“On the steps of a World, a character asserts itself, the fruit of a garden of equilibrium that Petit Manseng roots in the curves of suspended time”
As a sommelier and wine lover who has taken a fair number of wine exams, I really do believe systematic approaches to tasting are the spine to understanding quality in wine, but they’re bloody boring. As a guest at a reasonably upmarket eating establishment, there’s nothing worse than a sommelier coming to you and telling you the dosage of your champagne or Riesling, worse still, do describe the body of the wine ordered as Med+, and tannin level as high. As a guest when I’m dining, I want to be seduced into choosing a wine with poetic voice rather than be coaxed by a somm that is showing off their years of hard study. Lately, I’ve felt myself slowly falling into the trap of boring my social media following with fairly amateur ways of deciphering what I taste. What I will be doing henceforth, is utilising the fullest extent of the English language. People shouldn’t be scared of searching for alternative descriptions of the liquid in the glass.
Approaches to tasting by means of deduction and tasting for quality are integral aspects of learning about the spine of individual wines, searching for styles and grapes. Assessing quality forms an important backbone of understanding; a lens if you will, in which to view and appropriately assess the vast array of flavour out there and break them down. Nonetheless, this is only for formal learning purposes. I do not believe, that you can express the beauty and essence of a wine using a systematic approach. Deductive tasting materials are a guid, identifying styles, regions, grapes and overall competence of the bottle itself.
Recent trips to Bordeaux and Champagne have emphasised this for me, meeting and talking to vignerons at one with their terroir and wines. This is not a systematic approach to wine tasting, but a poetic one.
‘Sur les marches d'un Monde,
un caractère s'affirme,
le fruit d'un jardin d'equilibre,
que le Petit Manseng enracine
aux courbes de Temps suspendu’
You will encounter the lines of prose above on the back of a bottle of Dider Dagueneau’s Les Jardins de Babylone, a testament to the perception wine makers possess over their own bottle. The second line, ‘a character asserts itself’, is, I believe, something to consider carefully. I have tasted the 2008 of Les Jardins de Babylone, and I am going to use a WSET SAT lexicon, in addition to my own description to paint a picture of the wine in your head.
For myself, the wine is wonderfully opulent with sunshine running through its DNA. The wine is precise, exuding layers of flavour complexity amongst its well-integrated acidity, demonstrating a favourable ageing potential for the years to come. I previously mentioned sunshine; bright, exotic stone fruits fill your palate with honey coated citrus, not overpowering, nor viscous due to the acidic lift. The layers unfurl along the wine’s incredible length, like a journey in the mouth, caressing the tastebuds with generous texture as the flavour and sweetness gently evolve.
Should I wish to pass a WSET tasting exam, I may describe the wine like so: Medium Colour Intensity. Golden Colour. Sweet. High Acidity. Medium Alcohol. Medium + Body. Prounounced flavour intensity. Long Finish. Outstanding quality, suitable for bottle ageing. Stone fruit evident, peach, nectarine, a sweet spice of nutmeg and clove. Ripe citrus.
The latter description picks apart the backbone of the wine in order to assess its quality from an objective perspective; with this tasting lexicon, anybody can anticipate what the wine will theoretically taste like, before drinking. I cannot help but feel that this method of tasting should stay in the realm of wine education only. That also goes for long winded descriptions of different types of fruit bowls. Wines, especially of the same style, can be so nuanced that a different type of fruit bowl that may substitute green apples for red cannot hope to express fully.
Not once are you taught to taste the soil and earth in the wine, how the terroir brings the bottle together. I have always been most compelled, most taken a back when a wine has been described by those who have tended the vines, who have gone into intricate detail about the effort it takes, the soul which is at one with the land. Truly, in the curves of suspended time. Usually, the best part about tasting with a wine maker is their candid nature; they will tell you when there is something wrong with the bottle or parcel we are tasting together, however minute. I have been taught where to feel chalk in a bottle of Champagne, the difference certain types of clay make when tasting apart Petrus from Chateau Lafleur which are across the road from each other. This should not extend only to fine wine, but it should be used in an effort to make wine more approachable, and ultimately more relatable. A character asserting itself.
Yet with this type of tasting comes a fair deal of responsibility, not to exclude and polarise. In the same way winemakers can be terribly honest, usually about their own work, we should be totally honest about what we can taste too. Superfluous, gorgeously poetic tasting notes are brilliant, which is why I am advocating them here as they can describe a wine’s true self, in addition to a sense of place. However, they can easily have an adverse effect. You must ultimately speak of what you taste and feel in the wine, and that only; making up nuanced, overly verbose flavours of things you have clearly never tried of exotic native spices, fruits and organic materials. Wine tasting is a careful balance. Empathise with your audience, do not exclude and ultimately know your wine.