(English) The Art and Science of Tasting Wine, Part 1: the Art

(English) by Ian D’Agata

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Almost all wine tasting today involves some variation of the “five S” steps method: see, swirl, sniff, sip, savor. Depending on whom you wish to follow (or believe), this stepwise approach can be increased to even more steps: six (see, swirl, sniff, sip, savor and swallow) and eight (see, smell, swirl, sniff, sip, savor, slurp, swallow). No doubt someone will soon come up with a twelve- and a fifteen-step method, and by the time someone develops the 25-step method it will be too late to realize that nobody will have any time left to actually taste the wines in their glasses. But where’s the fun in that?

Which brings us to the old conundrum of quantity versus quality. There’s plenty good to say about quantity (I readily admit to being the type that has to be literally bursting at the seams before I turn down one more slice of a really good cherry pie, tarte tatin or any soufflé). Quality really is another kettle of fish, er wine. The quantity and quality debate applies to wine tasting too. And so, we should ask ourselves if wine tasting, and the way it is reported on, is really all it can be? And if all those steps in the tasting valuation really necessary to properly evaluate wine. Or is it rather a matter of too much quantity over quality. Perhaps it is: in that case, how do we go about it in the best manner possible? If we accept that all those steps are in fact necessary (I’m not saying they are not), then do we know what are they are really telling us? I can readily tell about their quantity: but where’s the quality in that? More pointedly, are we accurate when we report on wines that we have tasted? That would be a highly qualitative assessment. But are most people even capable of understanding what it is that the wine is telling them (quality) or do they just lump together the first descriptors that come to their minds (quantity)? Do they know what to look for (quality)? What makes sense and what does not (quality)? Given the many hilarious tasting notes that one comes across at all times of day and night, well…you could be excused for wondering.

A little knowledge goes a long way, a little more goes much farther

In a famous skit, a well-known European comedian pretends to be a somm and shows us how to properly evaluate wine in a glass. He looks at the wine by holding the glass (and himself) in roughly seventeen different positions and inclinations and admittedly, it was quite funny to see him doing so. But when I interviewed him years ago and asked why he thought all that was really necessary and if he wasn’t exaggerating things just a tad, even in the context of comedy, he gave me an incredulous gaze -the guy’s a born actor- and answered piercingly: “… Have you ever even looked at a fashion magazine? What, you mean to tell me the positions those models are put in are even vaguely normal and necessary? Well, somebody obviously thinks they must be so; otherwise, they, and we, would all be very stupid people, don’t you agree? So if you accept that they and we aren’t, then you can accept me tasting wine while at the same time looking like a pretzel”). In some ways, I’m sure what the guy was really doing was quoting Einstein on me (“Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I’m not sure about the former”). In his skit, the comedian then proceeds to sniff, to snort, to drink, to swallow, to taste again, to slosh the wine around his gums while sucking in air (in a manner that would have any Dyson contraption totally envious), to gargle, to swallow again, to smack his lips (noisily, of course) in delight, to then finally exclaim “… Profound golden yellow colour, aromas of diesel fuel, kerosene, minerals, luscious and yet pungent in the mouth, really does smell and taste of gasoline…hey, wait a minute, this IS gasoline! Myrtle, is this empty wine bottle I had filled at the station the other day when my car ran out of gas? Hey, who’s the idiot who brought it out here on my tasting table confusing it with my anonymous wine bottles I was going to taste?”. But you’d like to think a knowledgeable wine expert would have understood it was gasoline all along. Call it our Linus blanket sensation.

There is undoubtedly an art and a science to tasting wine. The artistic component is just as important as the scientific one. Aristotle used to say that “The aim of art is not to represent the outward appearance of things but their inner significance”. Wine cannot be reduced to a scientific equation or a bunch of molecules combining together to give one definite result. You might even argue that from an artistic perspective it should not be so, for it would detract much too much from the pleasure that wine tasting brings people. But science is important because its raison d’être is to make people think, to question, to wonder. Going back to good old Albert (Einstein), he pointedly said “Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow, but never stop questioning”. Exactly.

In fact, many things about wine and how it affects our body are still not clearly understood. So questions abound, or should abound. And when we taste wine, our impressions of that wine can change from day to day and even within the day. But despite all that we do not know, there are some things we do know, or at the very least, that any professional wine writer should do their best to know. For that knowledge is tantamount to both doing a better job for the readers and helping us enjoy wine tasting and drinking even more than we already do. A common mantra is that we can enjoy activities more when we know more about, and have a clearer understanding of, them. It is no different with wine. However, in much of today’s wine writing, tasting notes are reduced to a series of very fanciful descriptors that often seem to be only loosely based in reality. How truly useful they are (never mind accurate) is very debatable. Part of the problem is that over the last thirty to forty years, the tasting and ensuing description (and scoring) of wines has been essentially limited to the use of one or two of our senses only. For the most part, there has been an unfortunate emphasis placed on what wines smell and taste like, often with the greatest written flourish possible. But with all other aspects of the wines somewhat forgotten or pushed into the background. Read any wine tasting note of today: many of them don’t even mention the wine’s colour (they just start with: “Aromas of…”), unless, in the case of red wine, said colour is impenetrably black. In that case, whoah, hold your horses, everyone seems to get very excited and then not only do they mention colour, but do so while bending over backwards in concocting terms the likes of “impenetrable”, “viscously opaque”, “saturated monster”, “blacker than black” … Never mind that a 100% Sangiovese, Pinot Noir or Nebbiolo wine cannot give you a wine anywhere near black in colour, or more simply, even as deeply hued as a wine made with Merlot or Petit Verdot. There is a degree beyond which you cannot push a wine’s colour, independently of the viticultural methods used to grow the grapes and the enological alchemy said wine is subjected to. So the artistic component of wine analysis and writing (“the impenetrable colour”, “the nighttime in your glass”) has to get along with the science behind the genesis and appropriateness of that colour. But that doesn’t seem to matter to many who write about wine. I wonder: do they even know Sangiovese, Pinot Noir and Nebbiolo cannot give you a black wine? And how many times have you read tasting notes that describe fifty years old wines as deep ruby, with no mention of at least a hint of garnet, amber, orange or a pale rim? Clearly, it is not that a wine cannot, or should not be, described as “impenetrably dark” or something to that effect: it all depends on the context those descriptors are used in, and if there is a scientific basis, or lack thereof, for their use. In ultimate analysis, the difference will be in that statement being scientifically justified, or just plain making sense. In a description of a wine made with Sagrantino or Merlot or a teinturier grape a very deep hue is neither strange nor out of place; but it would be strange to associate those same words with a wine made with Cinsault or one of the Schiava varieties, for example. Perhaps, getting excited about, and commenting positively on (never mind scoring highly, which is howler in and of itself), a wine that is the result of viticultural/winemaking artifices, legal and not so legal, is hardly a very intelligent thing to do.

Similarly to wine colour, wine aromas have an art to them, but also have a logic based in science. You can wax on poetically about one wine smelling of white acacia flowers that have not yet veered towards yellow, because those two have different aromatics. But knowing what is behind those different aromas is useful in correctly placing the wine in its appropriate context. Context in the sense of grape variety, of habitat, of vintage… For example, you cannot, and should not, expect a wine made with Sauvignon Blanc to smell like one made with Chardonnay. This is because the musts of those two wine grapes have different molecular compositions; which is logical enough given that Sauvignon Blanc is not Chardonnay, and viceversa. It would be crazy in fact if it were not so. Now really, think about it: you would never expect blueberry juice to look, smell and taste like orange juice, would you? And neither would you expect your red apple to look or taste like a green or a yellow apple, correct? So why should wine be any different? If Pinot Noir wines are not supposed to taste of green bell pepper, then why is it that the wine in the glass does taste of that? And what if a wine labeled as Ansonica smells like a Muscat wine (completely impossible, given that Ansonica is a non-aromatic grape)?. But when it comes to wine, many people seem to throw their common sense out the window. The fact remains however that, going back to our Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay example, those molecules in those two different musts will be transformed during alcoholic fermentation into new molecules that are those then responsible for the variety-defining aromas we associate with each of the monovariety wines made with Sauvignon Blanc and with Chardonnay. The wines made with those two different grapes taste different because they cannot taste otherwise: they are genetically determined to look, smell and taste one specific way. But the problem is that in many cases, people write about wine with artistic flair only, and with little or without any knowledge about the grape the wine they are drinking is made with. I mean, you either know that Ansonica is a non-aromatic grape or not; and if you don’t, well, anything goes. But I’m not sure, I don’t think really,  that it should be like that. Maybe you think differently. Remind me of that next time you ask me for an orange juice. I’ll get you a glass of apple juice instead: hey, it’s all the same. Or is it.

Undoubtedly, the genetically-determined potential of a wine made with a specific grape in a specific habitat will be impacted upon by all the elements characterizing that habitat the specific wine grape grows in. And yes, genetics may well be the manner by which to make all one’s flaws their parents’ fault (I don’t remember who said that), but there’s no doubt it is template on which external, environmental, factors can act upon. Matters such as topography, soil geology, soil microbiology, soil water availability, the presence of rootstocks (and which rootstocks) or not, of viruses, the age of the vines, climate, exposure, the amount of sunlight and of wind currents, not to mention the amount of human intervention (in the decisions human beings take in growing those grapes and producing that wine) will all greatly affect what the wine is about over time. These factors do so by modifying the genetic base the grapes are endowed with. In short, a well-made wine will express the specific terroir it grows in (to paraphrase Séguin and van Leeuwen, terroir is the ensemble of grapes, environmental factors and role of humans). But for all the interplay between all those factors, that still does not mean that you can get a monovariety Sauvignon Blanc wine to taste like a monovariety Chardonnay wine. And so, no, a Pinot Blanc wine that tastes like Sauvignon Blanc is not the result of “terroir”, just as a Chardonnay wine (that is not made with the musqué clone) that tastes of Muscat or Gewurztraminer is in no way the product of a specific “terroir”. Of course, you’d be surprised how often less than congenial wine producers will try and feed you crap (admittedly and thankfully, less and less so these days now that everyone is finally, albeit slowly, becoming  more aware). It follows that it behooves wine writers (but wine lovers also) to take stock of the fact that the grape variety is an integral component of a wine’s terroir; paying attention to, and knowing about, the typical colours, aromas and flavours of a wine made with a specific grape is essential to understanding if the wine before you makes sense. Or, allow me, if it is a wine worthy of your attention or not. And I am sure you will agree with me that nobody’s so poor he or she cannot pay attention.

The need to stay humble

As a wine writer, I know for a fact that what sets the very best apart from the rest forever quagmired in the middling pack is essentially their level of knowledge, rather than sheer writing skill. Intellectual honesty, a solid sense of dignity (such as that it will not allow the individual to stoop too low), and a scientific background all help too, to a degree. You can be the best writer in the world, and write about wine so epically that Milton would be proud, but without knowledge all is moot. Steven Spurrier was an amazing man of wine because while he occasionally travelled to New Zealand or Chile and wrote about those wines, he never strayed too far from his natural home, that of Bordeaux and Cabernet-Merlots wines. The man simply knew more about the place and its wines than 99% of the rest of the world working in the same wine writing field. To listen to and to read Steven on the subject was an exercise in learning. Much the same can be said about David Shildknecht and the wines of Germany: every world, every sentence uttered by David is pregnant with facts, not fiction. He tells it like it is, witness his not so friendly take on the GG wines that everyone and their sister has jumped on the bandwagon of (wines that are often unbalanced and too dry to give much pleasure, no matter their pedigree, but that are being hyped mercilessly). Great wine writers are individuals who know enough about the subject to understand when he or she who is talking to them is saying something less than truthful, because it just doesn’t make sense, either because the science is all wrong or because the facts as stated just don’t jell with what you know about. Clearly, in order for said wine writer to be truly “great”, he or she also has to be able to string words together in a fashion that would be at the level of a kindergarten student; the capacity for epic prose is then an integral part of what elevates that wine writer to an upper, more rarefied realm. You know, one from where he or she is looking at everyone below while clasping crooked crags (that’s a bit of Tennyson, someone who knew a thing or two about writing artistically, but with a foundation of knowledge).



Ian D'Agata

赏源葡萄酒评论 Terroir Sense Wine Review主编
赏源风土研究院Terroir Sense Academy院长
知味 TasteSpirit 首席科学家

伊安·达加塔在葡萄酒领域耕耘超过30年,在葡萄酒品评、葡萄酒科研写作和葡萄酒教育等方面,都取得了杰出的成果,在葡萄酒行业和葡萄酒爱好者中,享有世界性声望。作为享誉国际的葡萄酒作家,他最近的两本著作《意大利原生葡萄品种》《意大利原生葡萄品种风土》被公认为意大利葡萄酒领域的权威著作;前者荣获2015年Louis Roederer国际葡萄酒作家大奖赛“年度最佳书籍奖”,他是唯一获此殊荣的意大利葡萄酒作家,并入选《洛杉矶时报》、《金融时报》、《纽约时报》评选的“年度葡萄酒书籍”榜单;后者被《纽约时报》和美国的Food & Wine杂志提名为年度最佳葡萄酒书籍。



Ian D'Agata