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The perfect tasting note?

A deeply unsatisfying aspect of life as a (wannabe) professional wine taster is that so much of my wine-focused time is taken up by large tastings. At these events it is not uncommon to taste in the region of 100 wines in a session, back to back with barely a pause to scribble down some notes. However hard you work at these events, you always come away with the feeling that no one is really doing any of the wines justice. Would you want to be a producer exhibiting your wines this way? You’ve spent a whole season or more nurturing your vines and making the best wine you can, and along comes a journalist – a quick slurp, perhaps a brief chat, and a few notes and they are gone, with a hurried assessment of your precious liquid. You’d just hope that their competence matches their influence…

Don’t get me wrong. It’s the system, and these are the rules we play by. There’s a trade off between exposing the punters to a comprehensive enough set of wines, and providing the perfect environment for these wines to be assessed in. Hopefully, by taking a studious, professional approach I can come out of these tastings with the best and most useful assessments possible. But it’s not ideal. 

So I’m going to attempt to write the most exhaustive tasting note I can. [It won't be perfect, despite the title of this piece.] This will take time and focus. I’m going to dedicate the best part of an evening to just one wine. It’s one of my favourite grape varieties (Syrah), from one of my favourite regions (the northern Rhône), but it isn’t an expensive wine. It’s the 1999 St Joseph from Pierre Gaillard, purchased in case quantity from H & H Bancroft for the knockdown price of £6.50 a bottle. Some background. Gaillard is one of the new wave of northern Rhône producers, but he has a reputation for making wines true to type – still showing typicity. As well as this basic St Joseph, he makes a couple of special cuvées from the same appellation, as well as some Condrieu and Côte Rôtie. I find St Joseph (pictured above) to be quite a happy hunting ground – in the right hands wines from here give me the Syrah kick I need but without the price tags of the flashier northern Rhône appellations.

Context is important in any tasting note. As I type, I’m sitting in the back garden. It’s a balmy evening, perhaps low to mid-twenties centrigrade, even at 8.40 pm. Evenings like this are relatively rare in the UK, so I tend to make the most of them. The only real distraction is the Heathrow flight path, with the planes taking off over our heads. An hour ago we had Concorde, which I still find to be a spectacular sight, but which is gut-wrenchingly noise, literally twice as loud as a 747 – it won’t be with us for much longer, though. The other noisy aerial presence comes from a flock of green parakeets that are resident in Twickenham and its environs. They’re raucous but colourful inhabitants of the trees round here, and they've thrived since they were artificially introduced some years ago. I like them; they remind me of  the various Psittaciformes found in Australia, who flock so noisily in the evenings.

Turning to the wine, it’s a full colour, a sort of purple black. For me, the nose is really quite alluring – a fusion of the old and new. There’s some primary raspberry and blackcurrant fruit with a meaty, spicy edge. This is joined with some subtle toasty, woody notes. Modern, but not overly so. Incidentally, research has shown that the human olfactory system is very poor at distinguishing more than just one or two aromas from a complex mix. So beware wine writers who are a little too elaborate in their tasting notes and who can pick out with certainty several different exotic fruits and spices. Chances are they are bullshitting you. More important than aroma or taste identification ('name that fruit') are comments on the structure, balance, texture and acidity. But that’s an aside.

On to the palate. What we think of as the ‘taste’ of a wine is actually a combination of sensory inputs – taste, smell, touch and vision – joined together in a brain region called the orbitofrontal cortex, to form what we think of as ‘flavour’. This is also where the reward value (or ‘pleasantness’) of a flavour is represented in the brain. This St Joseph has a really appealing savoury quality to the fruit; a sort of spiciness, together with some meaty character. It isn’t hugely concentrated, but there’s plenty of richness, together with good acidity. This acidity gives the fruit a lovely juicy character. A hint of charry oak finishes things off. There’s a bit of tannic structure. Overall, it’s a satisfying wine that makes for a well balanced, interesting drink. If I were to taste it blind, I think I’d call it as a northern Rhône Syrah, or perhaps as a new wave Languedoc wine: with its elegant fruitiness, this reminds me a bit of some of the better Pic St Loup wines.

How would I rate it? Well, what is great about this is that at £6.50, it’s something you can happily open on a Tuesday night. People new to wine probably think I’m being a bit flash by saying this; experienced wine geeks are now writing me off as cheap. You can’t win. What I mean is that it’s great news to be able to buy a tasty, authentic, ‘terroir’ wine for £6.50, which isn’t much more than most branded, manufactured stuff sells for in supermarkets. The world needs more good wines in this sort of price range. They’re wines that I find incredibly useful, because I’m sitting on a stash of posh stuff that I can’t justify opening on a weekday night – I’ve got far too much wine that I can only open if I’m sharing it with someone who will appreciate it. 

What about a score? It needs to be said that a score is as much a property of the person scoring as it is of the wine. People think of a wine as a 92 point wine, for example, because this is what a famous critic has awarded it. Wrong. A particular combination of a taster’s perception plus a wine, in a particular context, led to that wine being scored as 92/100. It would be quite wrong to think of that score as belonging to the wine. A score is as much a property of the taster as it is of the wine. I’d give this wine, on tonight’s performance, 89/100. Very good indeed, but not profound. But having said this, the wine is giving me lots of pleasure, and more than many highly rated wines of different styles might in the context I am currently in.

The wine seems to be developing a little in the glass. Either that, or my perception is changing as I drink. I’m about a third of the way through the bottle now. A slightly charred or smoky quality is beginning to emerge on the nose. It isn’t unpleasant, but the wine is beginning to seem just a little less fruity and a little more structured than it did on first tasting.

At this point, I have to introduce the variable of serving temperature. It matters a great deal. Warmer wines seem less focused and more flabby than cool ones. Cold wines are unyielding and tight. It’s deceptive because while people adjust quite well to temperatures within a normal-ish range, wines don’t, and so our perception can be skewed.

The St Joseph is now taking on an almost Burgundian-like quality as it cools. There’s a structural connection between the red wines of Burgundy and the Northern Rhône, which comes from the fact that both are structured by a combination of acidity and tannin, and rely on perfume and elegance for effect rather than simply power. But northern Rhônes tend to be meatier and spicier than fine Burgundy. People who talk about Hermitage or Côte Rôtie as being powerful wines have missed the point. They excel when they are perfumed and elegant.

So there you have it. A tasting note of some 1300 words. Certainly not perfect, but I hope it’s given you a good impression of the wine I’ve been drinking. Wine is a rich subject, and sometimes it just isn’t possible to verbalize our perception of a complex liquid in a media-friendly soundbite. I’m halfway through the bottle now, so I think I’ll stop writing. Cheers.  

see also: extended tasting notes 2, 3, 4 and 5

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