Thursday, 5 February 2009

Wine Tasting for Dummies - a simple system

I struggled through the wine tasting part of the WSET Diploma course. It wasn't that I didn't have a pretty good palate. My friends, and later, my customers always seemed to like the wines I selected and I never enjoyed cheap and nasty bulk wines (which must, in my way of thinking, validate my choices somewhat). My problem was how to describe what I was smelling and tasting. For the Diploma, it mattered. But in real life, it doesn't. So, eventually, I evolved what I call the "Yum or Yuck" system of tasting.

This system can be as simple as just Yum or Yuck. That's good enough. Either you like the wine or you don't. And everyone who can smell and taste can do it.

Of course, you may want to get fancy and make the "Yum or Yuck" system follow the conventional "professional" system of Appearance, Nose, Palate and Conclusions. So here's the expanded version of the "Yum or Yuck" system.

Part I - Appearance - Does it look good? Who cares what colour it is besides red, white or pink? Of course, if it's a particularly pretty colour, that's fine to note. And if it resembles something from your septic tank, that's worth noting, too (that would be a definite "Yuck!").

Part II - Nose (or what does it smell like?) - In the "professional" system it is common to go all "Gilly Goolden" with your descriptions (Gilly Goolden is a well-known UK wine personality who used to be on the Food & Drink programme and was known for her very florid descriptions of the wine she tasted). So if you want to be professional in your wine descriptions, you can describe a wine as smelling of almost anything and everything. If you're very creative, you can describe a long list of scents you find in the glass.

But my scent descriptor is defective. At best I can usually manage generic flowers, fruits (red,white, or berries if I get fancy), savoury (not exactly what, just that it smells like dinner!), vegetal (bushes in general or herbal if fancy), and spices (again, nothing specific more often than not). However, the "Yum or Yuck" system really focuses more on how I feel about what I smell. That is, do I want to jump in the glass and do the backstroke through it's incredibly gorgeous sensual pleasures OR am I looking for the Glade to get the stink out? Of course, there's a wide universe between those two extremes. Do I like the smell a lot, a little, not very much or ... yuck, get me out of here! It's as simple as that.

Part III - Palate (or what does it taste like?) - Here, again, the pros use long and detailed descriptions of all the tastes in the glass. A wide variety of fruits, flowers, spices, minerals, and even more exotic descriptors (pencil lead, cigar box, wet stones, etc.) are regularly used. Well, if you taste them, that's swell and good for you, "use 'em if you've got 'em". Then there are all the "mouthfeel" descriptors used by the pros - is the wine big in the mouth, thin, acidic, fat, unctuous, tannic, structured, elegant, simple, etc, etc, etc. Nice to know and, actually, quite useful but NOT necessary. In my simple system, all you need to decide is does the wine taste good, bad or so-so? Does the wine feel good in your mouth as well as tasting good?

Part IV - Conclusions - Here's where the real pros get determined. The "good" ones try to tell you the country, region, grape varieties, vintage, producer, vineyard, heck, even the day the grapes were picked. Even the best can seldom get the country and variety right very often. But the REAL conclusion you need to reach is do you want more of this wine? Will you rush out to get more NOW, mortgaging the house or trading your children, if necessary? Will you gratefully accept a glass if offered? Will you bravely sip from a glass reluctantly accepted if necessary? OR, will you pour the vile stuff into the nearest loo? In short, is this wine a YUM or a YUCK?

You are now an expert taster. Try it yourself.


Alex said...

I think this might be something of an oversimplification ... :)

Firstly, I think it's quite important to acknowledge that what you like (yum) and what's good are not necessarily the same thing.

Secondly, if you can't pinpoint what you like about a wine then the chances are you'll end up stuck in a bit of a rut: buying the same couple of things over and over again and every now and then 'splashing out' on something a bit different and, perhaps, be so disappointed you retreat back to your old faves.

Sure, does it look nice, smell nice and taste nice is an excellent place to start but bothering with the extra descriptors, in the long run, really pays off (IMO).

paswines said...

Hi Alex -
Well, of course, it's a simplification ;) The important point is to encourage people to try wine and not get tied up in all the fancy rituals that are often attached to it. EVERYONE can try wines and EVERYONE knows what they like. They don't need an expert to tell them what's good.

I do believe that what you like IS what's good. Particularly as someone in the wine trade, I have to acknowledge that what my customers like is good, at least for them. But it may not be for me.

I don't think that pinpointing the EXACT characteristics of what you like is necessary to avoid a rut. A sense of adventure is what gets people to try new things. I think if you are adventurous in the your life in general and specifically in the area of tastes, you should be open to lots of wine tastes. And usually that's true.

I find that people who like many different foods and are always willing to try a new taste are also willing to try new wines. While people who always eat (or drink) pretty much the same thing are also in the rut with respect to their wine tastes.

If a customer tells me what sort of wines they have enjoyed in the past as well as those they haven't enjoyed, I can probably find something new for them to that they are likely to enjoy. But at the end of the day, it's important to retain a spirit of adventure in your wine drinking and you will be amply rewarded for it.