Tasting vs drinking

boozy_lunchWine tasting nearly always follows the set procedure described in many places, from “taste like a pro” articles on the web, to WSET courses of various levels. What tasters actually do in practice will depend their environment, which often is not ideal. However, there is broad agreement about how it should work: look at the wine, smell it, take a sip, move it round the mouth, and spit it out, or possibly swallow.

The act of drinking on the other hand is a totally different matter, certainly not following the procedure of tasting, and there are no rules. Wine can be drunk straight from the bottle in drunken celebration, sipped quietly from a small glass with the rest of the bottle put away for next Christmas, or in many other less extreme ways. Even card-carrying wine geeks vary a lot in how they drink. For example, some thoughtfully sip a bottle over a few days, some start before a meal and finish after, some drink mainly between courses, and some during courses. When enjoying a meal in the company of other wine geeks, they might well get carried away and sample up to 20 different wines – they are meant to be drunk with food after all, so what could possibly be wrong with that?

There are many factors external to the wine itself that influence how it is perceived. The discipline of tasting seeks to standardise some of these, while drinking allows for a lot of variation. Consequently the applicability of tasting notes to wines drunk under more normal circumstances can be brought into question. Some wine lovers who spend a long time with their wine in quiet contemplation over course of an evening argue that they pick up on a lot more nuances than could accessed in a standard tasting, and that leads to longer and more interesting tasting notes. Others, on the other hand, may pay less attention to wine served with food than they would do when tasting.

I must admit to being in the latter camp. For me, wine is usually just one component of an enjoyable meal with friends, and many aspects that are picked up in tasting seem irrelevant when I am more interested in overall enjoyment. Is it really important that the wine is on the tawny side of garnet, has the merest hint of wild strawberry, or that the acidity is medium+ rather than medium? It may be because some other negative aspect always hits me first, but I have also never been concerned that a wine has insufficient length when drinking it with food.

I do attend to wines when drinking, but in those circumstances holistic impressions are a lot more important than an analytical approach. Is the wine savoury, or fruity? Does it go with the food? Does it taste, er… well… nice? Do I want another glass?

I am fully aware why tasting practices exist, but I do wonder sometimes about the wisdom of some of them. Swirling, for example – yes I know you should also smell the wine when it is stationary in the glass, but somehow the swirl almost becomes a nervous tic. From limited experience, the nose in a stationary glass needs quite a long time to develop, so interspersing swirls with stationary sniffs every few seconds will not work very well. I am also not so sure about using my mouth like a washing machine to move the wine around. Shouldn’t a largish sip sliding once over your tongue be sufficient? There is a specific problem with very tannic wines. If I move them around in my mouth, all I get is a hit of astringency so overwhelming that I can taste very little at all, and as the effect is cumulative subsequent wines are even worse.

In 2016, I am resolving to try small modifications in the way I taste: modifications that will bring tasting a few steps closer to the way I drink.

Author: Steve Slatcher

Wine enthusiast

4 thoughts on “Tasting vs drinking”

  1. I go to tastings, and analysing wine is useful – for example, to decide which 2014 Kabs I wanted to buy from 60+ you have to zip through and some discipline is needed. But I’m completely dubious about relying solely on the palate of someone I don’t know, so tasting has limitations. I’m always amazed how people can slavishly follow a score out of 100.

    But let’s face it, drinking is what it’s all about, where the pleasure comes. Do you ever wonder how, with a all the tasting some critics do, they find the time to drink? If they do drink much as well, they must be well over their 14 unit limit-we all know spitting is not alcohol free (as Alan March’s self-administered, post tasting breath test last year proved).

  2. Wouldn’t really argue with that, David. In fact I am not strongly arguing at all – just gently musing. And wondering how much of the procedure of tasting is optimally designed, and how much we follow mainly out of convention.

  3. BTW, Jancis also estimated how much she swallowed when tasting, by subtracting the volume in the spittoon from the volume that went into her mouth. Can’t remember the details, but it was a significant percentage. And in fact it would have been an underestimate as the spittoon would also contain saliva.

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