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Thursday, 23 June 2011

On breadth vs depth in tasting‏

I recently tried a wine (an aged Mosel Riesling) as one of around 15 at a tasting event hosted by Cambridge Wine Merchants and noted it as pleasant enough, but not sufficiently outstanding to make a recommendation.

I was then given a bottle to take home at the end of the event and, drinking it over a few days, found myself appreciating its charms far more.

When I wrote this up (here), fellow blogger Wine Rambler tweeted me to say that he also finds this and for that reason does not always enjoy blind tastings.

This got me thinking about breadth and depth in wine tasting - a single bottle vs a flight from different vintages or terroirs or just a random selection of wines to try.

My starting point was to consider the reasons why the Riesling showed better when subsequently sampled on its own and I can think of a number of possible explanations:

- the effect of air; some wines show well straight out of the bottle but then fail to improve, whilst others gain in complexity and depth of flavour with a bit of air

- familiarity; the event was a tasting of aged Mosel Rieslings, pretty much my first tasting of this type of wine, and so the wines that impressed me most on the evening may well have been those that closest in style to something I was already familiar with

- ease of understanding; related to this, some wines are just easier to understand on an initial quick taste than others

- subtlety and restraint; the wine was elegant, subtle and balanced whilst those I had picked as my favourites on the night had perhaps more immediately obvious appeal

This is not the first time I have observed this phenomenon - a few months ago I went to a speed tasting of 30-odd assorted trade samples at Naked Wines (here) and struggled somewhat to keep up until I realised we were looking just for broad brush indications - a quick thumbs up or thumbs down.

At the end of the evening, left-overs were divvied out and I ended up taking home two half-consumed bottles - a southern French Chardonnay and a Portuguese red.

I have not reviewed them on this blog, but I clearly remember finding different aspects and nuances emerging as I sampled them over the weekend after the tasting.

Fellow blogger My Grape Escape quotes Steven Spurrier as saying you should always keep back a few bottles of a great wine until it is past its peak so you can remind yourself of how great it was (see his article here).

I tend to do something similar myself with wines for review at home, gathering together impressions straight out of the bottle, during meal and over perhaps as much as the next week to see how it develops. This gives me an opportunity to see how the wine develops, to think about the various nuances that might emerge and to establish the relative strengths and weaknesses of any particular wine.

By contrast at a trade event, I may taste around a hundred wines from many different producers and there simply is not the opportunity to give each wine the level of attention as a review bottle at home.

However, there are benefits to trying wines in groups quickly rather than alone in depth. If you want quickly to get a sense of the key aspects of a particular region, especially a new or unfamiliar one, then tasting a range of wines all together proves very insightful.

I first really learnt to spot the differences between right-bank and left-bank Bordeaux at a Bordeaux stand at the Fine Wine Fair in London last year (here). Talking to Kurt Angerer (here) about his vines growing on various different soils in Kamptal, Lower Austria a few weeks ago gave me a real appreciation of how granite, gravel, clay and loam affect the feel and level of minerality in the resulting wine. And an Italian tasting of Slow Wines (here) gave me an insight into the grapes and styles of many regions of Italy.

Tasting a range of wines together helps to make sense of what they are about as a genus - what their "family" characteristics are and the extent of the subtle differences between them - Grüner Veltliner grown on granite is much more minerally than when grown on loam, which results in a softer, fleshier, more rounded-feeling wine.

You are unlikely to pick up every nuance, but what you lose in depth, you gain in breadth. Tasting a range of wines gives the initial, outline framework for what Philip Goodband MW calls building a taste memory (here) - an overview that can be deepened by subsequent, more detailed and more considered tastings.

Perhaps the hardest tastings to do are the wide-ranging, unfocused ones - such as the speed-tasting event at Naked Wines. With different grape varieties, different countries and different styles and no unifying theme, these were all just either speculative trade samples or early trial blends.

It is even harder when they are untutored and effectively blind - that is, you get to know the grape and country, but there is no-one on hand to talk about the wine and you have to rely on your ability quickly to make an informed judgement on the quality of the wine and its key characteristics. Is it fruit-driven or does the texture or structure dominate ? Is the acidity good ? Is it balanced ? Does it have immediate appeal or subtle elegance ?

To do well at this kind of tasting requires either a really thorough wine knowledge to take in so many different styles or a single-minded focus on "do I like it ?". Perhaps both.

It certainly sharpens you up and at the end of the Naked event, I felt like I'd been put through my paces at the wine-tasting gym.

To continue the metaphor, a fully tutored tasting of a modest number of wines is like a guided tour - an easy, pleasant stroll with the key sights gently pointed out - whilst reviewing a single bottle is like climbing a hill.

You start at the bottom and you know you just have to keep moving forward methodically to the top in your own time; checking different aspects, forming judgements revising them.

What you enjoy most perhaps comes down to personality - I am not a gym bunny, even if I know I need to exercise more for the good of my health. I quite enjoy the social aspect of a strolling guided tour, but for me nothing quite beats the exhilaration and sense of achievement that comes from climbing a hill and seeing the view from the top.

My latest challenge has been my "Wine of the Month" columns - a comparison of three wines from Cambridge's local independent wine merchants - and, with such a high standard across very different styles, it proves to be much harder than I had expected to settle on a winner, calling for some serious thinking about all aspects of each wine.

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