Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Why tasting notes can be unreliable

I had a bad start to a wine tasting a few days ago. The first eight to ten wines I tried - all red - tasted unforgiving and mean with unusually high acidity and edgy tannins. As the tasting was the Wine Society’s, whose wines I generally admire, I wondered whether the fault was mine, not theirs.

I had started the tasting unusually early just before it opened at 10am. The wines were a little cold - most had just been opened and the room was a chillier than usual 18°C. I’d been travelling for two days and hadn’t slept brilliantly the night before. I had a claggy throat that was threatening to turn into a cold. It was a leaf day. It could have been any one of those things.

I went back at the end of the tasting and re-tasted the wines, slightly warmer now, with less in the bottle and found them more giving in a couple of instances but not a great deal changed in others. I then went on to another short tasting with a chef - in a slightly warmer room - where the wines seemed to show more character. So maybe it was room temperature. Or a more relaxed congenial atmosphere? Who knows?

It got me thinking about other factors that might affect the way you taste:

How long the wine has been opened and whether it’s been decanted
Some producers even reckon their wines are better opened the previous day. Three of the wines at the Wine Society had been decanted ‘to get rid of sediment’. That would have also opened them up.

How much is left in the bottle
The first sip you taste from a full bottle is inevitably going to be different from one of the last

How many wines you’ve tasted beforehand
At supermarket tastings you’re often faced with 120 wines - sometimes more. At wine competitions, twice or three times that. Even the best tasters must suffer from some degree of palate fatigue

What type of wine preceded the one you’re tasting
They should be placed in style order but often they’re grouped by country and price so you may taste an smooth, expensively made wine before a cheaper, lighter-bodied one. If you’re tasting wines of the same type - particularly young, high alcohol reds, it becomes more and more difficult to differentiate between them

Whether it’s a tank sample or a finished wine
Or if it’s a mass-produced wine which is bottled on demand, which batch you get and how well the wine is stored in transit

How familiar with or sympathetic you are to that particular style of wine
Where natural wines may fare badly in a line-up. And I have a problem, as I’ve recently admitted, with soupy reds.

How long since you’ve eaten and how much
Most people say they taste better in the morning - I certainly find it hard to taste well after anything other than a light lunch. How strongly flavoured and/or spicy the food you eat will also make a difference.

How well - or badly - you’ve slept
A noisy room, an unfamiliar bed, too much food or drink the night before, a pressing deadline can all affect how well you sleep. As can . . .

Whether you’re jet-lagged and tasting in a different time zone

What temperature the room is and whether it’s air-conditioned
See my initial remarks. I think the air conditioning is the more significant factor here. I rarely have any problems tasting in a wine cellar at 18°C

Whether there are extraneous smells
Perfume and after-shave being the obvious culprits (it’s surprising how many still wear it to tastings) but the smell of the lunchtime food being prepared - or even laid out - can be distracting too

The weather
Not so much a question of whether it’s wet or sunny but of the atmospheric pressure. Very much more competently explored than I could by The Wine Doctor, Chris Kissack in his blog last year.

The biodynamic calendar
A more controversial one. I didn’t know it was a leaf day before the tasting. I checked (this app is useful) when I’d got through my first 10 wines. Sometimes it doesn’t seem to make a blind bit of difference - a wine tastes disappointing, I find it’s a fruit day. Hard to prove either way.

The pyschological state of the taster
Relaxed or tense and stressed?

Industry professionals such as MWs will no doubt tell me that if you follow an accepted tasting protocol in your assessments that these variations are marginal but I’m not sure. They’re not superhuman. They worry about their kids. They feel liverish just like the rest of us. Inevitably how we feel must affect the way we engage with a wine.

I remember Gerard Basset before the World’s Best Sommelier awards in Chile a couple of years ago barely eating anything, terrified that something might affect his palate or, worse still, upset his stomach.

The implication of course is that you should try and taste wines at least twice before scoring or pronouncing on them - something I try to do but which is not always possible given the tight deadlines we all work to.

Food for thought though. What do you think?

You might also enjoy this post on my website about mindful wine tasting.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Dominio de Atauta Ribera del Duero 2006

I've been trying to upload a new and rather lengthy post about wine tasting but as Blogger seems to have gone into meltdown and refuses to accept paragraph breaks* I'm going to have to hold it for the moment and just give you a few thoughts on another wine I've tasted recently.

It's the very fine Dominio de Atauta Ribera del Duero 2006 which was chosen by former sommelier, now Selfridges wine buyer, Dawn Davies to accompany a punchy dish of boiled beef with oxtail, tongue and horseradish which was cooked by Gabrielle Hamilton of Prune, New York at one of three London dinners celebrating women chefs and sommeliers.

Dominio de Atauta is a relatively new estate, established in 1999 by Madrid wine merchant Miguel Sanchez. The vineyards are high and the (tempranillo) grapes grown biodynamically resulting in a wine of great elegance without the leathery, animal notes that so often characterise this DO. The estate only uses indigenous yeasts. Oddly they don't seem to have a website but there's a good acount of their winemaking approach here from an American importer Polaner Selections.

It sells for £24.50 at Q Wines and £23.49 at Rannoch Scott if you buy six bottles. Not cheap but fantastic value for money.

Rating: GREEN (see side panel)

A friendly bod on Twitter has suggested a way of getting round this. Thanks @Lnc13

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Okhre Natur Cava: a bold buy for M&S

I suspect I see the hand of former Marks & Spencer buyer Jo Ahearne (now at Harrods) in this wine which is far from the M & S norm. I saw her moseying around at the Natural Wine Fair last year so she obviously has an interest in this type of wine.

It's an organic Cava from Celler Josep Pinyol and is sourced - and I quote from the tasting booklet - "from organic vines grown in soils with high chalk content, located at a minimum altitude of 500 metres in the municipality of Sant Sadurni d'Anoia, southwest of Barcelona."

It's actually really attractive but is a long way from what most people would expect from Cava. It's far more fruity (apple and peach predominate) and without that pronounced harsh yeasty character of cheaper cavas. It's also very* dry (the wine is described as brut nature and the dosage is only 3g). It would make immensely refreshing summer drinking but I can also imagine the average M & S customer thinking 'well I might as well drink cider'.

At £9.99 it'll be interesting to see how it goes. It's only available in 67 stores so they're obviously being cautious about the distribution. Look out for M & S's periodical 25% off offers if you buy six wines which would bring it down to a very attractive £7.49.

Rating: AMBER (see side panel, right)

* I originally said 'quite dry' but as Luc Charlier, below has pointed out I should more accurately have described it as very dry.

PS I know I said I was going to continue addressing the subject of soupy reds in my next post but I'm still collecting my thoughts . . .

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Why are some red wines so soft and soupy?

This is a question I've been pondering for a while, most recently at the Oddbins tasting this week. I'm not singling them out in particular - it could have happened at any supermarket or high street multiple's tasting - not that there are many of the latter these days.

You know the sensation. That the wine is unnaturally smooth and sweet - plushy is a tasting term I tend to use. Usually quite high in alcohol. Next to no acidity. Sometimes so heavily oaked that the predominant flavour is vanilla. The wine world's equivalent of a cup cake.

I realise that there is a market for this style of wine but it's not a taste I share or one you tend to find among producers who primarily make wine for a local market. Or for consumers who generally drink wine with food rather than drink it on its own.

I guessed it was a question of picking grapes ultra-ripe, and of using thermovinification or one of the many other ingenious techniques open to the modern winemaker so I put the question out on Twitter. I got some fascinating replies of which more later but the most comprehensive answer came from Jason Lett (below) of Eyrie Vineyards in Oregon who I met a couple of years ago and whose wines I much admire.

Lett inherited the estate from his father David, one of the original pioneers of the region and makes his wine in as natural way as possible from dry-farmed grapes that are grown without insecticides, herbicides or fungicides and with what he calls on his website 'restrained manipulation' in the winery ... 'to preserve the varietal flavors and expression of terroir we work so hard to achieve in the vineyards.'

This is what he wrote:

"So here is how to make plush, succulent, easy drinking reds:

* Grow it in a climate where the variety hits 25 -30 brix reliably every year. This would be a climate far warmer than where the variety naturally evolved. (This will cause the natural acids in the grape to metabolize away, so add some acid in the winery. Not too much - the commercial palate likes reds in the pH 3.7 to 3.9 range.)

* Ripening grapes this far increases the risk of rot, so spray a lot of fungicide in the vineyard.

* When you bring the grapes into the winery, you could reduce potential alcohol to 16% by adding water to the dehydrated fruit - or you could use a super-yeast tolerant to up to 18% alcohol.

* Add tannins selected for smoothness. They come from a bag and will help plush out the texture of the wine.

* Use enzymes and cryoextraction to decompose the cell structures in the skin and completely extract the wine. Don't worry if you release harsh components in the process; these can be removed later.

* Don't ferment all the way to dryness. This will limit the amount of tannins the wine extracts, and 1 - 3% residual sugar will mask all kinds of harshness. It also limits the alcohol a bit. And it leaves in a lot of tutti frutti esters for juicy aroma.

* Now you have a high alcohol, sweet, low acid wine which is in great danger of going bacterial - a biological and fungal timebomb waiting to happen. So sterile filter on the way to barrel. This reduces the tannins further.

* Go into new oak barrels (or use oak chips) which are specifically heat treated to reduce harsh tannin and increase wood-sugars, vanillins, and lactones for even more smoooooth sweetness.

* Use a malolactic strain selected for smoothness. Immediately after malic is complete, add 100 - 150 parts per million SO2 to prevent bacteriological takeover. Continue to add more SO2 on a regular basis.

* Further reduce tannins by fining. Add any number of soluable proteins which bind to tannins and settle them to the bottom of the barrel.

* Rack the wine from barrel, blend in tank

* Filter so tightly that all living organisms are stripped away. Or add the chemical DMDC (dimethyl dicarbonate) to kill all populations of bacteria and yeasts and proclaim "unfiltered."

* Use a spinning cone apparatus or reverse osmosis filter, to bring the alcohol down from 16-18% to 14.5% or less

* Add gum arabic, which is allowed as a "wine stabilizer" but which actually serves the purpose of bulking the mid-palate and increasing the perception of sweetness.

* Add yet more SO2

* Bottle it, label it, and send it out for scoring"

Now not everybody is going to agree with what Jason says or, more particularly, the way he says it but I think it's a fascinating insight into commercial winemaking, revealing practices that are far from the image purveyed of wine as a natural, artisanal product. More on some of the techniques involved in my next post: in the meantime what do you think?

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Le Canon Rosé 2010, Domaine de la Grande Colline

It's scary to think how much someone's view of natural wine must be moulded by the first wine they drink. If it was Le Canon Rosé I'm not sure they'd persist.

I was given it to try by one of the staff at the Kensington-based wine merchant Roberson who - all credit to them - have added a number of natural wines to their upmarket range. It's made by Hirotake Ooka, a Japanese winemaker in Saint Peray in the northern Rhone valley who Roberson's rather nicely describe as 'devoutly natural' and is made from Muscat d'Hambourg. It has no additions of sulphur whatever including at bottling.

We followed the site's advice to decant the wine but it was still pretty challenging on Day 1 with that cidery edge that just isn't that appealing - to me at any rate. My husband is much more tolerant of it. By Day 2 it was much improved with a delicate rose petal floweriness coming through and by Day 3 bordering on charming. But would most customers persist that long? I don't think so. They want a bottle, of rosé at least, they can open and drink immediately. (My husband thinks I'm a philistine.)

A 'red' wine*, definitely. I must get this traffic lights symbol system going.

* I have this idea you shouldn't score natural wines but flag up how challenging they are. Green = indistinguishable from a conventional wine, amber = might make you pause for thought if you've never tried natural wines before and red, only for hard-core enthusiasts. Like my OH.