The physiological meaning of taste refers to the perception of sensations that we call taste, including the ‘primary’ tastes*: sweet, acid, salty, bitter, umami; and other sensations originating in the mouth such as temperature, texture and aromas sensed retronasally. The aesthetic meaning involves questions of judgement (How good is it? What is it worth?). As far as the winetaster is concerned, neither is possible without the medium of language. The following three sections, Taste and Tasting, Words and Qualities and Values, look at these three aspects of tasting and how they interrelate.
Recent science tells us that there is a significant variation in the number of taste-buds that each of us has; those of us blessed with a very large number are called ‘supertasters’. Whilst this may be of personal interest, taste-bud incidence is likely to be a poor indicator of whether you will make a good taster. Firstly, most of what we call taste is in fact smell, and most of the qualities we appreciate in wine (aroma, texture, length, its great diversity of proportions) are related to aspects other than those sensed by the taste-buds. What the taste-buds of the mouth perceive – the so-called primary tastes of sweetness, acidity, saltiness, bitterness and umami* – is but a very minor part of what wine has to offer. Secondly, what counts in any case is not so much your potential sensitivity to these limited aspects of taste, but how your mind processes, interprets and communicates what you perceive. And that is a question of practice, of developing your vocabulary, of a set of values and, above all, of motivation. Children – and dogs even more so, for that matter – are much more sensitive to tastes and smells than most adult humans, but as they cannot articulate and pass on their perceptions via language, we would hardly call them supertasters, not in any useful sense of the word. If you want to be a good taster, and work at it, the likelihood is that you can be.
LEFT The problem for beginners tasting wine is how to look, and what to look at to make sense of it. In the picture of Adam and Eve embracing there are three images: Eve’s profile to the left, Adam’s to the right, and an imprecise composite (like a mouthful of wine). Unless you focus on Adam or Eve individually, it is impossible to see either clearly, and in practice awareness flips from one to the other. But knowing there are two faces, you can adjust your gaze and concentrate on one at a time to see each more clearly. Similarly, with wine in your mouth, you can focus* on its elements separately and consider them individually before returning to an impression of the whole. Experience, and guidance from others, will show you which elements to look for in the first place.
Drinking wine, like listening to music, is mostly a passive, albeit very conscious, sensual pleasure; we relish the sensations without giving them too much thought. Tasting wine involves a deliberate and considered act of scrutiny, more or less brief according to what the wine has to offer or what you are trying to do, the ultimate aim of which is to amplify your enjoyment. In this respect it is no different from studying any subject you fancy, be it art, literature, sport, gardening, music …. In the company of someone who knows, as well as by reading and experiment, you discover what to look for, and how to look for it: brushwork, form and colour in painting; melody, textures and harmonies in music; movement, plays, strokes and strategies in sport; plants and their placement in gardening.
Increasing familiarity leads you to notice more and more easily, and you begin to take pleasure in variations on themes* you recognise and in discussing them with others; you broaden your taste by sampling the unfamiliar. And, in the case of wine, when you go back to just drinking, simply letting the sensations wash over you, you appreciate them all the more.
A look, if an oversimplified one, at the interdependent relationship between perception and words is a useful background to understanding how to develop your overall tasting ability. Here is what happens: a physical or chemical stimulus excites your sensory apparatus (vision, smell, taste) and creates a sensory message. This sensation is automatic, registered as a reflex. But from the brain’s viewpoint, no colour, scent, taste or texture is such until it is consciously recognised. Our senses are constantly bombarded with stimuli, but our perception of them is mostly passive – and therefore, in effect, non-existent – until we direct our attention to them, at which point we become consciously aware.
Think of background music: always there, but on the periphery of perception, swimming in and out of our consciousness depending on whether or not we direct our attention to it. But even conscious perception works at two levels. We can be aware of a sensation but unable to put a name to it – or uninterested in doing so – partial perception if you like; and we can perceive it fully by identifying it with a word or a name.
Words help us to notice things. The capacity of our senses to perceive far exceeds our ability to articulate all the sensations we can experience (just consider colour and smell), and of course we don’t need the words to have the experience. But once acquired and linked to the appropriate sensations, words help us locate and identify them subsequently. They make perception more rapid, more efficient. And when we taste with a wide vocabulary, an active search of the mind generates the words, which in turn capture and crystallise the sensations.
This is why we find the thoughtful, ‘expert’ commentary of others helpful, because it guides, clarifies and heightens our awareness; and why enlarging our own stock of active words is so essential. Even professionals benefit from reviewing their vocabulary periodically.
Natural wine philosophy is based on the conviction that a healthy, organic soil will produce a better-quality fruit to start with and, implicitly, a better-quality wine to finish with. It is, of course, part of the broad concern about the damage being caused to the environment by the widespread, often mindless, use of chemical ‘controls’. Fundamental to organic viticulture, therefore, is the proscription of any treatments using pesticides, herbicides or fungicides (all ‘killers’) or synthetic fertilisers.
The ideal soil is one that is full of oxygen and vitality, not rendered lifeless by the residue of all sorts of ‘-cides’, or so compacted as to be barely able to breathe or absorb water. Soil needs bacteria and micro-organisms to convert its nutrients into a form that the vine roots can assimilate, and these microbes need oxygen to function. An open, living soil is also much more water permeable – regulated access of the vine’s roots to water being one of the most important factors in wine quality. The use of horses rather than tractors avoids soil compaction as well as providing a certain amount of life-encouraging dung; plant- and mineral-based products are used to combat pests and diseases; plant cover between the vine rows minimises erosion and can provide a vegetable mulch too. But ‘pure’ organic viticulture is risky, and many organically minded winemakers practise what the French call la lutte raisonée, or sustainable viticulture. Meaning that you will spray if forced to, rather than risk losing a substantial part of your crop and annual income.
Biodynamism is a more eccentric (extreme?) approach to organic viticulture, based on the thoughts and teachings of Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner. It is locally holistic in that the nourishment and treatment of the vineyard come from within the property; herbal, mineral and organic preparations (hoof, horn, plant extracts, dung) being applied to the soil in tiny, homeopathic concentrations. It is cosmically holistic, if you like, with the mixtures are applied according to the movements of the planets and stars, and phases of the moon. Biodynamically run vineyards claim to have even healthier root-nourishing microbial activity than organic vineyards.
Regular seasonal activities in both vineyard and winery, such as ploughing, pruning, picking and bottling are also done according to lunar rhythms. If much of this sounds zany we should perhaps remember that many gardeners swear by the moon for regular tasks, and that just because we cannot ‘see’ it, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.
BELOW The grey mare, Hermine, at Château Ausone in the 1980s. A rare sight then but, with the increasing interest in organic or biodynamic viticulture and environmentally friendly practice, much more common for vineyard tasks today instead of the tractor. Avoidance of petroleum fumes apart, using horses is much kinder to the soil, avoiding compaction, and adding a bit of natural fertiliser!
If you care so much about your vineyard and vines in the first place, and you are a good winemaker to boot, will your wine not be exceptional in any case – biodynamic viticulture or not? Two great domaines in Burgundy, Domaine Leflaive and Domaine des Comtes Lafon, both claim to be making wines that are even fresher, purer, finer, tastier, since becoming biodynamic. Difficult to argue with that. But a point definitely worth making is that your wine is not necessarily better for being made from organically or biodynamically farmed fruit. For that you have to be a first-rate winemaker as well, and the two do not always go hand in hand.
Natural as distinct from conventional, that is. They differ from orthodox winemaking in that there is an absence of, or minimal use of, additives (sulphur especially), and there is minimal intervention during the winemaking process. Only natural yeast, therefore, no new wood and, ideally, no fining or filtration, for example. Early in the 21st century they represent a tiny fraction of winemaking production, but interest in them is increasing. The theories behind them cannot be but laudable and, from a health point of view, very low levels of sulphur, in particular, are thought to be more easily processed by the liver, and to give fewer headaches.
LEFT Long-time natural winemaker Josko Gravner’s Breg: Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling Italico. ‘Orange’ wine from northeast Italy’s Collio. Fermented / macerated on skins for five months and aged for five years in buried, wax-sealed clay amphorae. Intense, vigorous, citrus-zest and dried-apricot sappy; tannic, tasty and most individual. But tasting of its winemaking, not of its grapes or its origin!
If you want to find out more about natural wine, a good place to start is the website of Isabelle Legeron MW, author of a first- rate book on the subject, and the founder of the RAW, natural wine fairs. Because many natural wines are so different from orthodox fare her advice is to ‘forget everything you think you know about wine and start afresh’. It is good advice because many are indeed quirky, very different in profile and flavour from what we are used to. And we are all prone to like less what we are not familiar with.
The most distinctive expression of natural wines are the ‘orange’ wines, so called because they are from white grapes macerated on their skins, sometimes for months, with colours that then range from pale orange to amber. They often have a tannic texture more commonly associated with red wines. My limited acquaintance with natural wines suggests they have a quality range similar to traditional wines, the absence of new oak is refreshing and the best are fragrant, vital, transparent and pure – very drinkable, sometimes rustic, often somewhat spare and slender. Go, investigate!