by Tim Atkin

Tastings Miss A Trick

The French call it an “embarras de richesses”. The closest we come in English is a confusing abundance or possibly too much of a good thing. But I really appreciated the choice and the thought behind it. Would I like to taste the producer’s wines out a Riedel Veloce Syrah, a Spiegelau Definition or a Zalto Bordeaux glass? “Try them and see what you think,” he told me. “We find that our wines show differently in each of them.”

Wine tastings are all sorts of things: a chance to engage and explain, a sales’ pitch and a shop window. When I’m visiting wineries there’s often a direct correlation between the quality of the stuff in the glass, or glasses, and the attention to detail on show. I don’t expect a red carpet or a foot massage, but there are things that producers can do to maximise their chances of a decent review.

It still surprises me how often wineries get this wrong. They spend an entire year nurturing and picking a crop, further time fermenting and ageing the stuff and, more often than not, lots of money on promotional tours, winemaker events and overseas travel. But when they have the chance to present their own wines in a controlled environment, they stuff it up.

There are mitigating circumstances on occasion. These are often the result of good intentions. Some wineries think that outdoor venues are appealing – a tasting room with a view, if you like – but forget about the guy mowing the lawn or firing up the barbecue nearby. I’ve done al fresco tastings that were ransacked by strong winds, with glasses cascading off the table. They are almost always a bad idea.

Tasting wine, as we all know, is mostly about smelling, about what our noses spot in the glass. Anything that interferes with that process should be verboten: musty rooms or cellars, sommeliers or marketing people wearing strong perfume or aftershave, glasses that reek of cardboard or worse.

The other no-no as far as I’m concerned is people who tell me what their wines taste like. I’m extremely interested in geeky subjects like clones and soil types, but the last thing I want is someone else’s opinion on what’s in my glass. I’m a reasonably friendly and gregarious person, but this is one of my pet hates. People often look slightly offended when I ask them for a few seconds of silence, but all I’m trying to do is focus and concentrate.

There are certain things that almost every journalist, buyer, sommelier and importer wants to know about a wine. Where was it grown? How was it made? What does it sell for? When I’m preparing my reports, I provide producers with a one-page information sheet to fill in. The professional wineries do this; the lazy ones don’t. All too often, I waste time writing down vintages and alcohol levels when I could be tasting. You’d be amazed by the number of people who don’t know the name of their UK importer or the retail price of their own wine in the domestic market.

In case you think this is all a bit self-centred, many of the things I’ve said here apply to larger trade tastings, with a couple of important additions. Importers and retailers often scrimp on spittoons. You can’t have too many of these. The same goes for bottles or jugs of water. Tasters need to rehydrate; they also like to rinse their glasses from time to time.

I attended a very well-meaning tasting held by a wine importer at the Wine & Spirit Education Trust’s premises in London recently that was an object lesson in rookie mistakes. There was no physical tasting booklet, although it was on a website somewhere; many of the wines were not chilled; the cardboard spittoons were thin on the floor and, after an hour, in danger of collapsing.

And the glasses? Riedel? Zalto? Spiegelau? John Lewis? Reader, they were the WSET’s standard issue ISO thimble. Why anyone thinks this is a good glass is beyond me. It’s ugly, too small and all but useless to taste from. A fellow Master of Wine told me that “I used to practise with them all the time. If you can judge wine in a glass like that, it’s so much easier when you use a better one.” It is indeed. So, producers, agents and importers, take the opportunity to show wines in their best light. You may only get one chance.

Originally published in Harpers Wine & Spirit

Photo by JM Lova on Unsplash

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