Tuesday, December 02, 2008

How To Taste Wine

Before I get into vivid, mouthwatering descriptions of some of the wines we tasted during our trip to Australia I thought I would share a post or two on a few wine related gems from downunder. The first involves a little book that I purchased at Shaw Vineyard Estate. The Shaw Vineyard estate is at Murrumbateman, about 30 km north of Canberra and is part of the Canberra wine region. It is also one of those wineries that bears a unfortunate resemblance to Frass Canyon winery of Sideways fame. Lots of glitz and kitsch but not much personality. We were there on the weekend when the region’s wineries have their Wine Roses and all that Jazz celebration, and so Shaw had a quartet playing right in the packed cellar door which is also attached to a restaurant that was full of noisy patrons. Not exactly ideal circumstances when it comes to a quiet taste of a few wines.

So after the mad scramble to get a little taste of Riesling we amused ourselves by looking over the merchandise that was for sale. Hidden way at the end of the counter in the cellar door, almost out of sight was a little display of books titled “Len Evans – How to taste wine”. You little beauty, a small treatise by the man Hugh Johnson described as “the finest judge of wine I know”. This should be full of invaluable tidbits of tasting lore. And it is, as long as you are not expecting enlightenment on the mechanics and physiology of wine tasting. The advice is of a different kind. Its the wisdom of a sage among wine judges.

“How to taste wine” was written just before Len Evans died unexpectedly in 2006, the very last paragraph of the text, in a section called Reflections, sums up his philosophy of wine, and so I quote it verbatim.

“What I really wanted was to sit at the foot of a great palate, the most
knowledgeable wine guru, the ultimate taster. Unfortunately there was no such
person around at that time, nor is there one today. All one may do is scratch a
bit here and scratch a bit there, trying to put enough together to achieve some
sort of understanding of this most wondrous of drinks. And I do hope some of the
above helps, even if all it does is open some minds to the possibilities of the
subject. “

There is, of course, more in this little book. Evans devotes 30 pages to the assessment of wine, covering the areas of color, nose, entry, middle palate, after palate and finish. But there is no technical detail, just observations gleaned from 30 plus years as a wine judge. His strongest recommendation? Smell a wine deeply for "a great deal of what is to be learnt of any wine is there, 'on the nose' ". Perhaps paradoxically Evans is not a devotee of describing the aroma/bouquet of wine. His explanation is that he has “neither the olfactory range or the inclination” to adopt “the endless wine vocabulary used overseas”. To Evans “wine smells of itself”. Perhaps such an explanation seems unsatisfactory given his extraordinary tasting ability but Evans is no scientist, his strength lay in an ability to compare and contrast wines, remembering the experience more viscerally than cerebrally.

He is also not above poking a few jabs at the insularity of wine critics/judges, especially from the States. You know the ones, they “start writing for newspapers and magazines and appear on TV: they get feted a little, and in no time they’re all experts. We’ve had lots of them over here to judge different shows and some of them, to be frank, are quire ordinary. They may be alright when they can read the labels but when it’s blind they’ve made some shocking mistakes.” Ouch. But then I wouldn’t expect anything else but the unpalatable truth from Len Evans.

The one semi-technical contribution in this little book is described in the section called An Indulgence. Its Evans’ attempt to depict the structure of individual wines in a graphic format. Each graph is broken into nose, entry, middle palate, after palate and finish – the aspect of tasting described earlier in the book. The height of the line and the width of each segment conveys the impact of the wine. If necessary the intensity can be displayed by the width of the line and the density by dots of varying size. It looks somewhat clumsy and it is difficult to appreciate how a single line contains the many dimensions of a wine. But then it comes from the mind of a true individual in the world of wine. Afterall who else could pen a "Theory of capacity"?

How To Taste Wine (paperback) by Len Evans, 112 pages, Barbara Beckett Publishing, Paddington, Australia (2007) $19.95AUD.

1 comment:

lobas said...

sorry that picture of the man makes me laugh! by www.mrwino.co.uk