qualities and unique characteristics, varying tasting conditions, the element of the human taster as well as that emotional component – the much talked about experience. Keeping this in mind, are we expecting too much from those who taste professionally?
France’s performance in the 2017 edition of the World Wine Tasting Championships has made headlines this week. Being beaten into 7th position by Sweden at number one and then also by arch rivals, England at number two is not something the world’s most renowned wine country will be proud of. (Read more)
“Every French person thinks they are a connoisseur but we only know our own wines and not those from other countries. It’s the same with Italy and Spain and all wine producing nations. They only drink their own wines. Countries like Sweden and the UK are far more open”, Philippe de Cantenac from LRVF told The Times.
Palates are often under scrutiny – when they themselves are judged as in this tasting championship, but even more so when it comes to the judging of wines in competitions or for ratings. How much of the outcome of a wine tasting is really about the expertise of the palate and how much about experience and exposure and perhaps even luck?
To qualify your opinion on wine, you need a trained palate. For the novice it is about identifying the primary tastes, tannin, acidity, sweetness and alcohol, deciding whether you enjoy the wine and to determine what you are willing to pay for it. (See palate training for beginners)
For the connoisseur it is also about being able to eliminate the presence of any faults in the wine and interpreting the primary tastes in order to come to a conclusion about the quality, the maturation potential and the pairing options.
A competitive environment requires more of the palate. When the wine is the one being judged, the palate is expected to be well-trained and experienced. When the palate itself is the one being judged, such as with the World Wine Tasting Championships, it gets more complicated and the palate, with the help of sight and smell, needs the ability to identify age, origin, terroir… This is no easy feet and it takes a lot of continuous focused practice to obtain and maintain a well-trained palate.
“The sensorial and organoleptic tasting of wines is a practice requiring lots of commitment, concentration and a continuous training, and just like in many other activities, the knowledge of theoretic notions represents a fundamental factor.” (Read more: diwinetaste.com)
While wine tasting technique and regular exposure to a wider variety of styles and cultivars are of great help when trying to impress guests around a dinner table, wine tasting experience for those who taste competitively goes much deeper than knowing your Burgundy from your Bordeaux!
I always say that one learns the most about wine by tasting with those who know more than you do. Surround yourself with experts and expose yourself to variety. When you are in the industry – and those passionate about wine often are – it is easy to stick to the wine from your own estate, own region or own country. This is however doing a disservice to your palate. Do you often taste older vintages, lesser known varieties and wines from unfamiliar terroir? They might be more expensive and difficult to find, but if you do not go to the effort of including them in your tastings, you will fall into the same trap as the French tasting team.
“However the practice of tasting requires lots of experience and … the capacity of being curious as well as having a good attitude to investigation by means of one’s own senses. These capacities can be improved and increased thanks to a continuous training done with a constructive and comparative strategy. Tasting the highest possible number of wines is fundamental, moreover tasting wines from many producers, different areas, different grapes, different qualities, allows the taster to acquire experience by means of a pretty vast knowledge.” (Read more: diwinetaste.com)
When the palate is being judged there might be a small element of luck – perhaps you have just returned from Lebanon and are presented with some Château Musar in your tasting. In general, though, a trained palate and vast wine tasting experience would be the most important factors of your success.
Luck, in the opinion of Robert Hodgson, a Californian winemaker and statistician, has a more important part to play when it comes to the judging of wine.
Wine producers will all agree that the results from wine competitions can be very confusing. Winning double gold in one competition and bronze or even nothing in another. Of course there can be various reasons for this, but according to Hodgson’s research even expert wine tasters are inconsistent when having to taste a large number of wines. “We have won our fair share of gold medals but now I have to say we were lucky.” (Read more: theguardian.com and winecurmudgean.com)
Whether you depend on tasting results to sell your wine or want to broaden your own tasting horizons, the practiced palate seems to be the best bet. The science of wine tasting stays a challenge – but it is a delightful one to take on!