Why wine tasting is an imperfect science
The order in which you taste them, the temperature (of both the wines and the room) and your own physical and mental state can all affect the way you rate a wine
I’m slap bang in the middle of the spring wine tasting season which has made me think, yet again, how unsatisfactory in many ways wine tastings are - certainly those that involve a large number of wines as most supermarket tastings do.
So I thought it might be worth reposting a piece I wrote 10 years ago for my (now mothballed) wine blog Wine Naturally - not that it just applies to natural wines
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“I had a bad start to a wine tasting a few days ago. The first eight to ten wines I tried - all red - tasted unforgiving and mean with unusually high acidity and edgy tannins. As the tasting was the Wine Society’s, whose wines I generally admire, I wondered whether the fault was mine, not theirs.
I had started the tasting unusually early just before it opened at 10am. The wines were a little cold - most had just been opened and the room was a chillier than usual 18°C. I’d been travelling for two days and hadn’t slept brilliantly the night before. I had a claggy throat that was threatening to turn into a cold. It was a leaf day. It could have been any one of those things.
I went back at the end of the tasting and re-tasted the wines, slightly warmer now, with less in the bottle and found them more giving in a couple of instances but not a great deal changed in others. I then went on to another short tasting with a chef - in a slightly warmer room - where the wines seemed to show more character. So maybe it was room temperature. Or a more relaxed congenial atmosphere? Who knows?
It got me thinking about other factors that might affect the way you taste:
How long the wine has been opened and whether it’s been decanted
Some producers even reckon their wines are better opened the previous day. Three of the wines at the Wine Society had been decanted ‘to get rid of sediment’. That would have also opened them up.
How much is left in the bottle
The first sip you taste from a full bottle is inevitably going to be different from one of the last
How many wines you’ve tasted beforehand
At supermarket tastings you’re often faced with 120 wines - sometimes more. At wine competitions, twice or three times that. Even the best tasters must suffer from some degree of palate fatigue
What type of wine preceded the one you’re tasting
They should be placed in style order but often they’re grouped by country and price so you may taste an smooth, expensively made wine before a cheaper, lighter-bodied one.
If you’re tasting wines of the same type - particularly young, high alcohol reds, it becomes more and more difficult to differentiate between them
Whether it’s a tank sample or a finished wine
Or if it’s a mass-produced wine which is bottled on demand, which batch you get and how well the wine is stored in transit
How familiar with or sympathetic you are to that particular style of wine
Where natural wines may fare badly in a line-up. And I have a problem, as admitted in the blog, with soupy reds.
How long since you’ve eaten and how much
Most people say they taste better in the morning - I certainly find it hard to taste well after anything other than a light lunch. How strongly flavoured and/or spicy the food you eat will also make a difference.
How well - or badly - you’ve slept
A noisy room, an unfamiliar bed, too much food or drink the night before, a pressing deadline can all affect how well you sleep. As can . . .
Whether you’re jet-lagged and tasting in a different time zone
What temperature the room is and whether it’s air-conditioned
See my initial remarks. I think the air conditioning is the more significant factor here. I rarely have any problems tasting in a wine cellar at 18°C
Whether there are extraneous smells
Perfume and after-shave being the obvious culprits (it’s surprising how many still wear it to tastings) but the smell of the lunchtime food being prepared - or even laid out - can be distracting too
Not so much a question of how whether it’s wet or sunny makes you feel but of the atmospheric pressure. The suggestion being wines taste better if it’s dry and fine. There’s an interesting article about that theory here.
The psychological state of the taster
Relaxed or tense and stressed? Had a row? Had your phone nicked? Bound to affect you
Industry professionals such as MWs will no doubt tell you that if you follow an accepted tasting protocol in your assessments that these variations are marginal but I’m not sure. They’re not superhuman. They worry about their kids. They feel liverish just like the rest of us. Inevitably how we feel must affect the way we engage with a wine.
I remember the late Gerard Basset before the World’s Best Sommelier awards in Chile barely eating anything, terrified that something might affect his palate or, worse still, upset his stomach.
The implication of course is that you should try and taste wines at least twice before scoring or pronouncing on them - something I try to do but which is not always possible given the tight deadlines we all work to.
Maybe we all need to be a bit more mindful though as I argued in this post.
I’d love to know what you think.
Very interesting. The joy of being a proper taster is the depth and nuance of what you drink, the joy of not being a proper taster is opening a bottle of your favourite and throwing it down your neck!
This is a great summary... It is what makes the job so hard and sometimes seemingly so inconsistent. I still say a professional has some useful information to input. We just all have to understand that it is an art, not a science.