A well-made wine shows the decisions and care of the winemakerby Barry Smith / July 16, 2015 / Leave a comment
Published in August 2015 issue of Prospect Magazine
What does it take to understand wine? To some people the very idea will seem absurd: we can understand a play or a painting, but with wines we achieve all there is to know just by tasting them. Wine experts, they will say, may know a lot about a particular wine, its producer, the grape varieties involved, the vineyard it came from, but all of this is additional knowledge that tells us nothing about what it tastes like. This is a popular but, I think, mistaken view. What one tastes depends on how one tastes.
What expert tasters probably do not have is better perceptual equipment. Researchers from the Centre des Sciences du Goût et de l’Alimentation in Dijon have shown that experts perform no better than others in discrimination tasks such as sorting more from less acidic wines, or picking out the distinctive notes of prune or honey, once it’s been explained.
The difference is one of knowledge. The sensory discriminations tasters pick up on become more significant when they know the characteristics of the grape variety and something about the vineyard and the vintage. What would we expect to taste from a cool-climate Pinot Noir? Is this from a vineyard renowned for the quality of the wines it produces? Are we expecting some depth and earthiness? And what about the vintage? Was it a warm year with ripe fruit, or should we expect some dilution from a rainy season? Is this a maker who likes to mature the wine in new oak barrels? All of this knowledge helps to set expectations with which to probe the wine in our glass. What our sensory experience returns can confirm or undermine our expectations, and we can be pleasantly surprised. The fruit is riper than we might expect for such a poor vintage, for example. This speaks of the producer’s careful handling of the vines and skill in the cellar.