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Can you train yourself to become a good wine taster?

The short answer is that, yes, in most cases, you can train yourself to become a good wine taster. It just takes a lot of practice and, most importantly, you need someone to explain what to look for, and how to look for it. Don’t let the blind lead the blind.

But the speed of your progress will depend, at least in part, on your natural-born ability as a taster. And it is shocking just how differently we taste. Women are considered to be superior to men. And it is generally accepted by sensory scientists that the population can be broken up into 25% Supertasters, 50% medium tasters, and 25% nontasters.

The 25% nontaster statistic sends most people running to the bathroom mirror to inspect their taste buds, known as fungiform papillae, in scientific circles. But it’s hard to count the roughly 10,000 taste buds in your average person’s mouth.

The real test, which determines which category you fall into, is based on your sensitivity to bitterness. Scientists use a compound called PROP to rate your response. At one extreme, some people find it tastes unpleasantly bitter (the Supertasters). At the other extreme, some people don’t notice the bitter taste at all. In sensory science there is much talk about thresholds, because people differ widely in their ability to notice something. The nontasters can’t notice some things at all.

It’s no surprise that professional wine tasters usually fall into the Supertaster or medium taster category. So if, in fact, you turn out to be a nontaster then it might be a challenge to train yourself to become an accomplished wine taster. Discussions about tannins might be limited.

So how can you find out? You could certainly speak to your doctor and see if they could organize a test for you. Unfortunately some people actually suffer from a complete loss of smell, known as anosmia. It is less common for people to have a taste disorder, but it also exists. The Monell Centre leads the research in the science of smell and taste, and will perform testing on individuals too.

All being well, most people fall into the category of medium tasters. This means that you can confidently get on with your plan to become the next Robert Parker.

But beware of a few pitfalls. Firstly, the older you get the less sensitive you become to certain tastes and smells. So the ideal age to start your wine tasting education is straight out of High School. Another important tip is that you should do your practice before lunch, around 11 am, when the senses are heightened. Tasting wine late at night after a spicy Thai takeout is not ideal.

Also, keep in mind that you don’t taste well if you are tired or stressed out. One of the most respected tasters in history, Emile Peynaud, said that your physical health has a significant impact on your ability to taste. So if you are out-of-shape, hauling on cigars, and auditioning to be the next Bar Star then you are not exactly primed to progress at full speed.

I’ve often found that my tasting is at its best after swimming in the ocean, thanks to the effect of the salt water. I’ve also found that the impression of certain components in a wine, like tannin, changes depending on the frequency of your tasting. If you haven’t had any red wine in a while then the first taste will seem more astringent than if you were regularly drinking reds.  

So presuming that you’re fighting fit, well rested, and in a Zen-like state you can begin your training to become a good wine taster. For the average winelover the best way to progress is to buy a few different grape varieties, or regions, and try them all side-by-side. Comparative tasting is always the most instructive, and it’s even better if you can do it blind. You can also experiment by blind tasting fruits and vegetables, and smelling flowers and spices.      

If you are attempting a more serious challenge, like a wine tasting exam, then some people find themselves sitting down to 12 wines before lunch, and then another 12 after lunch. It’s a full time job. But then again some people are employed to review and select wines for magazines like Wine Spectator, major newspapers, hotels, restaurants, and retail stores.

Now that you have trained yourself to be a good wine taster, your job is to stay relevant to your audience. The issue here is that your customers, or readers, are usually not as well versed as you about wine. You run the risk of alienating them if you don’t speak their language.

Some wine tasters write in-depth reviews about tannin textures, various styles of acidity, and give a laundry list of flavor descriptors. This can perplex the reader, who then simply looks at the point score. That number is so much easier to understand.

The ultimate skill is to use your knowledge to buy wines for others that they will like, even if sometimes you might not like the wine very much yourself. A good taster can understand how others taste, and can predict what they will like. They can also describe wines in a language that the targeted consumer for that particular wine will relate to, and find helpful. And to do that you simply need to train yourself. Supertaster ability is not required.

To learn more about the wonderful world of wine take a course from us at www.FineVintageLtd.com 

Chateau Recougne, AC Bordeaux Superieur 1993 PUMP OVERS

The main activity of the day was always the morning and afternoon pump-overs, or remontage as they say. This, one of the key arts of red winemaking, was done by draining fermenting juice out of a vat, running it through a pump, and spraying it back over the cap.

This method of maceration extracted all kinds of goodies – color of course, tannin from the skins, flavor from the berries, and a host of little-understood complex elements that make up wine. We would do this for about 45 minutes per tank, twice a day, which most people these days would say is ridiculously long.

But although just Bordeaux Superieur, this property made wines that could age well for 30-50 years. We had regular samplings of the 1952 with clients to prove it. This is one of the amazing things about Bordeaux, where some unclassified estates, known as petits chateaux, can make very long-lived wines, and wines that are quite stunning at 20+ years old.

There are lots of different methods of macerating red grapes. My favorite is the foot stomp, known as pigeage. I had the pleasure of spending a week in McLaren Vale in Australia doing just this to Eileen Hardy, their top wine, and winner of Best Red wine in Australia that vintage.

All you need is a pair of swimming trunks and a ladder to place across an open top concrete fermenter. You simply stand on the cap, slowly sink down, pushing the skins into the juice, and then just before you drown you use the ladder to drag yourself up and shuffle to a new spot.

At the top estates making Port many winemakers still like the fast maceration they can get by packing a shallow concrete tank full of Portguese workers and getting them to perform a military style march to the beat of a drum.

The workers march back and forth, knee deep in must. It’s a somber mood. But then they have the libertad, the so-called freedom, it’s party time in the tank. The music turns upbeat, people dance together, they pass around wine and drink from the bottle.

Another method is punch-downs, often used on Pinot Noir because it is considered a more gentle technique of extracting delicate flavors and tannins from that delicate grape, Pinot.

When you really want to aerate the must, which may help stimulate yeast activity, you can use a more aggressive technique known as delestage. Here, you drain the entire vat into another container, and then spray it all back over the grape skins. It is a very vigorous maceration and extraction method. As with all techniques, they have to be selected and modified to the needs of the fruit, and only a skilled winemaker can adapt their techniques to the qualities of the berries each year.

There are many key stages in red winemaking, but I’d put the maceration among the most important. Macerate too little and you miss the potential goodness in the berries. But if you over-do it you’ll end up with a deep dark inky wine that has massive tannins, is generally unbalanced, and potentially has a hard bitterness that may never go away no matter how long you age it. So selecting the best method and the rigor and regularity of its use is an important art of the winemaker.

But keep in mind that these decisions can often be made very fast because a typical winemaker is often busy with many tanks, staff, administration issues, and trying to make it to watch their kid play sports later that afternoon. It can be frantic at some wineries. This is the beauty of small production. At a small place with low volumes you often have the luxury of more care and attention because you have more time.

One of the things I love about pump overs is just the sheer beauty of watching red wine gush out of a tank’s valve, or being sprayed over the cap. It smells so good, so heady and sweet, and you can imagine that one day, in many months, or maybe many many years, the juice will turn into something so incredible, so delicious, that it will bring immense pleasure to the people lucky enough to drink it. 1947 Cheval Blanc was just fermenting grape juice at one stage.

Le Sucre – harvest at Chateau Recougne, AC Bordeaux Superieur 1993

1993 – Well I couldn’t have picked a worse vintage to start my life in wine. It rained almost every day for what seemed like 6 weeks. Torrential. One day in the office I saw the owner looking out of his office window at the rain, all glum and depressed. He murmured that the only happy man in Bordeaux was the guy who sold the sugar. In poor vintages back in the 90’s the Bordelais sure loved to pour sugar in the vats, called chaptalization. Of course now with climate change things are much better.

So there we were, most days, heaving these huge heavy brown sacks of sugar around the winery and dumping them into bins where they would be mixed with wine during a remontage, or pumping over. The sugar would give the yeast more food, and increase the alcohol degree.

There are strict laws in France on this topic. You have to apply for permission with the local authorities to chaptalize, you have to specify the tank, the volume, the current alcohol potential, and there are limits to which you can bump it up. Then, when the sugar man shows up with his lorry you have a certain amount of time to actually do it, like 24 hours.

Ideally you chaptalize fairly early in the ferment, but there are different logics. It usually increases the alcohol by about 1% in Bordeaux, and there is a maximum you cannot go beyond. The extra alcohol can bring more richness, weight and power to the wine and it can make an average wine taste good. It can also help very fine wines, although ideally the lower yields in fine wine should have helped obtain good grape maturity. Chaptalization is not flavouring per se, although alcohol has a taste. You are making up for a deficit in ripeness in a poor year usually. The bottom line is that all winemakers would rather not use it, partly because it is an expense too.

And in a winery during the fermentation it is very important to keep records. Because you definitely wouldn’t want to make the mistake of chaptalizing the same tank twice by accident…

Cellar hygiene Bordeaux 1993

In the early 90’s cellar hygiene was not what it is today. These days you have all these young winemakers graduating from schools, especially in Australia, coming out with a mantra to KEEP IT CLEAN. So clean, it’s almost sterile. Gleaming tanks, spotless floors, hoses all immaculately stored, and a very high tech lab.

Well sure, better to be clean than dirty, I suppose. But could there be a cost to this? Are so many wines tasting the same partly because of this quest for sterility? Me thinks maybe yes.

I don’t think that attempting to have a sterile cellar is a pre-requisite for making great wine. If you go to some of the very top wineries in the world it’s not always immaculate. Jaboulet’s Hermitage La Chapelle in the Rhone is a case in point. I swear the floors were made of hard mud, the concrete tanks looked like they were 100 years old with paint peeling off them, barrels were stored in a jumble-like series of stacks, and the air in the cellar seemed very damp and very heavy. Surely this was a heaven for bacteria.

Lopez de Heredia in Spain is an icon, and yet it doesn’t look all spotless to me. The wooden fermenters are 100 years old and there are gigantic cobwebs everywhere. It’s opposite of some of these hospital-like new world wineries.

But the La Chappelle wine is better than almost any other Syrah in the world. It was so good that the Bordeaux 1st growths used to buy it for a little injection of supercharged turbo power. And the Lopez de Heredia wines are so good you can’t talk for a moment after you have a sip of the 1945 Gran Reserva. That was made before all these lab technicians came on the scene…