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Saturday, 8 January 2011

Building a taste memory

When I asked some fellow wine enthusiasts, and even a number of MWs, what I should do to become a better blind taster I got so much excellent advice, I thought it worth sharing.

Whilst the snippets of advice varied, there were some common themes but one comment from Philip Goodband MW particularly struck me. He put forward the idea that it is necessary to build a "taste memory"; thinking about that comment, I think it sums up in one phrase what is needed to become a serious wine enthusiast.

A taste memory is a set of recollections of what a particular grape or terroir should be like, from the general (New World wines are ripe and fruity) to the more specific (Austrian whites are crisp and aromatic) and the nuanced (left-bank Bordeaux is tannic and textured, right bank is softer and more perfumed).

Looking back, I have instinctively been building up a partial taste memory over the years but more recently, I have started to focus on doing this more methodically.

For anyone wanting to build up a taste memory, here is my summary of the collective thoughts of a group of wine enthusiasts and professionals.


Read lots of wine books or reviews and concentrate on the descriptions of the typical grape or regional characteristics. For a while, I read and re-read the couple of wine books I own from cover to cover, borrowed every wine book I could find at the local library and browsed wine books in shops every weekend.

With hindsight, two things were particularly helpful; one book I read used pictures to highlight key typical grape characteristics - gooseberries, nettles and cut grass for Sauvignon Blanc, cloves, peppercorns and prunes for Shiraz.

Also the concise, vibrantly descriptive tasting notes of the more enthusiastic wine writers make a wine easy to imagine for a novice taster - in my early days, I found Oz Clarke's descriptions both entertaining and helpfully vivid.

Re-reading them now, I rather find he tends to concentrate almost exclusively on flavour, as if to suggest that finesse, restraint, texture, structure, balance and length are of no relevance or interest, but nevertheless they still make for an entertaining read.

More broadly, I have found that reading other (well-written) genres of criticism is also helpful - be it films, restaurants, literature or rock music, depending on your interests.

Familiarisation - theory

Another thing I particularly like about Oz is the breadth and originality of his descriptive vocabulary - angelica, rosewater and fish oil are all to be found in his write-ups.

It is obviously beneficial to become familiar with the scents being described - recognising blackcurrant leaves, cloves and lanolin in the real world helps to recognise them in a wine.

Familiarisation - practice

It helps to take a methodical approach to wine tasting over a period of time, for example getting familiar with one region or grape variety and learning both the similarities and more nuanced differences.

But where to start ? A good place might be the classics - including the modern classics.

The best advice someone ever gave me when I started buying wine in Cambridge rather than abroad was "Make friends with your local independent wine merchant". Buy a few bottles to see if you like their house style and if so go back and ask for advice on how to cover the basics.

My personal preference for many years was to "try something local". As a result of my regular business travel and a couple of holidays, I had a lot of Austrian and French wine plus wines from Hungary, Romania and even Serbia and the Czech Republic !

It was a great way to try wines, but hardly methodical or broad-ranging.

These days I travel less and buy more broadly; I found the Fine Wine Fair in London recently a great place to try a range of wines from a country or a region and get a sense of what they are like.

It took a bit of forward-planning (deciding which stalls to visit as there were almost 30 exhibitors), as well as method (trying each wine on show and asking about it) and discipline (using a spittoon, at least some of the time).

But, I came away with a new-found appreciation of the differences between the left and right banks of the Gironde in Bordeaux, the effect of regional differences on Riesling in Germany as well as (for fun) a better appreciation of terroir in chocolate production and the effect of 60 years' aging on a Spanish brandy.

Start building that taste memory
Now the prep work is done, it's time to start building.

I had a boss who once told me - if you think you understand what the problem is, try writing it down concisely and see if it still makes sense. Very quickly, I found that I did not fully understand, but the act of writing it down made me see where the gaps in my understanding were and what further questions needed to be asked.

It's the same with wine appreciation.

As a linguist working in finance, I am naturally quite analytical and have quite a good memory, but writing about wine has forced me to think much more deeply about what I have been describing.

One of the first detailed tasting notes I wrote was for a New Zealand Shiraz (reviewed here) - I'd bought a case after being impressed with the first bottle and I remember sampling and re-sampling it whilst trying to pin-point the flavours, aromas and general sensations.

That tasting note went through several iterations as I drafted, then mentally stepped back and asked myself "Does this note adequately describe the wine I've just tried ?", and then re-drafted.

For anyone wanting to write about wine, social media is a great help - and knowing it's for public consumption and scrutiny helps clarify the mind about being rigorous and sensible.

Starting a blog is one option, but there is also any number of websites that will allow you to post tasting notes.

Both Naked Wines and Laithwaite's encourage their customers to post feedback on their wines on their websites but of course you are restricted to reviewing the company's own wines.

More broadly, sites like Cellartracker and Snooth allow would-be wine writers to review any wine at all (anyone who registers can add a new wine to the site if it is not already listed).

Ultimately, perhaps, the difference between the casual wine drinker and the wine enthusiast is this: the enthusiast looks at it, sniffs, swirls, sips and sucks in some air, rolls it around the mouth, assesses the aromas, balance, texture, swallows a little (or spits) and assesses length, mentally compares it to other wines from the same region or grape, in the same style or price bracket and then mentally files away all that information in a taste memory for future reference.

The casual wine drinker, by contrast, tries a wine and either likes it or doesn't.

Other related articles
On Texture and Structure - Why Flavour Isn't Everything
On Breadth vs Depth In Tasting
On Developing One's Palate
How Much Air ?


Philip Goodband MW - http://www.philipgoodband.com/
Oz Clarke - http://www.ozclarke.com/
Fine Wine Fair - http://www.finewinefair.org/
Naked Wines - http://www.nakedwines.com/
Laithwaite's - http://www.laithwaites.co.uk/
Cellartracker - http://www.cellartracker.com/intro.asp
Snooth - http://www.snooth.com/


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Beautiful summation point at the end. I don't think I've seen the difference so succinctly put before.

    www.slurp.co.uk also encourage customer reviews and I can thoroughyl recommend their range; it's enormous.

  3. Thanks WBFTF

    I've never tried anything from slurp - but, having checked out the website, the range is, as you say, enormous.

    Cheers, Tom