Tim James: The weirdness of wine tasting

By , 21 March 2023



Spittoon by Zalto.

That proverbial Martian on an exploratory visit to our troubled little corner of the universe might well be puzzled – even after grasping the basic facts of our nutritional and social behaviour – if he or she or they or it observed a formal wine tasting. Almost certainly, I’d say – after all, so am I when I stand back and reflect on the experience, and I’ve been participating in such events for decades.

Let’s say our curious Martian had already learnt that most humans have a thing about alcohol – although it makes so many of them drive cars into each other, beat up their families, sing silly songs, laugh too loudly, vomit, etc. It also makes some of them pleasantly cheerful, cooperative, friendly, nicely sleepy or sensual, or whatever. Drinking wine, it would be clear, is for some people an important activity.  But a wine tasting?

A Martian disguised as a fly on the wall at, for example, one of the monthly regular group tastings of foreign wines that I attend, would see, once the friendly preliminary chats and hugs were over, something like this. Ten or so people sit around a table with, say, eight glasses apiece, with some of the delicious drink in the glasses. Silence largely descends (more or less – a few might chat in an irritating undertone about viticulture or what they did last night).

They sniff at the glasses, sip a bit of wine from each in turn, some making disgusting slurping noises – and then they spit it out into eventually rather ghastly receptacles. They write notes and  then they talk to each other about how nice (generally) was the stuff they’ve just spat out. They might sip a bit more before spitting again. Sometimes they will throw out what’s left of the wine in the glasses and repeat the process with different wine – usually poured from bottles that have been covered, even though, as the Martian had previously come to realise, it’s usually important to people to know what is written on the bottles.

The Martian realises bewilderedly (after so much else bewildering to observe on this little fact-finding visit!) that these people have gone to trouble and expense to obtain these wines that they are spitting out. There must be something in this odd behaviour, but it’s not at all clear what.

Well, I suppose it’s only too easy to make any of humanity’s rituals and games and interests seem somewhat ridiculous, or at least wryly amusing, by observing them closely. Many of these tastings, and the discussions that accompany them, are of course immensely useful, especially when they perform an educative function, related to wines that one seldom or even never gets a chance to taste, and/or can’t afford to buy for oneself.

Competitive tastings, where the point is to find and reward or punish (through scores) differences between a bunch of wines, are a bit more inherently ridiculous in my opinion, especially when there are a great many wines to discriminate between – though please let’s not resume that debate here. What I’m thinking of now, and have been worrying about more in recent years, is the question of the amount of relevance of tiny discriminations of quality, as revealed by wine tastings. And I’m not only talking about situations when I would disagree with the distribution of 90 versus 91 or sometimes even 90 versus 95 points.

I’m thinking that the most important point of a bottle of wine is to be drunk – usually preferably with suitable food and suitable company. If I’m paying close attention and I have, say, all of the Alheit chenins before me to compare – as has happened at public tastings and at the much more leisurely process of tasting at home for the Platter’s guide, that’s great. It’s a wonderful and fascinating experience in itself to make the comparison, especially when subtle differences between the wines are confirmed over the years.

But it’s a very rare experience and most usually the point of the tasting is to give public advice or opinion. I’m happy (well, not really happy, but I can do so in certain circumstances) to score Alheit’s chenins differentially if that seems appropriate, although a useful description and indicator of broader stylistic qualities seems more important. But if I were to take one of those bottles and sit down with a friend over dinner, I wonder how much important significance there’d be in which of the bottles I chose? Or even, dare I say, if I’d opened some other chenin of broadly similar quality (perhaps a cheaper one)?

Even if I agree, via preliminary tasting, with small ranking differences about any wines, how relevant are those differences going to be in practice – i.e. in the practice of drinking, rather than tasting, wine? The stylistic essence of the wine (broadly, sufficiently similar for actually quite a number of good, serious Cape chenins, for example) is surely much more important when it comes to wine with one’s dinner than in whether it’s arguably, or even unarguably, the slightly finer wine.

Which brings me to an important matter when it comes to professional wine descriptions (the sort that are not even generally present, in fact, when it comes to reporting on most wines in a competition). Too many of such descriptions, in making comparisions between a handful of, say again, top chenins, will give much more information about the taster’s often idiosyncratic perceptions of different aromas and flavours than about the important matters of style, structure etc. The latter are the things that are going to make any difference over dinner, not the former.

Tastings, on smaller or larger scale, do – or can – have their great uses, apart from often being fun in themselves. But too often, the more real usefulnesses are bypassed in favour of discriminating minuscule differences that are not going to matter much to even a fussy winelover at dinner-time.

  • Tim James is one of South Africa’s leading wine commentators, contributing to various local and international wine publications. He is a taster (and associate editor) for Platter’s. His book Wines of South Africa – Tradition and Revolution appeared in 2013.


2 comment(s)

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    Kwispedoor | 22 March 2023

    Tim, I’ve said for some time now that to score within a range is much more realistic. The taster himself/herself is different from one day to the other (mood, health, expectation, what you’ve eaten/drunk before the tasting, etc.). Then, there are just so many other factors at play as well: ambient temperature, exact wine temperature, time of day, external aromas, type of wine glass, bottle variation, time frame to taste the wine, amount of wines tasted in a session, who you are tasting with, etc. etc. We all know wine tasting is very far from an exact science, so why try and pinpoint scores? People will still get a good idea of your preferences and comparative ranking from a score range, because they would know that you rate the 90-93 wine higher than the 89-92 wine. It’ll be a more reasonable and fair system for both the reviewers and the wines, but I’m not holding my breath.

    With regards to the differences between drinking and tasting wine, technical tasting has it’s obvious advantages, but – because wine is made to DRINK and enjoy – I value the following two aspects of a wine more and more when I taste it as I grow older: drinkability and the way the wine makes me feel.

    Geoff VICKERSTAFF | 22 March 2023

    Yes, an interesting topic for all wine lovers. I have never attended a wine ‘appreciation course’ per se but have attended some wine tasting soirées. I know which wines I like, and keep my selections down to about a dozen reds of different varietals and a similar number of whites. I mostly drink SA wines when in SA but also indulge in Argentinian Malbecs and the occasional Spanish Rioja. I frequently try out new vineyards to see if there is something new that takes my fancy. Generally I stick to red for under R500 a bottle and R 300 for whites.

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