Three short essays on tasting

I: Tasting critically and tasting appreciatively.

It seems to me that there are two distinct ways of tasting: tasting appreciatively and tasting critically. We taste appreciatively when we are drinking; when we take pleasure in a wine, and enjoy it for its merits, whatever they may be. We appreciate a rustic Gigondas, for example, for its unabashedly feral sense of place and its boisterous amplitude, without faulting its sometimes heady alcohol and stemmy tannins; or we enjoy a 1992 white Burgundy without remarking that its botrytised aromas occlude its expression of terroir. Indeed, the faults and failings we are prepared to overlook, and to what degree, are important constituents of our personal taste.

Tasting critically is a much less enjoyable exercise, practiced professionally by wine makers, wine merchants and wine critics. When we taste in this mode, we scrutinise wines brutally, finding fault alike with the sucrosity of excessive chaptalisation and the torrefied tones of sur maturité; with any excess of alcohol or insufficiency of ripeness. Few wines escape such handling unbruised. While appreciative tasting notes can be pleasure to read, conveying the thirst-inspiring joy of wine, tasting notes written in this more critical register are of more practical utility to anyone contemplating a new acquisition for their cellar, especially if they possess a developed sense of their own likes and dislikes. And while philosophers would make short work of the popular fallacy that tasting like this is ‘objective’, the critical taster certainly aspires to be dispassionate.

Critical tasting is more difficult. One easily resolved problem is presented by the question of standards. By what yardstick does the critical taster identify flaws? Elevated volatile acidity, for example, is a signature of traditionalist wines from the Piemonte and, in some cases, the south of France: integrated into their aromatic profiles, it provides lift and energy they might otherwise lack; but in Pinot Noir from the Côte d’Or, it is undesirable. It would be equally misguided to judge the concentration of a Fleurie by the metric of a Morgon. So the critical taster’s standards, I believe, must be contextually appropriate.

Another problem is posed by the technical skills involved in tasting critically; both from bottle and a fortiori from barrel. Reduction in wine, for example, can create the illusion of aromatic impurity: in a reduced state, the most fragrant and floral of wines can run the gamut from scents of cocoa powder and coffee grits to full-blown faecal repulsiveness—though the latter extreme is rare, and less likely to be transient. Reduction can also denude a wine of its texture on the palate, making it seem diffuse and lean. Learning to identify these and other characteristics is a prerequisite to writing meaningful critical tasting notes, and a skill too few wine critics have mastered, as long-suffering winemakers frequently lament.

The permeability of these two registers of tasting—critical and appreciative—creates a third and more insidious difficulty. It is hard not to slip into the appreciative mode when tasting a wine one admires. Language has a momentum of its own. The word ‘balance’ naturally inclines writers to reach for the modifier ‘perfect’, rare though perfect balance is. Similarly the word ‘tannins’ often elicits ‘fine’, just as the word ‘acidity’ suggests ‘refreshing’. The English language is an imprecise instrument for describing wine, exacerbating the problem: between ‘perfect’ and ‘imbalanced’ there are many shadings in the glass, but few in the thesaurus, and in the interests of avoiding too vehement an indictment I suspect critics are often too ready to praise.

Both the logic of language and the emotional imperative of appreciation, in other words, mitigate against the practice of sustained critical tasting. This, I imagine, is why we see so little of it.

II: Scoring and tasting.

Critical, dispassionate tasting issues in a judgement, more or less stringent according to the taster’s ability and desire to discriminate, as to whether a wine is successful or not. Its binary results are as simple as they are limited.

Scoring a wine, by contrast, is an attempt to quantify preference; and preference, determined by taste, is inherently personal and contingent. Preference, indeed, is the outcome of appreciative rather than critical tasting.

That so many wine critics conflate these two genres, attempting to quantify preference dispassionately (or even ‘objectively’), is entirely misguided. Merely to articulate the train of thought is to reduce it to the absurd: “If I were to like modernist Barolo, then this wine from Clerico would score 94/100”; “If I were to like Burgundies made in this style, Charlopin’s Chambertin would rate as highly as Rousseau’s.”

Preference cannot be hypothetical. So the tasting notes and scores of a critic with an unabashedly articulated personal taste will always be more useful than those of the critic who tries to measure pleasure dispassionately.

III: Tasting and conflicts.

Interesting though they are, these abstract and intellectual considerations may in fact be less weighty that more material questions of conflicting interests and compromised judgement.

Conflicts of interest, conventionally construed, are comparatively easy to dispense with. Many wine writers certainly are wined-and-dined with some regularity and sometimes in style. And the receipt of hospitality must surely sometimes temper the acuity of journalistic critique.

But the context in which a journalist is writing exercises pressures just as powerful. The journalist is always writing for an audience, and if one’s audience happens to enjoy drinking, say, Caymus Cabernet, one would be unwise to casually dismiss it as a confectionary insult to the American people’s taste and intelligence.

The associated need to remain relevant to one’s audience is also influential: a Burgundy critic who does not particularly admire the wines of Domaine Sauzet, for example, is nonetheless expected to taste them; and moreover expected to score them relatively generously. Few critics seem to dare to dissent too greatly from consensus.

Wine journalists are likely to be equally sensitive to the sensibilities of their colleagues and friends in their own and kindred professions. So while one may be unimpressed by an insipid, flaccidly stemmy Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir, if it happens to have been made by a man or woman of some celebrity and prominence in the wine community, the chances are one will manage to find something to like about the wine, however fugitive. This may have as much to do with what has been called group-think as it does the conscious fear of ostracization.

Conflicts of this kind are most easily and frequently resolved by the familiar practice of damning with faint praise. That tendency is amplified by the fact that wines are not scored in a vacuum: the scores one affixes to a wine are to some degree shaped by the scores affixed to other wines by other critics. If a colleague has affixed a 93-point score to a mediocre Malbec, one is strongly inclined to give at least an equal score to the creditable cru Bourgeois one is reviewing on the preceding page.

The result is score compression: in this scenario, only seven points now remain with which to capture the almost infinite gradations which separate the creditable cru Bourgeois and a great vintage of Latour or Lafleur. High scores awarded to uninteresting table wines thus devalue even the lavish praise of great bottles.

A more noble consideration which may compromise the critic is an awareness of the influence the wine press wields. The struggling producer who has made a sound wine against the odds and who sells it inexpensively would certainly appreciate an extra point, and may very well seem to deserve it. It’s here that considerations of justice bulk almost as large as wine quality, dispassionately assessed.

A variety of factors, then, mitigate against absolute candour when wine critics score wines, and the pressures to which journalists are subject are considerable. It follows that scores are only useful in proportion to one’s appreciation of their many and varied limitations.

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