An Atypical Wine Taster?



I think I’m probably an atypical wine taster.

In various different capacities, I’ve been tasting wine professionally for 30 years now. My lengthy, and on-going, tasting trip started a few years before I opened my first restaurant in the UK, knowing that in order to make the restaurant different from the others in the area, and more attractive for diners to visit, I had to have an edge. Understanding wines and being able to write my own wine list was the way forward.

Since those days I’ve tasted wines as an exporter, wine club business joint-owner, writer, broadcaster, TV presenter (briefly!), wine tourism guide, wine tasting event presenter, plus as a national and international wine judge. That’s quite a lot of experience – yet I still find myself having to combat any preconceptions I might have. I think it’s safe to say that I do overcome them, but they nevertheless do raise their tempting, even, seductive, heads. Perhaps it’s this that makes me atypical?

This whole train of thought started just the other week. It so happened that I’d been, coincidentally, tasting a number of wines all poured from more or less the same shaped bottle. Oldsters like myself would call this shape, the Burgundy style bottle – perhaps you know the shape I mean?

I’d liked, occasionally loved, the wines emanating from these bottles and had waxed fairly, and at times, very, lyrical about them. Then, some wines turned up for me to taste (I know, it’s tough isn’t it!) and one of them was in a tall upright, high shouldered bottle, the one those of us of a certain age would call a Bordelaise, or Bordeaux bottle. My first reaction on seeing the bottle, I should emphasise, not on tasting the wine, was one of disappointment! Ridiculous, I know – after all, there are some rather good (understatement of the year) wines from Bordeaux!

Of course, the thought was dispelled immediately and I set about tasting the wine wholly dispassionately – professionally!

Whilst I’m ensconced here in the confessional, I’ll admit to feeling similarly when viewing wine labels! With some there is an immediate attraction – they say ‘Buy me, buy me now!’; or, if I’ve been sent the wine, they tell me to drink them, drink them immediately. The inference in both cases is, of course, that it’s clear I’m going to like the wine, because, well look at the cool, sexy label!

In contrast, there are some labels I see which are the antithesis of this feeling – they, initially, I emphasise again, put me off. They don’t attract me at all, making me, illogically, and momentarily (I assure you), somewhat disinclined to taste the contents!

And, whilst we are on the subject of labels, the other day I was given a bottle with no label at all – naked wine! My automatic reaction – great interest, and expectation. To open such a wine would be stepping entirely into the unknown, appealing to my sense of adventure, to boldly step . . blah, blah . . . like some sort of vinous Treckie!

But, wait, hold back a bit – the wine might well be outstanding, but it also might me poor. I have to combat my preconceptions once more.

Also, I receive recommendations from people – Oh, Colin you must try this wine! Do you find it’s the same with restaurants? It is with me. Whether I take up the advice about dining at a certain eatery will depend a lot on the person who has recommended it. I’m not being snobby, though it might sound like it, just sensible. If the person loves pizza, baked beans and burgers, well, I might not actually be that interested – because, I don’t!

Back to wine – if the recommender won’t buy anything over 3€ a bottle, well I might not be too impressed by his/her recommendation (though I am aware that occasionally a good wine, priced thereabouts, can be found!). But, on the other hand, if one of my wine appreciating pals, or a wine related Twitter or Facebook friend recommends a wine, I’m very likely to look out for it and try it.

However, it’s here where the recommendation goes out of the window. In the preconception battle, the professional has to win every time. There can be no preconceived ideas when tasting wines! What sort of judge would I be if I’d already part decided the wine’s quality, based on: the shape of the bottle; the look of the label; the absence of a label; or the recommendation of a colleague? Objectivity is key.

I recently received two wines, independently, from two people whose opinions I respect – one with no agenda at all, one who is also trying to sell wines. The latter highly recommended Albakar Viognier – and, as Viognier is one of my favourite varieties, I was keen to try it. A good wine, but nothing outstanding and not really representative of the variety – I’d give it perhaps 74 points out of a hundred.

Petit Hipperia is from Castilla – an eclectic blend of five different red wine varieties. It’s sold locally, but it wasn’t the vendor who was recommending it to me. I went along mostly with the recommendation, it’s a very well priced, good quality wine, with, as you’d imagine, lots of fruit, but it’s not quite perfectly balanced. Its ripe tannin and diminishing acidity mean it hasn’t got long to last before it starts to wane. However, is that a problem? You’ve got a year or so to drink it as it is now! 80 points!

Twitter @colinonwine    Facebook Colin Harkness

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