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.


  1. This sounds a bit obvious, but another factor worth mentioning is the age of the wine?

    It's obviously one that professional wine tasters are practiced at taking into consideration, but the number of people on (for example) Cellartracker currently giving 2009 Ports a crappy score shows that it is not always one that is considered.

  2. Also: the glasses. Not even the shape so much as how and when they were last washed, and where they've been stored since. That musty nose that I associate with slightly damp storage (could be put away not bone dry, could be cardboard box induced) can hang around for ages in a glass, and there's no guarantee that there will be few enough glasses at a tasting that they'll be washed and cycled.

    Associated gripe: going to "proper" tastings where the fizz is served in glasses which have clearly been through a dishwasher with detergent, murdering the mousse and associated characters.

  3. Very good post. I completely agree with you - lots of factors influences the way we perceive the taste of wine. I never thought of biodynamics, will try to experiment a bit :) I also had a blog post regarding the same subject - here is the link:


  4. You are probably right with the airconditioning vs cellar. It's probably not the temperature but the humidity in the air. I recently held a tasting for Qatar Airlines and did a lot of research on wine in the sky. Ends up your taste is affected already on the ground because of the dry air in the plane, which dries out the mucus membranes in the nose. So maybe bring a bottle of Vichy spray for those places? :) Thanks for the tip of the app. Will download.

  5. Fascinating list! Goes to show that wine tasting is a lot more subjective than we would all like to believe, no?

  6. Nine times out of ten, when a series of wines that ought to be good are not found thus, the fault is OURS. Apart from really “off-odours”, such as humid glass-cabinet or clearly defective dish-washer, it is all too easy to blame it on petty external factors. Always think of the lauryl sulfate in your tooth-paste as well: a catastrophy with a LONG latency.
    The ladies won’t like this, but their hormonal status at that time also plays a role. You see, Luc always finds a poetic touch to add ....

  7. Thank you Luc! We can always rely on you to stir things up. In that case why would there be so many key women wine buyers and commentators?

    Other factors that have been suggested are your taste & aroma sensitivities, adaptation, halo effect, stimulus error (according to sensory scientist Lauren Rogers) and whether or not you're a 'halo' taster as this fascinating article reveals

  8. And good points about glasses, anonymous, whoever you are!

  9. Fiona, I was NOT being nasty, and there is no inuendo that women would be worse tasters than men. It only implied that your gender can be influenced by one more factor and that, sometimes, “odd” perceptions can be entirely due to just that. I’m probably as much of a feminist as most women you know, you’ll be surprised to read. And I mean this.
    This being said, the presence of many females in the wine trade is very much an Anglo-Saxon feature. You won’t find it to that extent in other cultures (probably because of the mcp characteristics of those civilizations, I agree with you before you even mention). And we cannot include sales persons in that reasoning, because charm and seduction of .... male buyers play a key role in that process. Many medical reps are females as well, and young and pretty at that too. Call it “Prescription at first sight” !
    You see, starting from a purely technical point (the influences on tasting ability), we end up discussing a totally different topic – which YOU launched! This is what keeps fascinating me in the wine world: people with a large array of interests ... and most of them very prejudiced, unfair, passionate. Fun, in other words. I LOVE it.

  10. Dear Fiona,
    anyone tasting (or just drinking) wine on a more or less regular basis, has these experiences, and you sure raise quite important issues.
    I've also speculated on these issues, and have tried to address the subject on the Maria Thun calender and difference in tasting in this post: .
    Best Regards
    Mads Rudolf

  11. That's a fascinating post, Mads - particularly the experiment you carried out. Thanks for linking to it!

  12. Fiona, I've been pondering just this problem. I hope you don't mind me posting a link to something I wrote


  13. Hi Fiona

    Another link to a self-written page, but I hope you will agree it is relevant. It has a similar list to yours.

    I would just add that I don't think it an adequate response to say that TNs should be made under carefully controlled environment, except perhaps for winemakers evaluating their work. It may produce more consistent notes, but the relationship with wine being drunk under normal circumstances, which DO vary, will be lost. I think we just have accept that tasting notes are a description of an impression made under a specific set of circumstances.