Subjectivity is not to be sniffed at

“Any fool can have a subjective opinion about wine” is one of the arguments I occasionally see in favour of objectivity in winetasting, and that can be followed by “but experts have invested a lot of time in learning to taste objectively”. There are so many assumptions built into that line of argument I hardly know where to start, but my main counter-argument would be that objectivity in winetasting simply does not exist. However, here I would like to focus on debunking the idea that subjective views are necessarily trivial and to be lightly dismissed. We subjectivists do not all take a swig of wine that hardly touches the sides, and immediately pronounce on its quality.

For me, the ideal person to assess a wine is someone who acknowledges the subjectivity of taste, and yet is happy to give an opinion nevertheless. That person would understand the objective properties of wine, i.e. its physical properties and chemical composition, but also know how those elements translate into the perception of flavour, depending on the environment and individual differences. And of course personal preferences.

In its simplest form, a subjective approach might not be too dissimilar to what is thought to be objective tasting, according to the WSET Systematic Approaches to Tasting Wine for example, but without claiming any objectivity in the final quality assessment. The taster might also like to comment on their sensitivity to the different dimensions of the wine, and how factors other than the wine itself might be influencing its perception.  Of course this is not easy – in fact it is very difficult to do well. But that is really my main point here. A serious subjective approach to winetasting is far from trivial. If anything, the problem is that it is too complex if done well. But that is no excuse for us to stick our heads in the sand and pretend the complexities don’t exist.

Finally, I would add that I think it is important for the taster to say how much they actually enjoy drinking the wine. To me, a quality score, perhaps arrived at by totting up the scores for intensity, balance, persistence etc, is pretty meaningless, and I’d much rather know a taster’s finger-in-the-air feeling about a wine. That is how I score wines, and to be honest I sometimes find that subjective assessments can be hard to arrive at. With conventional wines from classic regions it is a lot easier, because you know more what to expect, and you understand your preferences a lot better. But with more weird stuff (natural wines, I am mainly looking at you) I find it can be more difficult to decide. The problem is in being able to understand the good and enjoyable aspects of an unexpected wine, and when one would best drink it. For example which dishes to match it with. Occasionally I find that a wine that seems promising on initial tasting does not work that well with food, and vice-versa, and established wisdom and accumulated experience with more-conventional wines does not always work.

But I usually get there in the end with my subjective opinion – if not before, then when deciding whether or not to buy more of the same wine.

(In the above, by concentrating on the complexity of subjectivity I have ignored other important aspects. For more on subjectivity and wine, my World of Fine Wine article is a good place to start)

An embarrassment of wines

The reason these wines are something of an embarrassment for me is that I like them so much. So much in fact, that they all got my top rating at some point in the past year or so. You might think it should not be too embarrassing to occasionally dish out 6 stars, but these are not grand wines. Some of them are very respectable and definitely not to be sniffed at, but I bought the cheapest one for £7.00, and even the expensive ones are by no means the most prestigious wines I have experienced in that period.

So objectively (if you believe in that sort of thing) I liked them too much. But my rating system is based on subjective enjoyment on the night, and I do my best to be honest to that concept. Nevertheless, when I am mightily enjoying a wine and yet I know it is generally regarded as being rather modest, I do some serious soul-searching before it gets my top rating. However embarrassing though, here I lay out my vinous soul for scrutiny. Maybe there are some wines here that will press your buttons too or, failing that, you will at least learn something about what makes me tick.

Kidev Erti Chinuri Petillant Naturel, 2016, 10.0%

Made by Lapati Wines in Georgia, and Chinuri is the grape. Kidev Erti is the brand they give to their sparkling wines, and means “one more”. If this were imported, I guess it would be around £20 in the UK.

I first tried this in Tbilisi, at John Wurdeman’s new restaurant venture, Poliphonia. On the second occasion I was not nearly so impressed, and that is partly what I am trying to illustrate here. It is a natural wine, but I don’t think bottle variation accounted for my differing reactions. Much more likely to be taster variations, or serving temperature perhaps.

Medium pale straw. Intense, deep, rich, petrol notes. Medium acid. Off dry. Not astringent. Drink now. Top marks!

Boutari Naoussa, 2011, 13.0%

£7.00 from Booth’s on special offer in 2016, but the normal price at the time was £11.

This is a Naoussa wine from the North of Greece, of the grape Xinomavro. It is a high quality appellation, but this is right at the bottom end of what you would expect to pay for Naoussa. I gave this wine the big thumbs up on two separate occasions. Both with food of course. Other times I liked it too in a rustic sort of way, but not quite to the same extent. Here are my two very positive tasting notes.

Medium pale tawny garnet. Intense. Caramel dark fruit. Mature notes, and violety high tone. Edgey licorice. Very attractive. Complex. Medium high acidity. Medium tannin. Distinct texture – like a thin paste or fine coffee grounds, or high cocoa-content chocolate. Aromas on the palate as nose, but with more emphasis on the high-toned aspect. And something more savoury or meaty – crispy bits on the side of a roast. Nothing obtrusive, and all in balance. Elegant and not hugely intense on the palate. Excellent length. Refreshingly savoury, slightly bitter finish. Not a stunning wine that whacks you round the face, but it hits the spot.

And here is my note from another occasion. Medium pale tawny garnet. Intense, edgy. Savoury. Spicy dark fruit and violets. Beautiful. Medium high acidity. High tannin. Excellent length. Drink now in my book, but good for another 5 years at least. Great with steak.

So what is my excuse for the stupidly high score? No idea, really. I knew it was rather preposterous, but on those two occasions the wine was just so unbelievably attractive for me. That’s just the way it is.

Bertrand Ambroise Bourgogne Veilles Vignes, 2007, 13.0%

Bought from Christopher Keiller for £15.50. A significant step up in price from the Naoussa, but 6 stars!? I have had quite a few bottles of this and always liked it, but on this occasion the food and my mood seemed to raise it to new heights.

Pale garnet. Intense, mature Burgundy. Complex. Sous-bois. Mature red fruit. Cherry. Highish acidity. Medium low tannin. Excellent length. Beautiful. Drink now. Excellent unpretentious Burgundy. If there is a criticism, it is a perhaps a bit sharp and thin. But with food it is wonderful.

Bertrand Ambroise Nuits Saint Georges, 2005, 13.0%

A Burgundy from the same domaine, this time at village level, and my tasting note sounds suitably more effusive, even if my level of enjoyment peaked with the previous wine. Another favourite wine of mine, but this bottle seemed particularly good. Bought for £30 from a small local merchant that is no longer trading.

Palish tawny garnet. Intense sous-bois and fully mature Burgundy fruit. Oaky, caramel. Medium high acid. Light bodied, but intense aromatically. Low but detectable astringency. Delicate, savoury and long. Perfumed. Drink now.

Château de Beaucastel Châteauneuf-du-Pape, 1999, 13.5%

While we are on the classics, to emphasise that I don’t just enjoy weird shit, how about this one? It’s a rather boring tasting note, but I know from my score how enthused I was by this wine. I bought it from Costco in 2007 for the princely sum of £24.65. I see the 2015 now sells for around £50.

Medium pale garnet. Intense, sweet, dusty, caramel maturity. Medium acid. Low tannin. Viscous and full bodied. Delicate and mature aromatically. Complex. Excellent length. Drink now. Only 5 stars when tasted before eating, but 6 when drinking with food.

Now we continue with the upward trend in price – but we also get more weird.

Max Ferd Richter Graacher Goldwingert feine Spätlese, 1964, half bottle

I didn’t buy this personally, but it was obtained direct from the producer for around £50. There is no alcohol percentage attached to this one because they did not use to put it on labels back in 1964. No grape variety on the label either, and you wouldn’t guess by tasting it, or from my note. But it was of course Riesling.

Medium pale straw. Intense yet muted, smokey. Medium acid. Dry. Smokey on the palate too, and coffee maybe. Drink now. Yes, white wines can taste like this too. Difficult to score, but I went for top marks.

Karaman Prošek Malasija Dubrovacka, 2008, 15.0%, half bottle

Karaman is the winery, which is in the Konavle valley at the Southernmost tip of Croatia. The grape is Malasija Dubrovacka, which translates as Dubrovnik Malvasia, AKA Malvasia di Lipari. And Prošek is the name given to this style of wine. While writing this I learned that this half bottle is around £40 at the cellar door, and it would be considerably more here in the UK if anyone thought they could sell it. I thought it was probably about half that price at the time of drinking.

Medium pale amber. Intense, fresh, sharp, orange, lemon, caramel, spice. Wonderful. You can sense the high alcohol, but in a good way. Medium high acid. Off-dry effect, but it is apparently “dry with sweet impression”. Wonderful (again). Exceptional length. Drink now.

I must explore Prošek wines more. How convenient that I will be in Dubrovnik shortly 🙂 Watch this space.

Having your subjective cake and objectifying it

Is wine appreciation is subjective or objective? Professionals can often be difficult to tie down on that issue. For example, they often agree that opinions on wine quality are totally subjective, while at the same time claiming to be objective in their judgements. In that way they can encourage everyone to say what they think about a wine, and yet not lose their special role as experts. The problem with subjectivity is that it can mean everyone’s opinions are equally valid, which then leaves no space for connoisseurship and meaningful dialogue about wine. If there is no right and wrong, what is left to discuss when it comes to wine? So they say. Some people at least. Sometimes.
Personally, while I may occasionally use the language of objectivity for convenience, I am very consistently on the side of subjectivity in this debate. Here is how I see it… The objective aspect of a wine is represented by its chemical and physical structure. Using our senses, mainly smell and taste, and the brain to integrate sensory input, we create there a perceptual model, and then interpret that model to draw conclusions about the wine. In other words, in the sense that it is created within ourselves, flavour is literally subjective. It is not only subjective, but the perception of flavour can vary greatly from person to person according to our genetic makeup. So flavour is totally subjective: it simply does not exist independently of an observer. In addition to this relatively straightforward flavour perception, some of us are also interested in aesthetic aspects of wine such as balance, harmony and elegance, and that adds yet another level of subjectivity. Even if we can agree on the principles of wine quality, those principles will always be rather arbitrary, and our interpretation of the principles subjective. However, unlike others, I do not see subjectivity in wine as a cause for concern. There is still room for wine expertise in my opinion, and with the acceptance of subjectivity I see even more opportunity for interesting discussions about wine quality.

While this strongly subjective stance does not seem to be popular amongst wine people, it is the orthodox view in perceptual science, and I find it difficult to understand how anyone could possibly begin to seriously disagree. However, Barry Smith (of the Institute of Philosophy, School of Advanced Studies, University of London) manages just that. Based on the objective chemistry on the wine, he proposes that there are emergent flavour properties. The flavours might vary with time, but they are objective in the sense that they depend solely on the wine itself. According to him, tasters do not experience the chemical and physical structure of the wine directly: only indirectly, through the flavour properties. Here, there is still subjectivity, but the subjectivity comes into play only when the objective flavours are sensed by a taster to create flavour perceptions. At that point, the person-to-person variations I mentioned above again become relevant, and net result is again a mix of different perceptions. However, according to this theory, they are regarded as more-or-less imperfect perceptions of the objective and true wine flavours. Less imperfect for expert tasters, and more so for novices.

My impression is that Barry Smith has spent a lot of time talking to wine experts, and flavour technologists, and what they say seems to have led him to believe the objective flavours are necessary. Jamie Goode, in his recent book I Taste Red, seems to like the theory, largely because it accommodates the idea of flavours being both objective and subjective, and leaves the traditional role of wine expert intact. However, I see no need for the existence of these objective flavour properties whatsoever. In fact, the only reason I am writing about them in this blog post is because I fear the idea might be gaining traction as a result of Jamie’s new book.

Barry Smith himself, writing in Issue 50 of The World of Fine Wine, identifies what for me is the major problem with his objective flavours: They give us two tough tasks instead of one. The first task is to establish the relationship between the wine chemistry and its emergent objective flavours. The second task is to establish the relationship between the objective flavours and flavour perceptions. Well how are those tasks progressing? Not very well I suggest. Meanwhile however, quite a lot of scientific progress has been made with the single task that replaces Barry Smith’s two, showing how chemicals interact directly with the tongue and nose, and how the resulting signals are processed, and routed to and through the brain, where they are integrated to create flavours.

Whether these mooted objective flavours exist or not matters not a jot as you sit with a glass of wine. However, it does matter to those who write about wine, or buy and sell it. It matters at a philosophical level, and livelihoods based on the myth of objectivity could be at stake. But it does not need to be like that. There is money to be made in the subjective world too. And fun to be had.

(If you would like to check that I have not been misrepresenting Barry Smith, or would simply like to read more about his ideas, in addition to his The World of Fine Wine and sections in Jamie Goode’s book, both mentioned above, you might like to see his essay in the book “Questions of Taste: The Philosophy of Wine”, his Nature Outlook article, or this article I found online. For a scientist’s view of flavour perception I can recommend Gordon Shepherd’s book Neurogastronomy. The same author has also written a more recent book, Neuroenology, which might well be of even more interest. Finally, for a fuller argument in favour of subjectivity, may I again draw your attention to the online version of my article in The World of Fine Wine?)

Winenous’ fables #1: The Naoussa and the Burgundy

On the face of it, this is a simple story of two tasting notes, linked only by the wines’ having been tasted and drunk within a couple of days of each other. But there is a sting in the tail, and a moral.

Naoussa PDO, Greece, 2011
Medium pale tawny garnet. Nose: Intense. Dark fruit with a slight caramel nature. Mature notes. High-toned with violets. Rose. Herby, vegetal and savoury. Edgy licorice. Complex. Very attractive. Palate: Medium high acidity. Medium high astringency. Coarse in a good way – like a thin paste, or fine coffee grounds. As nose, but with more emphasis on the high-toned aspect. And something more savoury or meaty – crispy bits on the side of a roast. All in balance. Elegant, and not hugely intense on the palate. Excellent length. Refreshing, savoury, slightly bitter finish. Not a stunning wine that whacks you round the face, but it hits the spot. Drink now in my book, but good for another 5 years at least. Great with steak, also with Middle Eastern food. Also tried the day after opening, and it had not changed much ******

Premier Cru Burgundy, 2000
Nose: Pale tawny garnet. Huge nose, but rather too oaky for my liking. Warming, complex. Mature Burgundy lurking there somewhere. Palate: Medium high acidity. Smooth, gentle, ethereal. Merest hint of astringency. Oaky, yes, but the fruit comes through more on the palate. As mentioned before, warm, complex and mature. Still good Pinot fruit though, with delicate fragrance. Excellent length, with refreshing fruity finish. Oak got more obtrusive on the palate as the wine warmed throughout the evening. Drink now *****

So, two wines that I liked a lot, though I definitely preferred the Naoussa, produced by Boutari, which was the cheaper wine. I gave it my maximum score, which might seem over-the-top, but I reached the same conclusion on two occasions. I bought the Boutari Naoussa earlier this year from Booth’s Supermarket, when there was a 2 for 3 offer and 5% half-case discount, for £6.97. Full price was £11.00.

The Burgundy was considerably more expensive. In 2007 when I bought it, The Wine Society said its conservative market value was £75, but I got a 25% discount on that as I bought it in a mixed case, so I paid £56.25. Looking back on my tasting note, I wonder if my score was on the high side, as a result of being influenced by the high price. But despite its oakiness, I did think it was very classy and elegant.

But the scores not being reflected in that price difference is not the sting in the tail: a price difference of a different order of magnitude was the culprit. The Burgundy was Armand Rousseau’s Gevrey-Chambertin 1er Cru Clos St Jacques and I checked current price on Wine-Searcher (after writing my tasting note). The asking price from the only listed UK merchant selling 75cl bottles was £640 (SIX HUNDRED AND FORTY QUID). That’s over 10 times what I paid for it, and about 100 (ONE HUNDRED) times the price of the Naoussa. And the bottle price of £640 might be regarded as a bargain, as another merchant was wanting £1,928 for a magnum.

burgundy naoussaAnd the moral? Well there are actually a number that spring to mind. The first one that occurred to me was “if you are going to check the current market price of a decent wine made by a famous name, do it BEFORE you open the bottle”. On later reflection the most screamingly obvious ones were “buying decent Burgundy is now a mugs’ game”, and “the Boutari Naoussa is a great wine that you really need to try”. I am sure there are also deeper morals lurking, on the subjects of price, value and quality, but I’ll let you figure them out for yourself. And feel free, if you must, to moralise about my plebeian taste – I can take it.

Tasting order and wine scores

It is well known that your perception of a wine is affected by what was tasted immediately beforehand. This is similar to how other senses behave. If, for example, you sit in the dark for several minutes and then expose yourself to normal daylight, it seems to be exceptionally bright until your eyes adjust. With wine, if the previous wine was flabby, your current wine will tend to taste sharp; if it is was very dry, then sweet, etc.


However, in addition to that effect, the order in which you taste wines can help determine how much you like them. I have already written about Antonia Mantonakis’ research, where she presented sequences of wines to consumers, and asked which wine they liked best. In actual fact the same wine was offered in each glass, but the tasters still expressed a preference. For shorter sequences (2 or 3 glasses) they tended to prefer the first wine tasted, while for longer sequences (say 5 glasses) they preferred the last one. If you are thinking “that just goes to show how little the average consumer knows about wine”, you should be chastened by the fact that those with better wine knowledge were even more prone to this bias. But how much practical significance does it have? The consumers were after all asked to distinguish between identical wines, and they may have thought any differences were very small.

Later work[1] by French researchers throws more light on this order effect. Here the experiments were performed on wine professionals  tasting in competitions that awarded medals to Beaujolais Nouveau wines. Here, in each of two competitions of around 400 wines, approximately 100 tasters scored wines on the 100 point scale, each taster being given two flights of between 10 and 12 wines. But into each tasting sequence of wines registered in the competition, the experimenters added the same wine (an unregistered one) into the first and penultimate positions. For each competition, the average score for the penultimate wine in the sequence was greater than that for the first wine: 82.99 vs 79.78 for one competition, and 83.93 vs 81.78 for the other. Those differences are not only statistically significant, but also significant from a practical point of view. To get some feel for the practical significance, note that the difference between a silver and gold medal winning scores is 6 points. Also, as the required score to achieve a silver medal was 81, in one of the competitions the position of the wine would have decided whether the wine received a bronze or silver medal.

If wine scores and medals are important to as a consumer, then you should probably be concerned about the sequencing used in tasting flights. On the other hand, if you do not pay much attention to such things, you can now add order effects to the list of reasons that justify your position.

[1] Carole Honoré-Chedozeau, Jordi Ballester, Bertrand Chatelet and Valérie Lempereur, “Wine competition: from between-juries consistency to sensory perception of consumers”, BIO Web of Conferences 5, 03009 (2015)

Subjectivity ain’t that simple

likeToday we shall take as our text verse 1 of The Nine Attributes of Greatness, a section of Karen McNeil’s The Wine Bible:

No one needs a wine book to tell them what they like to drink. Subjectivity in wine is pretty easy. But a wine is not great merely because we like it. Liking a wine is simply liking a wine – it tells you something about what you take pleasure in.

I disagree with most of that. I have also heard others being rather dismissive about subjectivity in wine so, without wanting to single out Karen for a fight, let me respond.

Taking a subjective approach does not necessarily equate to knocking back a glass and declaring whether you like it or not, any more than objectivity involves accepting that each wine has an immutable score. Even if we embrace subjectivity, we have the same basic perceptual equipment that objectivists possess, and we can chose to use it to analyse wine in great detail.

In fact, I would argue that a subjective approach is the more challenging path: after measuring the wine by conventional standards, there is an additional step to decide how much you like it. It may come as a surprise to some but this can be pretty difficult, particularly if you are tasting a less familiar style of wine. Natural wines, for example, fit very much into that category of unfamiliarity for me at the moment. Using so-called objective standards, a fair proportion would simply go down the sink as faulty. But if you believe a subjective assessment is important, it doesn’t go straight down the sink – you at least pause until you have figured out how much you personally like it. Not always easy for an open-minded person more used to conventional wine styles. And how will it be later in the evening, after exposure to air, with food, and at a different temperature? Even harder in such circumstances is explaining the reasons for you like or dislike, as you don’t even have the usual aesthetic language to rely on.

To understand, wine we subjectivists need good wine books as much as anyone else. But we also need to look beyond conventional knowledge. In my opinion that is.

Subjectivity in wine appreciation

sujectivity_articleThis is a topic dear to me, and something I have written about a fair bit on my blog. In an article recently published in The World of Fine Wine (Issue 51, 2016 Q1) , I draw together my thoughts into a coherent form, and refer to research that I have more recently become aware of. If you subscribe, or if you can lay your hands on a copy, please look out for the article.  Impatient subscribers can also find Issue 51 online now.

Update 05/10/16: The article is now available for all on The World of Fine Wine website here: Subjectivity in Wine.

Is balance always a good thing in wine?

BalansMany would argue that higher level aesthetic values, e.g. elegance, harmony and balance, are key in evaluating the quality of wine.  But I think that, despite what we may have been taught and initially think, they are not necessarily positive values.  In this blog post I shall look closer at the term balance, as somehow it seems more straightforward to me, but I believe elegance and harmony are related terms, and can be subject to a similar analysis.

In a very narrow context, balance is very easy to understand.  The best wine example is in the balance between sweetness and acidity, which I discussed recently.  The wine can be too sweet and cloying, or it can be unpleasantly acidic, but if you can get the balance right the effect is pleasing.  Of course, it is not quite as simple as that.  People might prefer difference balances, and different balances might suit different purposes.  I would also add that, to my taste at least, balance between extremes is very different to  balance between more moderate points of the spectrum.

Balance in the many other aspects of wine is a more complex issue, but perhaps it can be illustrated by describing the opposite of balance.  An unbalanced wine has one or more properties that stick out and draw your attention to them, distracting from the appreciation of the whole.

Generally speaking, balance is indeed important to me.  I would like most of my wines to be balanced, particularly if I am drinking the wine with elegant food of the classic European tradition – food that people of my cultural background would say is itself well-balanced.

But how boring it would be if all wines were balanced!  And I do not see lack of balance as being necessarily negative for wine.  Indeed, when I try to recall wines I have enjoyed a lot, it seems to be the unbalanced ones that more readily spring to mind.  One or two of these have featured on my blog, e.g. Blandy’s Bual 1954 and Huasa de Trequilemu.  For me, those two in particular come under the category of interesting and thought-provoking wines.   I don’t think one can generalise on whether unbalanced wines demand food; the Madeira should be enjoyed by itself, but Huasa de Trequilemu is very much a food wine.  What I would say, though is that any matching food needs a character that is assertive, though not necessarily strongly flavoured and rustic.

There are also wines that are unbalanced in a much more subtle way than those described in the previous paragraph; they are just a little too tannic, acidic or sweet.  For these wines, it is often just a question of finding the right food to set them off and restore the balance.  There is not necessarily anything wrong with either food or wine, but the combination improves both.  A good example is the match of tannic or acidic wine with fatty food, where the wine is said to “cut through the fat”.

In conclusion, I would agree that balance is an important factor to consider in wine, and often a well-balanced wine is a wonderful thing. In such cases I think critics probably tend not to comment on balance at all, and that probably reinforces the idea that balance is always a virtue in wine – because you only hear about it in a positive sense. But there are also excellent wines that cannot at all be described as balanced.

(Image is licenced under GFDL, and attributed to Josh from nl)

Fooling the experts again

What We Really Taste When We Drink Wine, an article by Maria Konnikova in The New Yorker, is another journalistic take on how easy it is to be influenced by extraneous factors (those that have nothing to do with the wine itself) when tasting, and although the word “fool” does figure in the article, it is a lot more nuanced than the typical UK press versions of the same thing, which can be summarised as “ha-ha, all you experts are stupid, and we are all so smart for buying plonk because it is just as good as your expensive stuff.”

The only bits I am uncertain about are those attributed to Galloni, but  I am prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt, as sound-bite quotations are rarely sufficient to express yourself adequately.  Regardless, I think it is important to be aware that the story behind a wine may well be cynically manipulated to make the wine taste good.  If that happens, we should all be ready to take a stand against it.  Be aware too that critics and wine writers are often complicit by retelling the marketers’ stories.  It is likely I also fall into that writers’ trap from time to time, but I try to avoid it.  Rely on your own common sense.

Having said that, if you want to enjoy wine, it makes no sense to fight against extraneous factors.  We need to learn how to use them to best advantage.  Things like the best wine glasses, the perfect match with food and the ideal decanting time rarely exist, but if everybody around the table believes, the magic will work anyway.

If you want to take the game to a higher level though, and not get caught up in chasing the same expensive wines as everyone else, create your own stories to believe in.  I suppose even the idea held by many, that plonk tastes as good as really expensive stuff, might even come under that category.  But personally I prefer to believe in, and tell, the story that experimenting with unusual wines is fun.