A Hint of Liquorice?

If you saw the items with the Sommelier at the Hotel du Vin in Exeter, he wisely said….”Taste don’t drink”. In fact he said he drinks less and tastes more these days. 

Well, in my continuing amateurish efforts to try to taste better and work out why it seems, to me at least, so hard, I thought I’d investigate further.

“A hint of liquorice” was what I saw on the notes on the back label of some rosé the other day. Now, before reading that I would never ever have said that. And, here’s the depressing bit, I couldn’t really detect that taste AFTER reading the label. So, clearly I need more education. Or my palette does at least. And my brain – what’s left of it.

And here’s another thing. Looking in the supermarket the other day, all the apparently helpful notes just said….well, not much to me. “Citrus and fruity”, or “fruity with citrus notes”, or “stylish and elegant”…….  What does all this mean and how can they be different? You see, describing a taste is really hard. And worse, MY idea of citrus probably won’t be yours. Hmmm.      

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So why taste at all? Professionals need to be able to describe a wine – for their own notes (to be looked at sometimes years later) for comparisons. They also need to classify a wine, or, in many cases, decide whether to buy hundreds or thousands of bottles and what price to charge? Should we be bothered?

Well, I think yes. If, like me, you are really curious, then really attempting to develop a skill at describing taste is challenging and even fun.

The Ancient Greeks even had tasters in their markets, as did the Egyptians. It’s actually smell that is the key thing. Hold your nose and taste. Nothing.  Look how when your nose is full of cold, you lose appetite. That’s the lack of smell and thus “taste”. We store around 10,000 smell “memories”.

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This was truly wonderfully demonstrated on a recent visit to the Cité du Vin, a superb wine experience in Bordeaux. You can actually sniff at cinnamon, lemon, biscuits, brioche, forest etc. More about this another time. It was fun and informative.

The tongue of course detects sweet, acid, bitter and salt – as well as the new umami – a Japanese taste (found on soy sauce) of “savoury” or “meaty”.

Having tried some tastings, it really is something we can all “train” at. Practice is needed and you need to get the brain and memory to create words that will remind you and describe the complex flavours and, yes, textures of wine.

It gets even more complex. Michael Broadbent, one of the world’s greatest tasters, would even make a note as to how long after the wine was poured did he taste. Try this. Leave some wine (red seems to work better) in the bottle, cork or reseal with a stopper, and try again the next night. It might have benefitted from the air and taste better – more rounded maybe.

Experts expect to write 1 or 100 words about wines they taste. But if you have never smelt brambles, you can’t write that as it is meaningless. Smell is indeed a private matter.

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So, what’s the conclusion?  Well, I am probably way behind most of you here, but sitting down and looking, smelling and tasting a wine, then trying to think of exactly how I would describe it, I am finding both challenging and entertaining. It’s like learning to concentrate your mind in a new place – one that most of us have ignored.

I am not suggesting your social life becomes an exam. You’ll lose friends quickly. But try it occasionally. Dare I say, even keep a notebook, but pick your timings as to when you show others.

Final thought, get some friends to chip in and by 6 bottles of the same grape variety from different wine areas, or six Bordeaux wines, or whatever, and, before you enjoy, open them all and compare. Use a good book too. The best way to learn. Taste don’t drink. Well, at first anyway, then drink. Moderately of course.