Learning about wine, vines and vignerons whilst living in the Languedoc


Wine tasting, expert opinion

En francais

In the last blog I said that wine should be about enjoyment, whether you like the wine is surely the most important aspect of wine tasting. Yet, when I read tasting notes that issue is hardly ever mentioned. There are long descriptions of colour, aroma and flavours. There may be mention of the persistence of taste in the mouth, possibly of wine faults and, perhaps, of the typicity of the wine in terms of grape, origin and year. But not very often do you read whether the taster actually liked the wine.

I was, and still am, asked to judge in professional tastings whilst in France. I attended two, one for a well known wine guidebook and another for regional medal awarding. I have to say I came away rather disillusioned. There were some true benefits, having to analyse the wine according to sight, smell and taste with guidelines for marking those. Having to do so in a short space of time concentrated the mind and my French language skills.

One of my judging experiences

However, in one tasting the group I was working in was told in advance how many medals would be awarded, that is before the wines were tasted! Some bottles received medals which truly didn’t deserve them. In the other tasting there was discussion about our individual marks and thoughts but then as lunch approached the chair said he would just hand in his results so that lunch was not missed. In neither case was actually liking the wine ever discussed or taken into account. Importantly there was huge disagreement amongst the tasters, all of whom were professionals. Marks varied, they are always subjective no matter how much the guidelines are given to establish an objective framework for scoring.

Just this week two well known professionals had a little spat on Twitter about the reliability of scores. Many professionals defend their accuracy, but then they would wouldn’t they?

I have often tasted wines which were correct, well made, ripe grapes. Technically they deserved high scores but they were dull, lacking personality or excitement. Would I buy them? Certainly not. Yet they are the ones which often wear their medals on the bottle and that is a real boost to sales in supermarkets etc. This is one example of how a little education would benefit the wine drinker who simply wants a nice glass of wine and is not interested too much in the story behind it. Medals and high scores, in my opinion, can be misleading and a red herring.


This must be a terrific wine! But, note the different opinions

Similarly I have drunk wines which had a hint of faults, a touch of volatility or a bit farmyardy and yet, they were exciting wines with personality. Not that the fault made them good, just that the wine could accommodate it.

I shall return to the question of the story behind wines in the next article.

As for newspapers and wine magazines. Too often they are basically publicity puff pieces, advertorials for wines. I gave up on wine magazines a long time ago. Until they are more honest and describe poor wines as well as good then I shall stick to tasters whose opinions I respect on the web or in person. And trust my own judgement too.


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Ode to joy


This weekend was Real Wine Fair time in London. I did not attend as I am travelling to France in the next few days and didn’t fancy a long round trip followed by another. I would have loved to attend and taste more great wines from around the world, with an organic, biodynamic and natural core. I have already seen some interesting reports but as so often it was Jamie Goode’s which caught my attention because he touches on one very important aspect of wine tasting – pleasure.

I have attended many tastings over the years and very often they are held in hushed, reverent surroundings. Nothing wrong with that, it is easy to appreciate the wines and concentrate upon their strengths or weaknesses. However when I have attended tastings such as RAW, RWF, La Remise or Les Affranchis there is a much more boisterous atmosphere. People enjoy the wines and are not afraid to show that. There is laughter and pats on the back. As Goode says it must drive some natural wine haters nuts “to see consumers having such fun drinking these natural wines. The future of wine is bright, I reckon.”

He goes on to discuss the term ‘natural’ and how it has become divisive and argues that SO2 levels are a moot point. I don’t wholly buy the last point as I know it matters a great deal to many natural producers and I respect their choices and philosophy. Nonetheless, as I have said many times in these pages, the influence of natural wine on others is now clear.

However, Goode’s point about the sheer pleasure which people take from these wines is what I think deserves repeating. Wine is meant to be enjoyed, the younger crowds at natural wine fairs are not afraid to do just that. Good on them.


Taste and art

Version française

Love of beauty is taste. The creation of beauty is art.

(Ralph Waldo Emerson)


In recent months I have been honoured to be asked to take part in a number of wine tastings. Mostly these were regular tastings of wines where the producers present some of their cuvées and the tasters choose which stands to visit and to taste at. It is good to chat to the producer to try to get some idea of how they work and some background to the wines. Of course there are drawbacks, if you don’t like the wine then you have to choose how to respond. I have seen some people simply walk away without comment but personally I tend to be diplomatic and utter bland statements such as “Interesting”. Alternatively, I may ask questions to avoid making a comment before thanking the producer and moving on.


I am always wary of how much I have drunk at such events and I think it is important to remember that wine is an alcoholic drink with consequences. At a recent event in St Saturnin I tasted around 60 wines, spitting of course. This was a paid for tasting and as well as the glass the organisers provided a bag which included an alcotest, a breathalyser. I decided to try mine after the tasting and was surprised to see that it measured only around half the drink driving limit of 50mg per 100 millilitres. Not that I was driving back to Margon I hasten to add. Even spitting wine after tasting it absorbs alcohol into the body. I had expected it to produce a higher reading but was unprepared to drive with even that amount.


St Saturnin

At other events I have tasted many more wines, up to 450 in one day at Millésime Bio in January (where I used the tram to get back to the hotel). The question people ask is how can I taste the wines properly after even a quarter of that number? In years gone by I attended big tastings in London and Edinburgh for example and I remember palate fatigue setting in. I tried strategies such as whites first, then sparkling wines to refresh and finally reds but I often found that I quickly tired of the reds even after short breaks. These days I have become more used to larger tastings and my palate is more trained. I can’t argue that my tasting ability will be diminished but I do feel able to assess wines reasonably well for much longer than I used to do.


A different problem which does affect that ability is that of getting used to wine styles. Tasting a lot of Languedoc reds for example I do begin to expect certain flavours and styles and so look for them rather than treating each wine on its own merits. Indeed, if a different sort of wine is then presented, eg a dessert wine or a different grape variety, the change is often very welcome and so the risk is of giving it more credit than perhaps it deserves.


I was also asked to taste series of wines for Guide Hachette, an enjoyable experience and definitely an honour. These tastings are carried out blind, the wines wrapped in covers so that the tasters cannot see the name of the producer to avoid conflicted interest or bias. Divided into groups of four we then compared notes after writing copious notes on appearance, aromas and taste as well as thoughts on possible food matches, and an overall judgement and mark out of 5. Happily the tasters were usually fairly consistent in their assessment of the wines, the training and experience of the jurors came to the fore. I was relieved that my marks were in line too! Even then the fact that the vintage and grape variety was given, so some level of expectation and prejudgement is in evidence. Overall though I felt reasonably confident that the marking was fair.


Wines waiting to be judged at Sudvinbio

Then last month I was asked to judge at a competition for Sudvinbio, organic Languedoc wines. I was on a jury of older vintages of Languedoc red wines. Again the mix of vigneron, oenologue, journalist, sommelier and blogger (ie me) were fairly much in agreement. Three wines stood out and deserved some recognition. However, we had been asked to award 4 medals which I did find a little odd. How can you decide in advance how many medals should be awarded? In the end a 4th wine was given a medal, but this was much more disputed with some liking it, others (including me) not liking it. I remain unconvinced by competitions though it again gave me some confidence of my own tasting ability.


Judges at work

Tasting is a personal experience, what I like you may not and vice versa. Experience of tasting wine does help us to appreciate and, for want of a better word, judge wines. We do bring prejudices to tasting, for example I know that I find Merlot and, especially, Cabernet Franc difficult.

There are all kinds of psychological and physiological factors which affect our ability to taste, from temperature to mood to patterns of tastebuds. Jamie Goode’s book ‘Wine Science’ has a fascinating chapter on the psychology of tasting, highlighting the work of Read Montague in Texas for example in showing how our prejudices can affect our taste.

All I can do is build on my experience, try to be aware of my own prejudices and be honest about my assessments as snapshots of wines at a particular moment in time and to my taste. It is however, a most enjoyable databank of experience to compile. Thank you to all those who are helping me to do so. Meanwhile don’t forget to enjoy the art of the vigneron.