How often have you read wine reviews that wax lyrical about a particular wine, only to think that you'd have no chance of describing the wine in such a way yourself? "A hint of rose, lychee, Turkish delight and white peach with a soft attack, medium + body and medium length."
What's that now? Descriptions like this can leave some wine drinkers deflated, as, perhaps, all they picked up in their glass was "ripe fruit and slight sweetness". This can lead to a feeling that you're no good at tasting wine, which probably isn't true. Jancis, Jamie and Jukesy weren't born tasting gurus - they work hard, taste often and have amassed great experience.
Learning about wine has never been so popular, and it's great that consumers want to absorb all the information they can, but how can they make the jump from enthusiast amateur to serious wine buff? Once they've improved their tasting skills, how can they get these thoughts down in an accurate and concise manner?
There are many wine trade professionals with tasting and writing skills, as well as experience, far greater than my own, (some that I hold in very high regard), and I'm on a constant journey to be as good a taster as some of these; I'd like to think I'm on my way. I work in the world of wine, so can't be considered an enthusiastic amateur, though this blog is aimed at anyone looking to become a better wine taster, including WSET students and recent graduates.
My last 12 months of wine tasting and learning experience is broken down into three categories, below. I expect this year and each subsequent year to include at least the same level of immersion, if not more.
Away from my work and tasting events etc, there are things I've done at home to hone my knowledge and skills. Reading wine books is an essential part of learning about wine and it's imperative you learn from experts in the field on top of whatever you've read in WSET or other wine study texts. It's helpful to absorb the way wine writers/critics describe wines they've tasted so you can emulate this at some stage of your own development. My 2014 reading list includes:
- The Champagne Guide by Tyson Stelzer
- Why You Like the Wines You Like by Tim Hanni
- The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting by Neel Burton and James Flewellen
- Taste Buds and Molecules: The Aromatic Path of Wine and Foods by Francois Chartier
- World Encyclopedia of Champagne & Sparkling Wine by Essi Avellan and Tom Stevenson
- Wine and War: The French, The Nazis, and the Battle for France's Greatest Treasure
- Wine Grapes by Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding and Jose Vouillamoz (used as a reference book)
- The Finest Wines of Champagne by Michael Edwards
Beyond this list, there are many websites I peruse, including The Drinks Business, Jancis' Purple Pages, Harpers, Imbibe, and Wine Anorak.
Another way to improve your tasting skills at home is to practice smelling. I still use my 'Nez du Vin' aroma kit occasionally. This kit of 54 small glass bottles of synthesised aromas commonly found in wine is a ueful tool for practicing aroma recognition. Not all of the aromas are a perfect representation of their natural counterpart, though they are mostly accurate and can assist you in identifying aromas 'blind'. With practice, it's easy to pick all 54 aromas without seeing the bottles and it's fun to do with someone else.
Perhaps it's obvious, but the other important thing to do at home is drink wine. I generally drink 3 bottles of wine a week (not alone!) and I'm always thinking about taste, aroma and mouthfeel in every bottle. Is it balanced? Is the aroma profile consistent with what I expected from this wine? Has it seen any oak ageing, lees stirring or in-bottle ageing? What score would I give it? Does the flavour hang around awhile?
If you can't afford to drink this much wine for health or wealth reasons, visit a wine shop that has Enomatic (sample) machines. Selfridges and The Sampler are two such venues - the latter with around 100 wines to sample at any one time. Buy a plastic card preloaded with credit and insert it into the machine after which your tasting sample is poured into a glass. The beauty of this is that for £20, you could potentially sample 20-30 wines. (Unless you choose the icon machine - some wines are £40+ per sample!)
A less thought of, though very important part of becoming a better wine taster is travel. It's important to read about wine, but travel to wine regions is essential. After all, reading an atlas does not an explorer make. To get under the skin of a wine, visit it's place of origin and see where and how it grows. What is the weather like? At what altitude are the vines planted? What does the soil and terrain look like? The best ways to absorb this information are through winery visits and a conversations with people who make the wine. Photography helps with this, too. Taking photos of the landscape, vineyards and families that work there helps build a picture of how the wines get their identity. Photos are also a great aide memoire for later reference.
I have a busy working and family life (as do many), which makes travel a balancing act, though I do manage to get away occasionally. My 2014 travel included:
- A visit to Reims (Champagne) to attend several 'Salons' - tastings of small, domaine (grower) champagnes deemed representative of their terroir.
- A visit to Epernay (Champagne) to take part in a harvest (Dom Pérignon), talk to a wine maker and taste several old and current vintages of his wines. (Some with food)
- A trip to Dijon to visit a couple of wineries and to judge an international sparkling wine competition.
- Visits to a couple of English Vineyards.
I have several trips booked in for 2015 already, albeit just within Europe.
For me, tasting wine is clearly the most important part of becoming a good wine taster. Putting what you've read about wine into practice and linking it to what you taste and smell is essential. Having a good sense of smell is somewhat important, but the power of memory recollection is vital. If you can't detect grapefruit or cedar in your wine, it's unlikely to be down to the fact you've never smelled these aromas, rather because you're not practiced at looking for them. This is why tasting experience is so important. For every single wine you taste, think about what you can smell and taste - fruits, spices, oak, acidity, mouthfeel etc.
I'm fortunate to run wine tasting events for a living, which gives me access to many bottles of wine, which, of course, I taste. Outside of work and home drinking, I taste often, and always make notes when I do. My 2014 calendar of wine tasting opportunities included the following, though I've surely forgotten some:
- Australia Day Tasting (all Aussie Wines)
- CIB Tasting (all Champagnes)
- BFT (all Fortified Wines)
- FIZZ (all sparkling wines)
- Beautiful South Tasting (South Africa, Argentina and Chile)
- Liberty Wines Portfolio Tasting
- Wines of Australia Tasting
- Ellis of Richmond Portfolio Tasting
- London Wine Fair (3 days of Tasting)
- Gigondas Tasting
- Matthew Jukes Top 100 Aussie Wines Roadshow
- Go West Tasting (Wines From USA)
- Small Independents Trade Tasting
- English Wine Producers Press and Trade Tasting
- 'Grower' Champagnes with Essi Avellan MW
- Franciacorta with Jane Parkinson
- English Sparkling Wines with Richard Bampfield
- Penfolds Grange vs St Henri with Peter Gago
- Gigondas Masterclass
- Colheita Port Masterclass
- Sherry Masterclass
- Mornington Peninsula with Justin Knock MW
- Aussie Cabernet Sauvignon tasting with Justin Knock MW
- German Pinot Noir with Anne Krebhiel MW
Wine Dinners/Evening Tastings:
- Californian Wines at The Secret Cellar
- Cullen Wines at Tunbridge Wells Hotel
- Prestige Cuvée tasting with The Finest Bubble
- Charles Heidsieck Tasting at Novikov
- Gusbourne Dinner with Andrew Weeber
- Bollinger Dinner at The Harwood Arms
- Old Vintages Wine Tasting at The Secret Cellar
- Canard Duchéne Dinner at Hotel Du Vin
- Deutz Champagne Dinner at Hotel du Vin
On top of these tastings, I also judged at Effervescents du Monde, where I tasted around 100-150 sparkling wines over two days.
The above is just an idea of what I've done to improve my wine tasting over the last year, though your own journey will depend on personal circumstances, giving you possibly less, but hopefully more experience than I've had. Everything I've listed above has been a joy for me and it's this passion to learn and absorb that keeps me hungry to improve further.