How We Can Become Better Wine Tasters without Tasting 10,000 Bottles

Whereas for the past year or two, we have been delighted to find a glass of almost any wine in our hand come evening, these days, with vaccines, a somewhat milder Covid variant and a bit more freedom in our lives, expectations are on the rise. And now that wine lovers are back in wine shops and restaurants looking for new wines, I am hearing again their frustration: knowing what they like doesn’t translate into confidence at the wine shop or when faced with a wine list. Let me say this, dear wine lover, I feel your pain.

How does one learn to taste wine? What does it even mean to be a good taster? Importers, F&B managers and other wine professionals taste thousands of wines a year, and there are some talented showmen out there: a guy in Colorado who, in a blind tasting, can identify any of the 700 native grape varieties from which Italian wines are made, for example, or a former client of mine in SoCal who can pick out not only the estate and the vintage but even the specific vineyard plot of origin for any Burgundy wine produced in the last 50 years. For me, as a wine producer, the parlour tricks are not that relevant, as they aren’t either, I imagine, for the consumer. Yet, these two groups–producers and consumers–strike me as the ones that matter most in the wine world.

The good tasters I know taste FOR something. They judge a wine on how close it comes to having a certain characteristic. It might sound simplistic, like judging a car on its speed. Speed is not all that counts. Yet, if you look at the fastest cars in the world, chances are their steering, brakes and design are cutting edge, too.

The wine version of speed is ripeness—a proxy for so much else that impacts the quality of a wine. How do you taste for ripeness? Well, that’s the good news—it’s relatively easy. You know when you bite into a banana that isn’t quite ripe? That’s what we in the wine biz call “greenness,” or under ripeness. Its opposite is strawberry jam—pure sweetness, which is nice on a piece of toast but would be cloying to drink. Imagine a ripe cherry, plucked fresh off the tree–plump, juicy, sweet-and-sour tangy, a harmony of acids and sugars making your mouth water. If picked too early, a trace of bitterness would linger in your mouth; too late and the sweetness would dominate–the overall taste would be more banal.

Because the balance of acid and sugar at the moment of picking sets the wine on a lifelong trajectory, the time chosen for the harvest is essential. Wine makers like to say (and consumers like to hear) that wines are made in the vineyard, not the cellar. When grapes are picked at the peak of ripeness—a two- or three-day window at best—a good wine is 90% made. And yet, it can seem to a wine producer that environmental, economic and practical factors all conspire against the possibility of picking when they’d like to.

Sometimes, it rains when you’d like to pick; other times, two vineyards are ripe at the same moment, but you only have enough hands to pick one at a time. Or, it’s late September, the grapes are edging toward ripeness, but their seasonal cycle (of 100-110 days after flowering) is essentially over, the leaves are slowing down and their photosynthesis is no longer efficient enough to get the grapes to full ripeness, even if they stayed on the vine until Christmas. It might also be that it hasn’t rained in months, whereas vines need water to photosynthesise. In 2017, the heat spikes in July “froze” the grapes at a fraction of their usual size. They eventually turned purple but stayed small and bitter, never swelling or getting pulpy—never finishing ripening. And then there are vineyards which, even in a perfect growing season with a cold winter, light spring rains, a warm, even summer and a bright, cool fall, will never produce ripe grapes.

There are all sorts of man-and-woman-made reasons for this, such as grapevines planted on inappropriate soils (sadly ubiquitous even in famous wine regions) or grape varieties that ripen slowly and completely only in moderate climates (like Cabernet in Bordeaux) planted in zones with extreme heat in summer, such as Tuscany or parts of Spain. Similarly problematic is vine age and crop load: if six pounds of grapes are left on a young plant with shallow roots, the vine may not manage to ripen them. Over cropping remains widespread: on the winery’s balance sheet, more is more. (Even if the wine can’t be sold, it is an asset with a monetary value.) Under cropping is also problematic: it’s trendy to brag of low yields, as if they implied experience and attention to detail. But vines, like any living thing, need balance, and too few grapes per plant tend to produce dense, alcoholic wines of which no one wants to drink more than a sip or two.

I recently arranged a tasting at Fanciulle Vini of fifty of the most sought-after Tuscan wines—pure Sangiovese Brunellos and Chianti Classicos from the prized 2016 vintage, priced from €35 to €500. The quality ranged from bad to excellent, but even for what is considered a successful–even easy–vintage, few wines seemed to have been made from grapes picked at the peak of ripeness. Many wines exhibited those green qualities that remind us more of wilted grass or cooked vegetables than of the ripe red fruits we expect wines to hint at. Others were tinged with a caramel-like sweetness, which masked any pure fruit flavor. The worst had both: a green, “barky” backbone and syrupy overtones, without the plush, juicy, multifaceted, red-fruit middle that makes Sangiovese so lusciously mouthwatering to drink. Apparently, it’s hard to grow grapes well and pick them at the perfect moment.

And that’s where technology comes in, to the detriment of wine quality overall. There’s nothing inherently wrong with a less-ripe vintage that produces lighter, tangier wines. Those wines should be opened for a casual aperitivo or drunk with a light meal; their price should be lower than the prices the winery charges for its best vintages. But, rather than let a leaner, lighter vintage make its way to market, rather than try to explain to customers the strengths and limits of such a wine, rather than sell it for a slightly lower price, producers fight to fake it, with all the tools at their disposal.

Once, during my years as a buyer for a US importer of Italian and French wines, I visited a supplier of ours, a winery in Southern Italy on a beautiful hillside overlooking the Adriatic. It was December after a damp growing season and a tricky harvest–all over Italy estates had been forced to harvest early to avoid rot. Alessandra, the owner, was late to our meeting, so her brother Massimo, subbed in. As we tasted the wines, I asked questions about the weather in the weeks leading up to the harvest, about sugar concentration and potential alcohol at picking time, about whether the fermentations had gone smoothly (too much or too little sugar can lead to stop-start fermentations), and so on. Massimo wasn’t as practiced as Alessandra, who had perfected the winespeak and spin that growers use to control the story. Massimo was honest. He told us exactly what had gone on, from their surprise and disappointment at the pale color of the original musts to the reverse osmosis machine they had used and the concentrates, thickeners and tannins they had added at the behest of their consulting oenologist. The wines weren’t bad—in fact, they were uniformly although somewhat anonymously good. They sold well, when put on the market, even. But they weren’t “made in the vineyard,” really, they were made in the cellar, which might have been anywhere in Italy.

I learned a lot that day about what could be done to a wine to make its aromas, textures and tastes different from whatever had emerged naturally. I learned, too, how oenologists were applying these techniques in difficult vintages, and I finally understood how wines made at an estate in Puglia could taste suspiciously like wines made at an estate in Piedmont.

Tasting wines with an eye to discerning signs of ripeness provides a framework for approaching wine, a fixed point around which we can orient ourselves when evaluating other characteristics, such as the impact of barrel aging or the wine’s relative freshness given its age. With time, we can get a feel for a winery’s relationship to ripeness. Do its wines reflect the vintage or do they taste the same, year after year? Is the estate obtaining reasonably ripe grapes in cooler and hotter vintages (very likely a sign that their viticultural practices and terrain are good)? Or are they using cellar techniques to try and mask uneven raw material? Looking out for those estates whose wines reveal rather than obscure the inherent characteristics of the soil, the growing season and the grape variety is a step toward identifying wineries that make wines with a sense of place. Those wineries are reliable—we can be fairly sure that year in and year out, their wines reflect fundamentals.

When people complained to me about how hard it was to choose a wine, I would tell them that the key was knowing the different estates, but to myself, I wondered if such knowledge was the province only of professionals.

Last Saturday night, at a restaurant in Siena, I was left to choose the wine. The list wasn’t very exciting—a few brand names from each region–but thankfully, there was a bottle I “knew”—a white wine from the Etna area in Sicily, where I had been a dozen times on wine tasting trips as a buyer. The estate was not one I had worked with directly, but I knew its vineyards and its winemaker, and I had recently drunk the same wine from an earlier vintage. I confidently ordered the 2020.

It tasted of almost nothing—diluted (I could have asked to see the bottle—12% alcohol, suspiciously low for the region and the vintage–the grapes could not have been ripe), lemony (probably harvested too late and acidified in the cellar) and flat (was it an older vintage freshened up for bottling?). We drank it, aware of how little our knowledge had helped us that night, of how much the truth is in the tasting.

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