Is wine tasting subjective?
Having devoted an awful lot of my adult life to wine tasting, I am regularly jealous of people who seem to have a really natural instinct for it. Experience and commitment to learning has made me reasonably good at it, but every now and then I will encounter someone who will have a much more natural gift than I can even pretend to possess. I spent some time earlier today asking people where they felt my talents lay; my friend said ‘finding the homo-erotic sub text in films’ (it is true, I am really good at that), my husband begrudgingly and somewhat vaguely said ‘confusing the issue’( but somehow made it sound like a compliment), and my boss said ‘breaking the internet’. So it’s not like I don’t have talent, perhaps just not the talent that I want to have. And can I point out that not even one of them said ‘writing’… anyway, that’s another issue. Anyway, that led me to today’s blog topic – is wine tasting subjective?
When you first start paying attention to what wine tastes like, you notice things you didn’t notice before. If someone says to you ‘rose petals and lychees’ when you taste a Gewurztraminer, you’ll suddenly know what they mean. A hint of white pepper is always a giveaway of Syrah, and a green pepper-like character always indicates a (perhaps slightly immature) Cabernet Sauvignon. And you just get used to these flavours- they are what they are and they define the wines that are characterised by them. But what these clever naturally gifted tasters often identify is something beyond the obvious – the first time I was aware of this was some years ago when I was tasting wine with a friend who was one of these gifted tasters. He identified the flavour of pineapple in a rather good fifth growth we were drinking. At first I just laughed, it was so unlikely, but when I tasted again, I realised I could taste it too. Pineapple, right there in a glorious Claret. How bizarre. (Even more bizarre when a few days later on my birthday, the same friend presented me with an impeccably wrapped gift – it turned out he had taken on board that I said I loved pineapple and purchased one from Tesco and then taken it into Clinton Cards to have it gift wrapped, much to the amusement of the staff.)
Could I really detect the flavour of pineapple in my wine, or was it just the power of suggestion? I wasn’t sure then, and I’m not sure now. I taught wine tasting classes at a college in Yorkshire for a while, and even the least experienced tasters would sometimes shout out flavours that I just couldn’t get – sometimes, I could tell something was amiss (like the fellow who said ‘all these sherries taste of mint’ – I suggested it might be an idea to avoid cleaning his teeth immediately before coming out to class, to which he replied ‘but then wouldn’t they all taste of my tea?’). But other times I had to admit that just because I couldn’t taste a particular flavour myself didn’t mean it wasn’t there.
I try to keep an open mind about tasting – I always listen to the people around me, however experienced or inexperienced they may be, and sometimes their pearls of wisdom really help me to get to a wine’s character that I might not have been able to without them. I think wine tasting in terms of identifying a wine is fairly objective in that most of us who are relatively experienced will identify similar flavours and will reach a similar conclusion about what the wine is – not just its grape variety but its state of maturity as well. But the character of the wine – the thing that makes Parker give 85 points to one Syrah and 95 to one from a neighbouring vineyard – well that is more subjective. Personal preference plays a part, but also those little nuances that we just sneak a little taste of every now and then and can’t quite believe our luck. And we don’t get them every time – but maybe that is not a bad thing. Maybe it means that I will never have that ‘edge’ that makes a good taster great, or maybe it means that not every wine has a character that we really like, but either way it is just another reason why wine tasting is so utterly enthralling.