Five Rules for Wine Tasting

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Written By Clare Wadsworth

Li Bai, the eighth century Chinese poet wrote:

Since heaven and earth love the wine,
Need a tippling mortal be ashamed?

A handsome couple of horses clip-clop up my drive between golden fields piled with large, rectangular bales of straw, pulling a buggy with half-a-dozen people eager to look at vines. Plaimont, the best wine co-operative here in Southwest France, is holding their open day in style. A table has been set up by the vines with glasses and ice buckets of chilled wine. It’s only 10 in the morning, but all the visitors seem delighted to have a drink in the open air – back at the offices the wine tasting is starting.

I shut myself in the house with five uncomprehending dogs, who long to go out to meet and greet, bark and beg. Floradora, the almost-fox terrier fell into the swimming pool yesterday afternoon accidentally-on-purpose in an excess of excitement. Cooee, the lurcher, was gored by a piece of farm machinery last week and is staggering around wearing a cone of shame on her head. Every time I take it off she tears the bandages. There was the sleekest, slimmest new moon last night, plums weigh down the trees and the first small pale mauve cyclamen are coming up.

All this unaccustomed activity in the vines makes me want to write about the etiquette of wine tasting, even if it is common sense and polite.

  • Make an appointment whenever possible and take a notebook and pen.
  • Nothing is more distracting than perfume or cologne – not even cigar or cigarette smoke.
  • Never plant yourself at the tasting table and monopolise the person pouring, preventing access, and don’t chat in front of the spittoon.
  • Don’t brush your teeth with toothpaste beforehand as it will ruin the taste of the wine – nor just after as you may damage the enamel.
  • Practise spitting at home so you don’t, as they say, look like a distressed camel.

British wine writer Jancis Robinson says that we smell the character of wine, but taste its dimensions: sweet, sour, chewy, bitter and alcoholic. And that if you have a bad cold you may not be able to distinguish between grated onion and grated apple.

An Australian friend who used to have a wine shop on the Rocks and Wyndham Estates used to torture wine tasters by proving they could not, blindfolded and at temperatures of his choosing, differentiate between red wine, white wine, milk, water and gin, proving that most people taste with their eyes.

Although visits to cellars must be booked at grand chateaux where demand outstrips supply, you can usually just turn up at small wineries in Europe and be welcomed by the proprietor or family. You’ll be given the lesser wines to taste first and lighter wines before heavier ones, then progress to finer vintages, starting with whites and going on to rosés and finally reds.

There is a whole descriptive vocabulary out there waiting for you, from ‘austere’ to ‘velvety’ and from ‘barnyard’ to ‘toasty’ – a favourite of legendary wine critic Robert Parker was ‘Intellectually satisfying’!

A Master of Wine used to visit Château Rouquette outside Pellegrue every year to blend their red wine and at one dinner they held a blind tasting and were very impressed when he was right every time. The following morning at breakfast he said: “An early visit to the kitchen is worth years of experience!”

The food and wine writer Sandi Butchkiss once poured a glass of Australian red for a visiting Dutch wine snob who turned up his nose, saying it was a blend. He never spoke to her again after she pointed out that all Bordeaux are blends – but never used to list the grapes on the label!

A lovely verse from The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam goes:

And lately, by the Tavern Door agape,
Came shining through the Dusk an Angel Shape
Bearing a Vessel on his Shoulder; and
He bid me taste of it; and ’twas–the Grape!