Beginner’s guide to tasting wine
So, you’re off; you’ve begun. You’ve discovered wine’s fascination. You’re thirsty for flavours, knowledge, understanding. I remember the early days well: the intensity of those primeval wine sensations; the excitement of new discoveries; the perplexity of expensive disappointments, and the sense of frustration afterwards. The more you read, the more inadequate you feel; progress, limited by funds, has to be slow.
Then comes the first large trade tasting or consumer wine show, and the senseless jangle of aromas and flavours as you roam around the hall. How should you make sense of so many competing sensations? How can you disentangle the threads? You try to taste as much as possible, yet the more the flavours pile on to each other, the more confusion reigns.
Relax; understanding will come. The speed depends on exposure; those working professionally in wine can move more quickly than those who can only taste with after-hours enthusiasm. But over the next few decades you’ll have ample opportunity to create your own palate, which is an interesting sort of ‘lifetime achievement’. You will, in other words, learn what sort of wines are typical of hundreds of different wine locations, and you’ll discover what you like, and what you don’t. Distinguishing the purchases you treasure, five or ten years down the line, from those you regret is the most telling revelation of all.
Note, by the way, what a joy it is to possess a palate: to be able to smell and to taste the world. This is akin to the joy of having legs: to be able to walk and run through the world. In other words, it’s a gift the young take for granted – but both palate and legs need wise use and training to stay in shape, and to restrict the use of both prematurely, via excess or neglect, is a tragedy.
Why, though, are you tasting? We all taste for personal pleasure, of course, but if you’re tasting in any kind of professional capacity, you’ll always be tasting on behalf of others. Sommeliers taste to help diners get the most out of a meal-time experience. Wine buyers or sales staff taste to find wines which will bring their customers maximum pleasure at minimum price or — in the case of fine wines or classic wines — at a fair price. Wine critics taste to discern and articulate quality within a peer group. Wine writers or bloggers taste to convey the beauty and diversity of the wine world.
Whatever the role, in other words, professional tasters need to keep their palates as broad as possible, to be open to all forms of beauty. Any meeting with those you serve will quickly reveal just how widely palates differ.
The main axes of difference seem to me to be sensitivity to — and like or dislike of — sweetness, acidity, warmth and a palpable textural presence in wine. The responses provoked by certain sorts of aroma can also vary widely, as does judgment concerning the desirability and importance of fruit flavours as opposed to other sorts of flavour.
One of biggest challenges in wine tasting, in fact, is knowing where to draw the line between the need to be open to many forms of excellence and the duty to be critical of what you might perceive to be winemaking failings or errors. Your internal tasting hierarchy of values is of course ‘right’ – for you and your palate. But not for others with a different sort of palate.
Resolving this challenge matters greatly for critics and wine writers, one of whose roles is to help shape the wine world of the future. It matters less (except in terms of personal anguish) for traders and sommeliers, who will sometimes find themselves buying and selling wines they don’t like — because they know that such wines are exactly what some of their customers are looking for.