Wine experts, and the wisdom of crowds

It’s a strange thing, expertise. In many areas, I think to call yourself an expert in a very broad subject would sound rather silly. I used to work in engineering research and I don’t recall anyone calling themselves an engineering expert, but there were certainly people regarded as experts in much narrower specialities. Until I came across wine experts I thought an expert is one who knows more and more about less and less. However, wine experts (and here I mean the ones the public see, rather than industry consultants and oenologists) often seem to have knowledge that spans across most of the vast subject of wine – vintage variations, grape varieties, where it’s grown, how it’s made, how to store and serve it, what to drink it with etc etc. Some may specialise to an extent, but even then the areas of speciality are usually quite large. Their depth of knowledge in wine varies tremendously from person to person, but what they have in common is the ability to communicate their wine knowledge – they are essentially critics, writers, broadcasters and teachers.

So are these wine experts to be trusted, or should we listen more to the wisdom of crowds? That is the dichotomy often presented to us, but my answer is no in both cases. We should not trust wine experts per se, just because they are hailed as experts. And I am not even sure what the wisdom of crowds means in the context of wine – I can only imagine it would involve averaging the score of a lot of people you don’t know, who all work with their own rating system. Something which in my book is wrong at many levels.

To me, the only sensible approach is to treat each expert individually, and to do exactly the same for anyone you might regard as a member of the crowd. Each will have a level of knowledge in the subject they are pronouncing on, each will have their own palate and preferences, and each will express their likes and dislikes differently. All those factors are important, whether they are making factual statements about wine or offering opinions. If you do not know the person well, what evidence do they give for any assertions they make? Do they simply assert, or do they refer to another authority, or science? If they talk only from their own experience, how reliable do you think that is? Remember it is very easy to extrapolate way too far from very limited data, and palates and opinions vary a lot.

Personally, if I want factual information, Wikipedia is one of my first ports of call. In one sense it is a wisdom of crowds sort of work, but it is distinguished by the ethos of referencing sources. So if you doubt the article, or if it is important to you to get a particular detail right, you can check the source. Check if that detail is correctly derived from the source, and does the source in turn look reliable? Often it is not possible to do this with the pronouncements of wine experts, and even the best are fallible.

For matters of taste, I trust my own palate mainly, not because it is particularly wonderful, but simply because it is mine. Beyond that, I am most influenced by friends. As we often share and discuss wines I think a lot of that influence is subliminal and ours view tend to merge, but I am also very aware where our tastes are different.

So don’t trust experts just because they claim expertise, and don’t trust crowds just because they are crowds. First and foremost, consider the individuals offering the advice, and the evidence they have. It makes sense – trust me.

Foxiness, foxy grapes and foxy wines

The first time I came across the idea of foxiness was when I was reading about the battle against Phylloxera. One proposed strategy was to switch to American grape species, which were resistant to the disease, or perhaps hybrids between them and the better known European grape varieties. But the problem was that the grapes, and the resulting wine, had what the French thought to be an unpleasant foxy flavour. Now foxiness certainly does not sound like something you would want in your glass of Bordeaux, but I had no idea what it was like, or what foxes had to do with it. Here is what I have managed to glean from the interweb in the meantime.

Firstly, let’s try to tie down which grapes smell foxy. They are usually grapes of the species Vitis labrusca. In particular, the Concord variety is often cited as being particularly foxy, which is convenient because most Americans are familiar with the flavour of Concord as it is widely used in their grape jams and juices. So, even if Concord is not so familiar in Europe, it seems reasonable to use that variety as some sort of reference point.

Another fact we can be sure of is that the chemical in Concord that gives its distinctive aroma is methyl anthranilate. That chemical is usually described as fruity and musky, and is often used to flavour soft drinks and sweets, which is another possible way we might be familiar with it. There are also quite a few mentions on the interweb that methyl anthranilate is to be found in the musk glands of foxes and dogs. On the face of it that seems to tie the story up, providing a nice link between foxy musk glands and the grape. But I am not convinced. Even if foxes may smell musky, the only hint I could find of science linking methyl anthranilate to fox musk glands is given here, where “Peter Hemsted [Head Grape Researcher] tells of a fellow Researcher, whose work has shown that this ester is found in both the musk gland of the fox and the Vitis Labrusca grape”. Did this unnamed researcher’s findings ever get published, I wonder? Not as far as I know, and it could have even eventually proved to be incorrect. Unless anyone can dig out some harder evidence, I feel we should dismiss the chemical link to fox musk glands.

So setting aside the contents of fox musk glands, why else might we call these grapes foxy? Frankly, nobody really knows, and I don’t intend to go into it further here. But if you are interested in the speculation I can recommend this discussion of the topic.

However, what I really wanted was to taste foxiness for myself, and it was only after buying some Concord grape juice in the UK for another reason that I realised that this was exactly what I needed. It was Welch’s 100% Concord grape juice, and for comparison purposes I also bought a carton of Sainsbury’s own-brand grape juice, made from Spanish and Italian red grapes.

There was a marked difference in the appearance of these two juices. In wine terms, I would describe the European juice as a medium pale ruby, while the Concord was intense purple. The Concord was very sweet. It had intense aromas of berry fruit, distinctive yet difficult to describe. It reminded me of boiled sweets from my childhood – Blackcurrant Spangles I’m tempted to say, even if some other sweets may have had more of the musky element. I am not particularly familiar with musky smells in general, but the juice certainly had a slightly unpleasant animal note alongside the fruit. For some reason, it made me think of vomit, but I’m not sure if it is vomit-like or vomit inducing, and I’d like to stress that it was not nearly as unpleasant as that may sound. Anyway, it was largely masked by the sweetness when drinking, but seemed stronger on the finish, even if the sweetness also lingered. The word sickly seems appropriate in its ambiguity. In comparison, the European juice tasted very much like red table grapes, and was slightly oxidised, even though it was well before its best-before date. It was also very sweet, but the aromas were neither intense nor distinctive, at least when compared to the Concord juice.

Overall, I think I liked the Concord juice better, especially when diluted with an equal quantity of water, which is how I usually take fruit juice. On the other hand, when I used the Concord juice to make the Georgian dessert pelamushi, which involves reduction of the juice, I found the distinctive flavour to be far too dominant in the end product, and if I make it again I will try another type of grape juice. Sadly, I fear it really needs freshly pressed Saperavi. I must ask at Waitrose.

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.

More on aroma perception by sniff and sip

I am again writing here about comparing orthonasal and retronasal olfaction – smelling things through the nostrils, compared with through back of the mouth. If having two modes of smelling is a new concept for you, you might like to refer to an earlier post on the subject where I explain it in more detail. I started to get interested in the subject when I realised that a number of studies on wine aroma perception only looked at orthonasal olfaction, i.e. sniffing the wine, and wondered how much difference it would make if retronasal olfaction was studied instead. One of those studies was the relatively well-known one where a red dye was added to white wine, leading tasters to describe it in terms of red wine aromas (Morrot, Brochet and Dubourdieu, 2001, The color of odors, Brain Lang, 79 , 309-320). Another was a series of studies with the conclusion that we can reliably identify a maximum of four aromas in a multi-aroma mixture. Reading the recently published books by Gordon Shepherd and Jamie Goode has given me a few new insights, which I shall share here.

The most general point is that the smell of a wine is never perceived in isolation. It is part of what we might call the wine’s overall flavour, and it is impossible to totally separate smell from what we perceive through other senses. With retronasal olfaction, we are simultaneously tasting the wine on our tongue, and also feeling it in our mouth as possible astringency and alcoholic heat. Orthonasally, the interference from other senses is maybe less obvious, but we before we sniff the wine we still normally see it, and that affects expectations. This was in fact the point of the Morrot et al experiment mentioned above. Additionally we can also experience chemicals in our nostrils through our sense of touch, for example as alcoholic heat, or the pungency of hydrogen sulphide. These non-smell sense modalities are not only confusable with smells, but they can also affect our sensitivity to true smells

We should also note that we never smell the wine itself, but the volatile molecules that escape from it. In the glass, however much we may swirl and sniff, we have relatively little control over how the volatile molecules escape and reach our nasal cavity. But once in the mouth, the processes acting on the wine can be complex, and vary a lot from time to time, and person to person, even if we are largely unconscious of what is going on – the wine is mixed with saliva, warmed towards body temperature, moved around the mouth to a greater or lesser extent, and allowed to coat the mouth and throat, and its molecules enter the nose when we breathe out.

Then, there are the effects of background smells. You can become so used to a background smell that you no longer notice it. Normally this is an advantage when it comes to wine tasting. It will, for example, filter out the smell on your hands of cigarettes or mildly scented soap. But what if that background smell also happens to be a component of the wine? IN that case your desensitisation to the background smell will affect how you perceive the wine. There is also the possibility of cross-adaption, where one odour affects your sensitivity to other one. The most obvious example is perhaps how the TCA of a corked wine mutes its fruity aromas. If background smells may be important from the environment, retronasal olfaction must be affected by non-wine smells inside your mouth. Apart from the possible remnants of lunch, coffee and cigarettes, there are also the normal odours of your mouth and throat to consider. Unpalatable to think about perhaps, but perfectly natural, and a potential source of desensitisation and cross-adaption when tasting wine.

There have, by the way been a number of studies that have concluded that odour detection thresholds are higher for retronasal that orthonasal olfaction – in other words that we are more sensitive to smells when sniffing through our nostrils. But we need to be careful about drawing false conclusions from these results. In the experiments, the samples are presented to subjects as gases containing an odour, through a tube that goes either to the nostrils or to the back of the mouth, so it is difficult to see what direct relevance these results have to wine tasting.

Finally I would draw your attention to a 2006 study, not discussed in the above-mentioned books, that pursues the question of how many flavour components we can identify in a mixture, but unlike earlier studies that have looked at orthonasal olfaction alone, this one concerns how we perform with a liquid in the mouth, and involves both odourants and tastants – things we detect using both the nose and taste buds. Thus, it is more applicable to the question of how many component we can detect when tasting wine. I won’t give a detailed description of the results here, but just mention that they were very much in line which the findings of the orthonasal olfaction studies. To quote from the authors: “In conclusion, the present study has shown that humans have great difficulty identifying the components of odor–taste mixtures when more than two components are present”.

In summary, I would say that there are many potential reasons why orthonasal and retronasal olfaction might lead to different perceptions in wine tasting, but it is still far from clear how important the differences are in practical terms.

Neuroenology, and I Taste Red – two book reviews

Here I review two recently published books that cover similar ground. Both describe the science of how we perceive wine. As is made abundantly clear in both books, we use all our senses in wine perception, not just smell and taste, and we integrate this information in our brain, together with memories of other wines, and what we think we know about the wine, to create the impression of what the wine “tastes like”. It is an important point.

Both books were worthwhile reading for me, and yet I found both annoying in places. They are a nice pair of books to read at roughly the same time, as Jamie Goode’s is written from the perspective of a wine writer who has read up on the science of tasting wine, while Gordon Shepherd writes as a neuroscientist making research findings relevant to wine lovers. As you might expect, the books are very different in style.

First off, let’s take a look at I Taste Red: The Science of Tasting Wine, by Jamie Goode. I got it for £10.77 including postage from Books Please, who seem currently to have the best price for books – well below Amazon prices. If I buy the book myself, I always quote the street price rather than the usually irrelevant RRP.

This is a generally very readable book, which will appeal to a lot of wine lovers, and covers the ground well, with a good emphasis on the importance of multimodal perception on wine tasting.

In my opinion though, some of this readability was at the cost of understanding the basis for a some of the information we are presented with. Jamie did explain that, in order to make the book more accessible, he did not want to include references in the text, but this meant I that I was unable to check out the evidence for a few statements that I thought questionable. In a similar way, Jamie did tend to talk about things that were assumed by wine experts as if they were facts, and I think a more critical examination of the assumptions would have been good.

Sometimes, I felt that the ground was covered a bit too broadly, in that the topics strayed well away from wine tasting, into the importance of smell for sexual attraction for example. It was interesting in a way, and I am sure deliberate, but I would have preferred a bit more focus.

Another criticism – and this seems to be increasingly common in wine writing, and journalism in general – is that there was a lot of reporting of what other people say and think, with little analysis and reflection. I would like to have seen more of an attempt to establish a consistent and reasoned view of where the truth lies.

Get this if you want an accessible book that has a broad mainstream overview of the subject.

Now on to Neuroenology: How the Brain Creates the Taste of Wine, by Gordon M Shepherd, also bought from Books Please, this time for £13.85.

This book is tougher going, reflecting perhaps that it is written by a neuroscientist, and there is a lot more hardcore science, which might put off a lot of people. It starts at a ponderous pace, mainly telling us what we are going to be told about later, but picks up momentum as you get into the book. I found most of it clear, but I did get a bit lost trying to follow the pathways of information in the brain. I think I took a wrong turn at the Amygdala. Perhaps clearer diagrams might have helped? As with Jamie’s book, there is no formal referencing system, but I felt the informal system in this book would by-and-large make it possible for me to chase up the original research if I wanted to.

This book covers the ground very well too. Perhaps in a bit too much detail in places – I am not sure, for example, that we really need to know so much about the aerodynamics of the inside of the nose. In other places however, the detailed scientific explanations are both relevant and fascinating.

The author does not pretend to be a wine expert but he has clearly spoken to some, and one in particular: Jean-Claude Berrouet of Petrus, the meeting with whom is described in an interesting appendix. But I do wonder if that meeting was a little too influential in the image of The Wine Professional painted in the book. A lot of professionals taste a lot more informally than Gordon describes.

And in a way, that leads on to a general gripe. Gordon is always at pains to emphasise the importance of each stage of wine perception – from the first sight, sniff and sip, through the mouth and nasal cavity, and within the brain – but there does not seem to be any attempt to get a handle on the relative importance of all these factors. Thus, as everything is soooo important, the wine taster is advised to do all manner of things to get the maximum sensory input from the wine. However, I am far from convinced that this turning-up-the-volume approach is a good idea when tasting, and think that it may finish up emphasising aspects of the wine that are far less noticeable when drinking properly, and not necessarily in a good way. I personally have discovered, for example, that swilling young Barolos round the mouth causes the astringency to mask the fruit, which is more evident under normal drinking conditions.

You may not know, but the same author also wrote a book call Neurogastronomy, which I reviewed a few years ago. So one obvious question is: should I buy Neuroenologly if I already have the older one? And if I were only to buy one book which one should I get? While they share some material, they are very different books. Neuroenology being very much organised around tasting wine. It certainly would not hurt to get both books, but if you really want only one, I would say wine lovers should get the older Neurogastronomy. But do note that this is a big thumbs-up to Neurogastronomy, rather than a strong criticism of the new book. You might have to do a bit more work to relate it to wine, but Neurogastronomy gives a bigger picture, some of the additional information being relevant to wine too.

A trip to Alsace

Just a week after returning from Santorini, I was waking up to a very different view from the bedroom window – green, misty and with a touch of frost on the ground, the Vosges mountain range in the background rising over an Alsace village, Villé to be precise. Another beautiful European wine region, but so, so, different.villeIn fact the Alsace vineyards could hardly be more different, with neat rows of lush vines in fertile soil, just starting to take on autumnal colours. When you see how different the regions are, it seems almost incomprehensible that both Alsace and Santorini are capable of producing good wine. But they are, and in my last post on Santorini, I am not going to attempt anything too systematic here. In Alsace I tasted over 120 wines and visited nine producers, but I am just going to mention two of the most memorable visits – the one that stood out at the time when I experienced them.

Domaine Xavier Wymann, Ribeauvillé


We were welcomed warmly, and treated to a tasting by Madame Schaeringer. She is the wife of Jean-Luc (both pictured here), who took over the company from his uncle in 1996.

The wines that impressed me most were a couple of Rieslings, Steinacker de Ribeauvillé 2014 and A mon grand-père 2013, and the Equilibre Pinot Gris 2014. What I liked about all the wines, and these in particular, was the understated elegance and complexity, the Rieslings already seeming to show hints of maturity. And very reasonable prices, each of my favourite three wines coming in under €10.

We said hello to Jean-Luc as he packed our order, and had a quick look round the winemaking room where fermentation was in full swing in most of the tanks. Incidentally we had already had a discussion with Madame (I really must learn to be a better journalist and get names), who was keen to improve her already excellent English and amongst other things learn the correct terms for the various winemaking vessels. We reached an uncertain consensus that rectangular stainless steel ones were probably best called tanks. I was also interested to see a bucket – if that is the right term, as I think this was rectangular too – of warm liquid yeast culture, ready to be used in the next batch of must.  Didn’t realise it was done like that.

Oh, and along with our order we were slipped an additional bottle, which was drunk with our evening meal. I also enjoyed that one a lot. On the label was Minori, Rizling, Ribo’bulles. Make of that what you will. I think it was a pét-nat. In other words, a wine with a slight sparkle created by bottling before the fermentation had completely stopped. No sulphur and, as evidenced by the cloudiness, no filtration,. It reminded me of apple pie, complete with cinnamon, pastry and cream. Different, interesting, and good.

Domaine Ernest Burn, Gueberschwihr

I had never encountered Xavier Wymann wines before, and as far as I know they are not available in the UK . Ernest Burn was a little more familiar, but until I visited I did not know what strength in breadth they had.

Here was a very different tasting experience. No intimate tasting room, nor chatting about tanks and Brexit. There was a large area with several tables, surrounded by foudres, and no one representing Ernest Burn at our table as our host was mainly occupied with other people. But we had a very generous tasting, where bottles were just brought to the table with minimum introduction, and we were trusted to pour for ourselves. It is nice to hear what a producer has to say, but there are also advantages to being left to your own devices, as it is easier to concentrate on what is in the glass.

The number of different wines produced was a lot larger than Wymann, so we focussed more – on the cuvées from Clos Saint-Imer, in the Grand Cru of Goldert. They all looked enticingly golden in their clear glass bottles. Was it a deliberate marketing decision to play on the golden colour of the wine and the name of the Grand Cru?

burnSo many of these wines were of excellent quality, and together they made for a wonderful tasting. VTs and SGNs apart, all the Clos Saint-Imer wines were €18, which I thought represented good value. I don’t want to mention them all, but for me the Pinot Gris 2007 particularly stood out. In fact, if I were to nominate a Wine of the Trip that would probably be it. Intense, mature, spicy. Off dry but with high balancing acidity, so overall it left the mouth with a refreshing tingly feeling. Wonderful stuff.

Minerality in wine update

The discussion, or debate as many would like to see it, about minerality has moved on tahconsiderably since my post on the subject back in 2012, as evidenced by the Institute of Masters of Wine seminar about a month ago, which has been particularly well reported by Emma Symmington. The term is still abused, often in marketing, and there are still those who will gleefully rant against those abuses, but there seems to be more of a consensus developing amongst those who have given the term serious thought. If I may presume to represent that more serious thinking for a moment, let me attempt to summarise the consensus.

santorini-mineralityThere are at least two scientific meanings for the word mineral, which often get conflated and confused. As far as the geologist is concerned a mineral is a naturally occurring chemical compound, and rocks are agglomerations of different minerals. However, in plant biology, minerals (shorthand for mineral nutrients) are ions that are taken up from soil by the roots, e.g. nitrates and magnesium ions. The naïve interpretation of minerality in wine is that compounds from the rocks underneath the vineyard get taken up by the roots of vines, and finish up in the grapes, where they contribute directly to the flavour of the wine. Thus vines on chalky soils result in chalky wines. This is wrong for a number of reasons… Firstly, the vast majority of rocky minerals do not taste of anything. Secondly, the ion minerals in the soil do not principally originate from the chemical compounds in the rocks. Thirdly, plants tend to take in what they need of each mineral and then stop, so high soil mineral contents are not reflected in the vines and grapes. Finally, in the concentrations found in grapes, the minerals are below our taste detection thresholds. Rocks and minerals might have indirect influences on wine flavour, by affecting vineyard drainage for example, but it would stretch my credulity to breaking point if someone suggested that those influences lead to wines that taste of the rocks in the soil.

mineralsI hope there is nothing too controversial in the above, because I would now like to set it aside and move along to say that even if minerality in wine has little physical or chemical basis, it can still be used as a metaphor. That, I think, is the broad consensus view on minerality, and an excellent basis to take the discussion forward.

Metaphors can be beautiful, evocative and poetic, and if that is what you want in a tasting note who am I to argue? But tasting notes are also used to communicate. Person A experiences a wine and tries to describe those experiences in a tasting note. Person B reads that note, and imagines what the wine must taste like, perhaps to help with a buying decision. How good are metaphors in general  for this sort of communication?

When we say a wine has pear drop notes, we of course don’t mean it contains pear drops – it just tastes like pear drops, which is arguably a very straightforward simile rather than a metaphor. If we don’t understand what it means, we can suck on a pear drop. What is more, even if the wine does not contain pear drops, it probably does contains isoamyl acetate and ethyl acetate, which also contribute to the flavour of pear drops.  This is similar to how quite a number of wine descriptors function, and in those cases it seems to me that the chances of good communications are relatively good.

But when we say that a wine has good minerality, how does that work in communication? To communicate in the way I described above, the writer and the reader must have a common understating of the term. Many wine geeks say they understand exactly what it means, but the problem is that there are many different understandings, and very diverse ones at that. From comments in various wine forums, I note that for some it is an aroma, for others a taste or a texture sensed in the mouth. Clark Smith in his book Postmodern Winemaking is a bit left field in describing it as “an energetic buzz in the wine’s finish, almost like an electrical current running through the throat.” Personally, I use it for a positive aspects of a wine that are neither vegetal nor animal – often for a certain something that is very closely related to acidity and sulphur. This lack of common understanding was also commented on by the participants at the minerality seminar mentioned above, and nicely illustrated by the graph in Emma’s report. As she writes, “So if a group of MWs can’t agree on what minerality is, means, or tastes like – what hope do consumers have?”

I conclude simply by suggesting that the term minerality does not work well in communicating what wines taste like. I would hate to dictate what descriptors may and may not be used in tasting notes, as communication according to my definition is not everything. But isn’t it an important factor? You decide.

Josmeyer Mise du Printemps – Alsace Pinot Blanc

mise-du-pintempsSo often, wine conforms to expectation – perhaps that is simply what the wine is like, or maybe that we can be too blinkered. But sometimes our expectations are given a jolt. Pinot Blanc is at best neutral and refreshing, right? Merely an inexpensive food-friendly wine? Well, no, not always. With memory jogged by my tasting note database, I can think of as many as… let me see… four exceptions from personal experience: Kuentz-Bas 2004 (appley and floral), the English wine Stopham Estate 2013 (gooseberry and herbs), Weinbach Réserve 2008 (for all the world like a botrytised Pinot Gris), and finally, the subject of this blog post.

The full name on the label is a bit of a mouthful, and it is difficult to know the intended order of reading, but it is perhaps Josmeyer, Mise de Printemps, Vu par Isabelle, Le Pinot Blanc, with the appellation of plain Alsace. Prices in the UK seem to vary from £12 to £22, which IMO is the difference between excellent value and barely worth it.

I have tried the 2014 and 2015, both within a year of their release. My brief tasting note for the 2014 indicated medium acid, dry, intense, citric, with fennel seed and mushroom. For the 2015… Pale greeny gold. Intense on the nose. Sharp fresh apricot. Orange and lime. Primary, but complex and mouth-watering. High acidity and dry. Palate aromatics as nose. Hugely powerful and intense, and exceedingly long. Someone else said savoury and meaty, and I could just about understand that, but doubt I would have come up with it unprompted. Drink now I think, but it might be interesting to see how it ages. A lot better in my opinion at a coldish fridge temperature than when allowed to warm a little in the bottle *****

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.

Why four’s the aroma limit

four aromas

I recently had an article published in Circle Update (the magazine of the Circle of Wine Writers). It concerned the number of aromas used in wine tasting notes. If you are interested you can view and download a PDF offprint of the article here: Why four’s the limit.

It draws heavily on a four-part series of blog posts I wrote late last year. Compared with the Circle Update article, these contain more words – not necessarily a good thing – but also, in “the science” post, there is considerably more information about the scientific basis for the notional limit of only four aromas being identifiable in blends.
How many identifiable aromas in a wine – the dilemma
How many identifiable aromas in a wine – the science
How many identifiable aromas in a wine – tasting experience
How many identifiable aromas in a wine – my conclusion