Friday, August 3, 2012

Thinking out loud about wine as usual and other things...



Thinking out loud about wine as usual and other things...

Whether working in a restaurant, a retail store, a “caviste”, a “bar a vin”, an importer, a distributor, a Negociant and even for a producer, being a Sommelier / wine buyer often allows you to taste a vast amount of wines: a lot of bad ones, a generous amount of good ones and from time to time some great ones too. But how can people like Sommeliers and other wine professionals define the quality and taste of a wine to advise you on how to choose and eventually buy a bottle?

The answer is "Passion" combined with a lot of tasting – and drinking too (in moderation of course) – and principally having a curious mind completed with extensive knowledge built through reading, tasting, traveling and visiting vineyards and wineries, I will say, at least for my part and for most wine lovers I met. Then it is mostly a question of listening and understanding respectively the customer's taste and more importantly his or her palate.

Despite the fact that some people still generalize and think that quality and especially taste are equal common grounds for all palates, it is in fact the opposite. Quality varies a lot depending on how train and open your palate is. Moreover, taste is personal and tasting is very subjective. In short, everybody has its own opinion(s); and thus, it will be difficult to contest it as every palate possesses different levels of sensitivity and interpretation of the detected aromas and flavors and the overall taste.

Some of us prefer rich, bold, opulent wines with jammier fruit and solid structure, like a Cabernet Sauvignon or a Zinfandel from Napa in California; while others (like me) may like them light, crisp, refreshing, more mineral and racy with juicy fruit and leaner structure, like a Pinot Noir from Burgundy or a Lagrein from the Sudtirol in Alto-Adige Italy or even a Petite Rouge from the Valle d'Aosta in Italy. And most of us usually like or are more inclined to the middle ground of fruity, generous yet medium bodied, smooth and versatile wines suitable for any occasions. That can be said also for whites, comparing a full chardonnay aged in barrels to a mineral Roussette de Savoie for example.  

Yet, nowadays, it seems that more amateurs and connoisseurs as well as professionals trust blindly brands and ratings, usually commanding higher prices, rather than exploring on their own and experience the quality and taste of a wine; consequently missing the opportunity to learn by themselves how to appreciate and know whether or not this wine will be good for them to drink and buy again.

But it is very understandable, especially with this economy, which leads people to adopt a cautious attitude when drawing their wallet to buy something. Labels or brands, ratings and more importantly prices are more than ever coming to play and intermingle with their final decision, pushing aside the quality and taste of the wine, and at the same time the joy of venturing into lesser known regions and smaller producer's wines. People seems to put their money in the very inexpensive for everyday, and the rated for special occasions, resulting in more wines in the in-between to remain unsold, crowding the shelves, patiently waiting for the rare few of us that continue to sail the vast ocean of wine hoping to discover that little gem that will make our day and complement our food.

During the last 10-15 years before the world economy crumbled, searching and discovering for new and unknown wines was a fun game, gambling on a bottle at your supermarket or listening for recommendation in your local store and restaurant; yet nowadays, it seems that people are coming back to their favorite brands and stick to them, especially if they are good values for money. Yet, they are more and more wines to chose from all around the world and in so many styles...It is a difficult situation, but hopefully and fortunately, things will change, and people will once again join the ranks of the wine adventurers.

Yet, and despite the economy, I still think that price and label or brand and even rating don't necessarily reflect on the quality and taste. In fact, I think that no one should (or even can) define the quality of a wine by its price or label (or its rating if any). It should and must be define by the wine’s taste: aromas, flavors, balance between fruit, acidity and tannins, texture and structure, finish and length, the overall profile from beginning to end, and more importantly by the whole impression that it leaves in the palate. And undeniably, if it immediately calls for another glass.

Yes! If the tasted wine immediately calls for another glass! That is the key of success for any wine. Because, at the end of the day, critics and professionals alike can give you the best speech ever, the most impressive description or even give the best score ever to a wine, if you taste it and do not like it, all the above won't really matter. Hefty price and high score for a shitty wine will surely leave a bitter taste in your mouth; fortunately, it doesn’t happen that often as, usually, expensive established wines command for high scores and ratings and thus should taste, at least if not great, good…

Although, labels, brands, prices, attractive descriptions and ratings may impart your decision and guide you to buy a bottle of wine, whether in a store or in a restaurant or even in an auction (which is even a bigger risk), the wine may not always satisfy you despite what you read or heard about it. Once you’ve tasted them, some of these wines can actually be quite disappointing; somewhat even far from the description and/or the rating. Almost makes you wonder what the critic was thinking when he or she tasted the wine that day.

Words can be an indication of what you will find in the bottle in general terms about taste and flavors. But you will be able to determinate the quality and if it suit your palate only after you’ve tasted the wine. Moreover, your palate, knowledgeable or not, will tell you right away if the tasted wine is worth drinking another glass or if you should just pour the rest of the bottle in your beef bourguignon, or worst, in the sink (vinegar is also an option…).

Do not be too influenced by the taste of others around you. Remember everybody is different and every palate has different sensitivity levels. Therefore, always keep your first impressions, because the subjectivity of the wine depends on the taster’s palate and his taste buds experience and his sensory memory, not necessarily on the wine itself. It is the truth, believe it or not.

Most of the first impressions when it comes to smell and taste respectively the aromas and flavors of a wine, are triggered by the olfactory and sensory memories, in correlation, in fact, with pretty much everything your brain has recorded and preciously kept since your birth. In other words, when you smell a wine in the company of a few friends, some aspects of it may be generalized when they match the overall opinion, like: “Hmmm, this wine has a great nose! It is very expressive! Or “No, it is closed. The aromas are barely perceptible.” Yet, when it is question of defining and being more precise about the aromas, then it is everybody for himself, and it is completely normal.

Why? Because everyone’s olfactory and sensory collected memories and souvenirs are different.For example on a red wine, certain people may smell red cherry, while other will maybe smell dark cherry or even wild cherry or even something else like raspberry or dark berries. It only depends on your first impressions and what came first to your mind when you put the glass to your nose. Nothing wrong of having a different opinions and first impressions than the person next to you, it is perfectly normal and thanks god that is the way it is, otherwise life will be boring and free of long, nonsense passionate debates on something as simple as what do you smell in this wine? It is only a matter of sensitivity and olfactory and sensory memory education.

For example, and that is what I do with my own kids, every time you go to the supermarket to get some groceries, you should hover around the fruit and vegetable section, and take the time to touch, smell and record the various sensations, impressions and aromas in your brain. Take a melon for example, the riper it is, the smellier it is, that is usually why most people do not feel the melon but smell it before buying it. It is current practice in the old world, particularly France.

Another example, when passing by the citrus fruits, try to record the easy differences between an orange, a mandarin, a lemon, a lime and a pink grapefruit. Take them in your hands, close your eyes for a few seconds and learn how to record the texture of the skin and the specific characteristics of the smell. You can do the same for berries and cherries in general and even nuts. Learn the difference in color, smell, texture and taste between them. Same for vegetable, herbs and spices, meat and fish, cheeses and desserts, and roughly anything that you can drink or eat.Chefs do it all the time. it is more than an habit for them, it is a way of living and perfectly knowing the characteristics of each ingredients to elaborate the dishes.

Everything as a very distinctive color, smell, texture and taste that you may find back into the aromas and flavors a wine has to offer.It is the same for the palate and normally some of the aromas on the nose will be accentuated and confirmed in the palate, as all the flavors of a wine do not come from your taste buds, on the contrary to most people belief, but from the retro-olfaction reaction created when breathing, especially inhaling, while swirling the wine with the air in your mouth and also when swallowing the wine. It is a bit difficult to explain, but in short, it will stimulate the mucus membrane and the sensory cells in the nasal cavity and transfer the aromas into flavors in the back of the oral cavity, giving you the impression of having the same types of flavors, which first corresponded to the aromas on the smell, yet in a more prominent way usually mixed with other components. In fact, at times this will be the same as the olfactory process if not slightly different and complimentary. The taste buds on your tongue will only detect the 5 basic tastes: bitterness, saltiness, sourness, sweetness and umami (sort of savory taste), but they won’t give you the flavor profile of a wine, your olfactory and sensory memory will.

It is the result of what your eyes, nose and palate have been slowly accustomed to see, smell and taste (and even touch), recorded in your brain since your birth, and coming back as a first impression, as a memory projecting an image from your brain to define what it is. Put the glass to your nose, smell it … stop, don’t think of anything else. What is the first thing that comes to your mind? Cherry? Berry? Citrus fruit? Chocolate? Nuts? Toasted bread? Vanilla? Oak? Spice? Let your mind guide you.Once you’ve tried it, it will become knowledge, like an automatic response generated by all your sensors every time you will encounter that specific smell or taste, that characteristic aroma or/and flavor.

By doing so, you no longer will be a novice, you will have educated and accustomed your sensors to track and recognize, identify and differentiate the numerous colors, smells, texture and taste, which somewhat will always be very useful, and not only for wine. It is something that modern men have now forgotten, but it is something that men have been relying on to feed themselves and quench their thirst since the beginning of time up until not a long time ago. It is said that it is usually easier for women, who naturally since their young age have developed a better sense of smell due to perfumes and other skin and hair products. There are also more women doing the groceries than men in general…

In any case, that is the reason why you have to trust yourself, your instinct, your impressions and more especially your palate. Yet that is only if you bought and opened the bottle and tasted the wine.

However, if you did not sharpen your olfactory and sensory memory, and didn't open the wine yet and consequently remain faced with the dilemma of what to choose to drink with tonight’s dinner; and because there is no other way to really know what's in the bottle before you opened it and tasted it, unless you are a big fan of the producer and have been following quite enough vintages to know the approximate profile of the produced wine and have already a rough idea of what you will get, you will still have to refer to the advice of critics and other wine professionals, whether online, in books or with a real person like a wine salesman, a Sommelier or a "Caviste" to make your final decision.

That is why, when looking for some info about a wine that you want to taste, it is very important to read in between the lines and never to refer to only one wine critic (or only one other wine professional). You have to diversify the source of your information, to have a broader view of the wine and read what more than one person thinks about it.

Unless, you really know the person who usually advise you at your local retail store or in your favorite restaurant, and who, so far, never really disappointed you and more than often recommended you with what you were looking for (because he or she learned with time the profile of your palate), you are basically on your own. At the mercy of critics and other professionals alike that may advise you wrongly or misguide you, especially if you do not know their palate’s profile.

Of course, like most people, me included from time to time, you probably rely on some of the most famous critics and wine writers like Robert Parker, Jancis Robinson, Steven Tanzer, Michael Broadbent, Michel Bettane, Oz Clarke, Clive Coates, Hugh Johnson or/and Allen Meadows (just to name a few), but do not forget that they all have their own palate and taste, which may not necessarily suit yours and will never be identical to yours.Therefore, in order to buy the bottle that will best suit your palate and excite your taste buds, you will have to know perfectly the palate and taste of your wine critic, Sommelier or other wine professionals, to make your decision.

Basically, if nobody is here to help you and you are not able to chose for yourself a bottle among the very intimidating layers of bottles laid on the shelves in front of you, and your only hope is to rely on your smart phone to search for a rating, a description or whatever else that will decide you on why you should buy this bottle rather than that one; well, the idea is that you absolutely must know the palate of your critics and other wine professionals and writers, to make the right choice. In doubt, do your home-work. Atop of the press and critics publications, there are plenty of very good websites, including bloggers (like me) that can also guide you and deliver a lot of opinions and info. Do not neglect the bloggers, some appear to be more reliable and trustworthy than a few of the pedestal-climbers and self-proclaimed wine professionals and critics.

You can always refer to online websites like Decanter, Robert Parker, Wine Spectator, International Wine cellar, Jancis Robinson and more, like most people do. However, and it is very important, as I said before, you will have to know the critic palate’s profile. For example, it is known that Robert Parker’s palate profile is rather richer and more fruit driven than those of Stephen Tanzer or even Jancis Robinson, which are a bit more inclined to more traditional, earthier wines with less alcohol (which I’m certainly closer to after meeting and tasting with both in various occasions like Bordeaux en Primeur and a few importers/distributors tastings in France, UK and USA. Yet, I still have the utmost respect for Parker, don’t get me wrong, but our palate are different, that’s all).

It is very important, because, although all of the above wine personalities are very good in their own field with their respective palate, as always and more than ever with the growing number of wineries and producers and thus styles; wine is a matter of personal taste.

Out of 195 countries in the world, 40 countries lead the pack per volume and production; yet, some believe that there are now about 120 countries producing their wines. That’s a lot of wine.And because, you can taste them all and that more information are daily, contently written and uploaded on the internet, you can now have access to a huge amount of tasting notes, descritions, ratings and all sort of other things you need to know about wine.

Cellartracker, for example, is an excellent websites where various persons, professional or not, can express themselves and write their own descriptions and opinions about any wines. If a wine has been described (and rated) by a few people, you will be able, at one glance, to read the different opinions and personally assess the wine base on your overall view and understanding of the various descriptions. You will be able to vary the source of your info by comparing with other similar websites and blogs.

However, all that said, wine writing and advising is a matter of knowledge, curiosity and passion above all. Nobody can really talk you into a wine without these three essential and indissociable factors. Whatever you read, it has to be informative and attractive. If it is too general and lack of personal inputs, it often means that knowledge may be there, but passion is missing and curiosity is lacking. Like anything else, when a Sommelier (or any good wine professional) likes a wine, he or she will not stop talking, even bragging about it, venting its merits and its beneficial virtues for those who will dare have a sip of it.

Therefore, know the palate of the person who suggest you a wine, Sommelier, critics and any tother wine professionals, but also know his or her personality too. Personally, when I suggest a wine to someone, I’m very excited and impatient to recommend it, because I know the story, the history, the winemaking process and even sometimes the producer behind it. It makes for a better and enhanced experience for the customers; and because I always also ask a lot of questions to define and comprehend the palate (and never to forget the budget) of my customers, I usually end up by transforming a skeptical-hesitant-shelves-stroller into a happy-to-be-back customers.

It makes me feel good to think that my relationship with my customers goes way beyond the frozen glare and uncomfortable smile one can encounter while deciphering the labels of the vast ocean of bottles of wine in a supermarket or at a local wine & spirits retailer around the corner, where sometimes the staff lack of knowledge and boast demeanor marking them down as bored and not really sympathetic. This type of conduct usually triggers annoying but right for the circumstance questions like: Am I disturbing your afternoon siesta? Should I come back when you are in a better mood? I have been here for the past 10-15 minutes, and it is only know that you acknowledge that you may have a customer to attend to? Do you know anything about this wine? Etc…

That's what prompted me originally to create a wine blog to share my knowledge, passion and opinions regarding some of the wines that I tasted, and to be able to help you define if whether or not you would like to buy or drink certain wines more than others. There are plenty of people like me who loves wine, taste it, drink it, write about it and express their opinion about it. Diversify the source of your information, keep only the positive things and learn how to read between the lines and understand the wine jargon and the palate of those you follow the guidance.

If you want to know about my palate, I can say that I buy and drink pretty much everything to taste and generate an opinion (whether positive or negative), more especially because I do not want to die stupid (so I apply this doctrine to pretty much everything in life: art, culture, history, geography, languages, and more). Yet, what I like to drink are usually wines from smaller, more independent producers, usually crafting with natural methods (organic, biodynamic, lute raisonnee, etc…) that respect nature and the environment. I like them earthy, racy, and expressive on the nose and balanced in the palate. Crisp, refreshing acidity, mineral, even a touch funky, not a problem, as long as all the component s are fairly balanced and integrated, in harmony with no harsh edges (bitter, sour, green, too vegetal, tannic, astringent, alcoholic, etc..). The fruit needs to be ripe, but not overripe, even slight under-ripe is not always a problem. The texture and structure need to be polished and generous, subtle and complex, yet without being too opulent or over the top. The finish should remain for a little while, giving you a satisfying, even some time exhilarating, sensation of comfort and pleasure. And as I always say, it should definitely call immediately for another glass!

Enough talking, let’s put the charcuterie and other victuals on the table, and let’s have a feast to celebrate family, friendship and lasting memories around a few good bottles of wine.

Enjoy!

LeDom du Vin

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