Its 8:30 on a very cold morning. I am not looking forward to tasting thirty or forty heavy red wines all before lunch. More to follow in the afternoon. It’s the final tasting before our Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) Diploma exams, signalling the end of a two-year slog. I am the only amateur in the group and I have nothing to lose if I fail the final exams. Others, having made wine their careers, are apprehensive as pass rates are low.
Arriving at the venue, most of my fellow sufferers are already there looking grim with some hunching over take-away coffees. Nobody says much until a loud cheer goes up when it’s announced the afternoon wines have not arrived and we are free to go home after lunch.
When the first reds are poured, we automatically go into a routine hammered into us over many months and hundreds of wines. First the colour. Is it clear and bright? If its cloudy the evaluation comes to and end and the wine is rejected as faulty. If it’s clear and bright then a further assessment on the colour is made. Dark-coloured red wines tend to be young, losing colour as they age, forming deposits in the bottle. Grape variety will also influence the colour. The likes of Pinot Noir will produce wines light in colour whilst Cabernet would be considerably darker.
Or does it smell of a wet dog, signalling a dreaded corked wine?
Sitting next to me is a French sommelier working in a Michelin-starred restaurant in Dublin. A year later, she was to be a finalist in the Sommelier World Championships in Tokyo. She told me she had always wanted to be a sommelier, since she was a little girl serving wine at family dinners. She recounted how one particular awkward client had taking her to task recently as the expensive red wine he had ordered was too cold and should be a chambré, or room temperature. The wine, cellared at optimum temperature, could have appeared too cold in a restaurant with modern heating. Since the customer is always right, a new bottle was placed briefly in an oven, with the whole kitchen staff peering and sniggering through the kitchen door as she took the wine back to the client. Everyone was happy.
After assessing colour comes the smell, or ‘nose’. Does it smell clean? Or does it smell of a wet dog, signalling a dreaded corked wine? Assuming the wine is in good condition, the nose should be a good indicator of quality. Some wines will smell of very little whilst better quality Italian sweet wines may have multi-dimensional smells. Here is a note by a professional wine critic on the nose or smell of Vega Sicilia, Valbuena 2014:
“Distinctive American Oak on the nose, evolved fruit, with lovely, rounded fragrance. Very elegant.”
This simple descriptor of the initial smell of the wine actually tells us quite a lot. As one would expect, American Oak is the overwhelming smell. Expensive Vega Sicila can afford new oak barrels and so their wines will have a very distinctive oaky smell – an integral part of their style and character. A top-notch Burgundian Pinot Noir would be considered badly made were to have the same level of oak which would overwhelm the lighter wine. The evolved fruit tells us the grapes will have been picked at optimum conditions hardly surprising in the predictable weather of Ribera del Duero. Rounded fragrance indicates the wine has no hard edges, and the final comment on elegance tells us this wine appears to be of very high quality.
Next the wine is tasted by swirling in the mouth. A professional taster would then spit the wine into a spittoon and quickly evaluate the wine. Does the wine taste clean or does it suffer from a fault such as oxidation, giving it vinegary notes? If it’s clean, the taster will then describe the wine so potential buyers reading his notes will get an idea of how the wine tastes. Here’s the professional note of the taste of the Vega Sicila Valbuena 2014 above:
The average drinkers cares not a hoot about the characteristics of a wine.
‘Long, well- structured, will improve with age but enjoyable even now.’
Here the professional taster keeps superlatives to a minimum, but still gives us valuable clues about how the wine tastes. Long tells us the taste will linger in mouth for quite some time a critical characteristic if the wine is to be considered high quality. Well-structured
suggests the wine is as it should be for the type and doesn’t exhibit any minor flaws or imperfections. The taster tells us the wine is still a touch young and will improve after several years cellaring. Perhaps the wine will become more rounded and show a more complex or interesting finish in the future. Lastly, the taster will give an overall score for the wine – perhaps 95/100 or 18/20 – telling potential buyers this wine is worth acquiring.
Nothing too complicated so far, so why can’t we all taste and evaluate like a professional?
Simply put, we don’t taste enough wines to train our palates. How often is the average drinker able to taste several wines side by side, or perhaps taste the same wine but from different vintages at the same time? Professionals taste thousands of wines every year at events organised by producers and importers, allowing palates to be honed and thousands of comparisons to be made by the taster.
Is the ability to evaluate wines necessary for its enjoyment? Not at all. We are all able to tell if the wine pleases us, and frankly, the average drinkers cares not a hoot about the characteristics of a wine. Price and drinkability are overwhelming qualities looked for, with many people never going beyond the £5-per-bottle psychological barrier, even if they can afford better. Others may want to delve deeper into wine and be prepared to spend time and money comparing wines inevitably developing a liking for more complex wines – no longer satisfied with everyday supermarket wines. Each to their own.