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Chez Thierry, Nassau, Bahamas

11th article

by Thierry Boeuf in The Tribune (July 7, 2001)


A different scent of taste


I am going to come back to some ideas about wine tasting and the proper way to do it. I think it is important to explain this process because if you want to discover new products or simply taste wine properly you must respect some rules, otherwise your perceptions will not be accurate and you will be unable to use these memories later. There is a big difference between simply drinking a wine and truly enjoying it, and I hope that most people would rather do the second, especially when it comes to top class wines.

I already mentioned it, but many do not realise how important the environment and preparation are for wine tasting.

A thing that non-professionals often forget is that tasting is very demanding and tiring. You need to concentrate a lot on your smell, which is something that, even if you are trained, you cannot do properly for long. A professional tasting often includes 20 to 30 different wines, but when I teach tasting to wine-lovers I always stop at five. I can usually see they are very pleased to the course has ended.

There are many days when it is simply impossible to taste correctly. The most obvious situations are when we are suffering from a cold or any problem that may interfere with the sense of smell. However, other health troubles may also prove a distraction because concentration on smell is one of the most difficult focuses to achieve. Any problem on your mind will hinder your accuracy of judgement. For all these reasons, a professional will normally postpone an important tasting if one of these circumstances occurs.

The surrounding environment, too, has an impact upon our appreciation of aromas. Strong perfumes, people smoking and food smells are factors that should be prohibited for a proper tasting, but we must also guard against other interferences. For example, how many restaurants pretend to be gourmet-oriented and have next to no light for you to see what you eat or drink? Some have such loud music that you cannot even hear what you say. Darkness and noise will totally prevent any tasting.

Timing is also important when tasting wine, or even food, properly. The best time is before a meal, and the worst after the meal. For those who usually have their main meal for lunch, the best time is around midday, because when you are hungry your sense of smell is at its peak sensitivity.

Sometimes, we become used to a smell or taste so quickly that we do not perceive it anymore, just like you always feel the smell of a new building when you walk in, but do not sense it after spending a few minutes inside. Another consequence is that you like what you are used to, and it becomes difficult to appreciate a different wine even if it is generally considered to be better.

For the same reason, tastings are always good in the cellar of a winery. The location means that technically they are always bad, but we almost always enjoy ourselves because of the atmosphere.

Emile Peynaud tells the story of a winemaker from Medoc, who was told by buyers that his wine had a problem. He was unable to smell it himself, so he called Professor Peynaud at the Institute of Oenology. The funniest part of his account was that they did not find any problem when tasting the wine in the cellar but, half an hour after leaving, when they were both in the car, they detected a very bad smell of insecticide coming from their clothes. This product had been used to protect the wood inside the cellar, and the smell was extremely strong when they walked inside but, after a few minutes, their noses had become inhibited. They realised that the smell was also very strong in the wine, meaning they had smelt nothing at all.

Even when everything has been set properly and there is no possibility of any form of interference, it does not mean we will reach the same conclusion regarding the wines to be tasted, even if we are well trained. Indeed, whatever the level of experience held by the tasters, there will always be disagreements on the appreciation of some wines. Not so much for the average or common wines, but particularly when you have the top class varieties or those with a defect.

I still remember one particular tasting course when I was a student, where we tasted the greatest sweet white wine of Sauternes. This wine, Chateau dYquem, is so concentrated in aromas that it is disconcerting for most people the first time they taste it, and I must say that many of us were taken aback when we blind tasted it.

As students, we had to participate in the collection of wines for the tasting courses, and that is how I came to visit some of the leading Bordeaux chateaux to ask and receive wine for this purpose. Of course, we first went to places where the owners or managers were previous students of our school at Montpellier.

That is how I then visited Chateau Cos dEstournel, Chateau Olivier and Chateau dYquem. At Yquem, the wine we were given was directly from the barrel, so it was not aged enough. This wine is better after at least five years, and it improves constantly afterwards. I have not heard of examples of any vintage turning bad, and this is the only wine like this in the category. It is like the Ports and other fortified wines, except for the fact this one is not fortified - everything comes directly from the grapes, I will tell you more about it another day.

So, during this tasting course we had a small bottle of this wine, and we offered it to the students at the end. The first reactions were: Which defect are we supposed to look for?.

Afterwards, we explained to them and this analysis took a very long time because of the products richness but also because many disagreed on this or that aroma. This is obviously because everybody has his/her own taste, but also because we have differently sensitivities to aromas. Some people will react strongly to one aroma while others, even if trained, will hardly smell it. What makes a wine great is the wide range of different smells in the aroma or the bouquet, if it is an old wine.

But another factor mentioned by Professor Peynaud is probably even more important than any physical difference. Because it is very difficult to carry out tasting objectively, the influence of other people can lead many to think they smell something. Even without other people being present, autosuggestion has been shown to exert a strong bias. We can easily convince ourselves that we smell something even if it is not there at all - a figment of the imagination.

The intensity of smell is not easily linked with molecular concentration. Many aromas also seem to come from a mixture of several molecules and, to complicate the issue even more, we know the way we smell substances is influenced by the presence of other ones. There are more than 200 different molecules in wine.

So tasting is difficult and often unreliable but, despite what some might like to think, there is nothing yet to replace the human nose.