How to use a wine tasting

THIS picture sums up what faces us in the wine shop, off-licence, or big weekly-shop supermarket — a dizzying array of wines, a whole heap of mixed messages, and precious little categorisation of it beyond price, colour, and country of origin.

So which one, if any, to buy? The most obvious answer is arguably as unhelpful as the question, because there’s a veritable cacophony of opinion out there, from tips offered by bloggers and columnists like me, through the recommendations of friends and colleagues, to the suggestions made by the people who make and market wine, all happy to suggest what you might drink…

There’s a far better answer out there, and I can assure you it’s a lot more fun.

The single greatest favour we wine fans can do for ourselves is to stop depending on the suggestions of others, and instead to learn how to make a fair guess about what’s being offered by different grapes, regions, and styles in all those bottles.

If you feel a bit lost in the world of wine, there’s a lot to be said for signing up for an introductory wine course, especially one that abides by the standards of WSET. But, with or without such grounding, the single best way to get great value, and buy the best wines you can afford, is to taste lots of wines.

Tasting lots of wines side-by-side will help you snout out a few specific bottles you like at the tasting event. But it’s also an exciting journey into what are arguably our least explored senses — taste and smell. Dive in, and you could end up with something far more valuable than any hot tip: an active, merrily sceptical attitude offering you independence from other voices, including mine and those of wine businesses alike.

Time to stop listening to the voices and learn to trust your tastebuds.

What follows is a guide to navigating open-ended freestyle tastings (essentially the same type as those held for trade and press). I’ll follow up later with shorter posts on wine dinners and tutored tastings.

One of the tables at a tasting in Avignon. The point of a wine tasting is to ignore what I and the people selling the wines say – taste them all yourself!

Please note: As of October 2012, I am no longer drinks columnist with the Irish Examiner Weekend. See the home page of this blog for more details. Thank you.

Wine tastings and wine fairs

THIS is what I mean when I say ‘wine-tasting’: Not a gathering of fusty oul men peering at posh clarets over their pince-nez, and murmuring their verdict on them. Nor a roomful of red-carpet party people sipping and nibbling at some glittering launch. But something far better than either — an open-ended freestyle test-drive opportunity where we can try out dozens or even hundreds of wines.

They’re most commonly organised by retailers (such as O’Donovan’s Cork Wine Fair, or Lohan’s in Galway) or by trade representatives such as the Spanish Embassy’s commercial office which is behind the big event in Cork recently.

There will usually be a small fee (say €20) which often goes to charity. If a retailer is organising it, they may be set up to take orders on the night, often with a special disount. And some retailers make the entry fee redeemable against orders. But there will never be an obligation to buy: The businesses organising proper open-ended wine tastings are doing so to showcase their wares in the hope we’ll like what we find and buy them at some future date. It’s a bit like a test-drive opportunity.

The tasting will usually take place in a biggish hotel room or conference centre. In general, on arrival you’ll be armed with a glass and a catalogue and left to your own devices. Each table is typically laid out with open bottles, a water jug and a spittoon, and is manned by someone from the firm that sells those wines.

Joe Karwig with some of his wines during a food fair in Carrigaline Co Cork.

Use the tasting

Think back to the picture at the top of the page. You know that frustrating feeling in a wine shop or supermarket when you’re faced with a whole wall of wines? And you wish you knew what each was like? Or can’t remember which bottle was the one you enjoyed before? Well the big wine tasting is like that — except the bottles are all open for you to try.
Many people treat wine tastings as a fun social event, dropping anchor for a chat armed with a glass of something nice. Yes, that does sound like fun. But, to me, that’d be like going to a concert and putting on your headset to listen to your own playlist. Don’t waste the opportunity: among those open bottles may well be some stunning great value wines. Let’s go find them…

It’s only rarely all those wines are open at the same time for us to compare – don’t pass up the opportunity. Picture: Paul Sherwood (www.sherwood.ie).

Use the catalogue

The catalogue (anything from a few photocopied sheets through to a lavishly-printed bound booklet) ought to spell out the full name and vintage of each wine, and its price. And there’ll be space for notes. Don’t be shy about using this, with any notation you feel like.

For instance, you could put a big asterisk or exclamation mark near the wines that stand out, bearing price in mind, at each table. Do that and you’ll end up with an instant shortlist of candidates for your attention and your money. You could then go back and try, say, the three asterisked cabernets, one after the other, and that way settle on one or two of them for future reference. The first time you do this you may be astonished to discover that one of the less expensive bottles is the one you prefer. Or that you love a bottle of a wine style you ‘hate’.

The more tastings you go to, the less surprised you will be about either phenomenon. Firstly, the price/quality relationship in wine is a very wobbly line. And secondly, we base our outlook on minority interest grapes and styles on only a few encounters, and may be surprised to discover how well we chime with them when we give them a proper go. Yes it’s a revelation. That penny will only drop when you properly open up your senses by actively tasting, free of any commentary from me or the salespeople.

Use the spittoons

The impulse to swallow food and drink is pretty powerful. In general, unless something tastes disgusting, down it goes. If you’re going to navigate wine tastings (as opposed to wine dinners or, um, drinking wine) you really have to unlearn that impulse and learn to spit. Obviously if you’re drinking the samples, you’ll end up langers half way through the tasting and may as well write off the opportunity to discover some great wines. What a waste.

Please note: As of October 2012, I am no longer drinks columnist with the Irish Examiner Weekend. See the home page of this blog for more details. Thank you.

If you haven’t tried it before, why not practice spitting into a basin or sink at home? Sniff it. Sip it. Pause to taste it. And then spit it out. Spelling out all this may seem pointlessly gumpish but spitting out wine (or tea or whatever) runs so profoundly contrary to our instinct that we do have to consciously do it.

So a wine-tasting is as dry as Tehran? Not quite. Often, what people do is hold off on swallowing until the end and then enjoy drinking a glass or two of their favourite discoveries. Often as not though, the drink of choice is a beer. Having been subjected to a sustained assault of high acidity, tannin and alcohol, there’s nothing your tongue would love better than to be bathed in a soft, delicious, 4% or 5% ale or lager or stout. Yum.

Use the water

Most people wouldn’t bother rinsing the glass between, say, two sauv blancs. But if you’re changing style, it’s no harm to give the glass a quick scoosh from the jugs of water on each table. Similarly, there’s far too much fuss about cleansing the palate: if we were incapable of tasting one flavour after another, hardly anyone on earth would know what rhubarb crumble tasted like. But given all that acidity and alcohol, a refreshing glass of water now and again can help keep your senses on track, especially if and when you’re switching from red to white. But even better, and true to the spirit of this post, why not listen to what your body is saying? When you need water, drink some.

Big open wine tastings tend to fill up. Get there early and whiz round to get a proper sense of what wines are out there. And then chill with a glass or two.

Use the information

Some of the wines may be accompanied by brochures with information both hard (for instance the area under vines, yields, the technical specifications of each wine etc) and soft (comprising anything from text about the winemakers’ passion for making wine, through to photos of the vineyard, and a biography of the winery dog).

Information isn’t a burden, and I wouldn’t turn any away. However, when there’s a choice between tasting further wines, and pausing to read up on one particular range, you’re better served by moving on. Ultimately, the only two things that matter are what’s in the bottom of your glass on a Saturday night many weeks hence, and what you’ve paid for it in the wine shop. The memory of the accompanying brochure will be worth zero, so your taste testing ought to be in the driving seat. Anyway, most wineries these days have websites with much of the same sort of information so you can always follow that up at your leisure.

The same goes for conversations you can fall into with the people manning the tables. These invaluable people will usually know all there is to be known about the wines they sell, and are happy to talk about them, or indeed about anything. While it’s great to be able to check details, remember that there are likely to be similar wines and similar stories at most of the other tables. Keep going and get the big picture.

(While we’re on the topic, here’s a hat-tip to the people who present wines at tastings. By time we meet them, they’ve been standing for hours on end, presumably keeping a good front out. They may well have been hefting heavy cases of wine and other paraphernalia into the venue since early morning, all the while wearing a suit. And often, the public tasting comes tacked on at the end of many hours of a media / trade tasting, so they’ve been on their feet since morning.)

Yes this is a long post but it’s possible I didn’t anticipate some questions you may have. Post a response here and I’ll get back to you. ♦

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2 Responses

  1. […] you’ve never been to a wine tasting, Blake Creedon had a great guide to making the most of one. It’s a great evening, and you get to try out a range of wines you […]

  2. […] you’re not sure about wine tastings, Blake Creedon (of the Examiner) has a great guide to attending one. They’re always good fun and this one also supports a worthy […]

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