Friday, November 5, 2010

So how many?


How many wines can one realistically taste in a single session?

That was the question posed by John Szabo, Master Sommelier in his latest Wine Align newsletter. He was referring to the LCBO product release tastings he participates in. Sir, if the workload is getting too strenuous for you . . . please, please get in touch with me, I know a Chinese blogger who'd love to relieve you of that burden.

But it's a good question. How many wines can a wine taster properly assess in one go, before the palate (or mind) starts to fail? It's not something one would readily admit - I'm hardly a professional and even I won't admit anywhere near the idea that my palate would be, oh shit, fallible. I suppose the answer is in experience. With experience, tasters know what to look for in any particular wine, provided that the wines aren't served blind. For example, identifying the obvious flavour profiles are important (red fruit, black fruit, etc.), but also the regional specifics (slate minerals in Mosel, tar and spice in Barolo), as well as vintage character (hot 2007 Ontario wines, lean 2008's). And that's where experience comes in. Because with experience, tasters know what to look for, in say, a lineup of Riojas. Or Volnay, or whatever. Instead of aimlessly swirling the wine around, trying to identify and pick out each specific flavour element, experienced tasters understand what to focus on for each wine region, style, vintage, and are able to quickly provide an accurate tasting note which is reflective of that specific wine/region/vintage/varietal. And of course, examining colour, balance, texture, and length are all crucial to a well-written tasting note.

So, how many wines until everything starts tasting the same? I'd say around 60, personally. I've done tastings where I start losing focus around this number (especially when young red Bordeaux is involved, or any other tannic wine). Spitting is essential, but after a few rounds, enough alcohol is absorbed through the palate membranes that things start becoming hazy. In a good way, mind you - there's nothing like chilling with a fun drunk at a proper (business attire only) tasting. But 55-60 wines is where I peg my palate as the upper limit, before I begin writing single word tasting notes (ie. Good. Bad. Horny).

Much practice is needed, to push this number up, for sure. Because I'm heading back up to Niagara this weekend, to taste through the 2009 vintage, as well as see how the baby 2010's are coming along. Fun, and I'll be sure to keep a bottle of sparkling water in the car.


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