The art of tastings

All of us who engage with the wine tasting circuit will be familiar with its general format – comfortable, predictable and generally pretty successful. Whether it’s held in a private members’ club on Pall Mall, a basement in Shoreditch or a private room in a restaurant, the basic form of the trade tasting is timeless: wines normally ordered by producer, a spacious room, good light, tasting booklets (with free pencils), spittoons and endless plates of Carr’s Table Water Biscuits.

Like any well-worn custom, one soon forgets its flaws because it is so ubiquitous (though I suspect few of us eat those wan biscuits at home). At least several times in any trade tasting, one participates in or observes the “no, after you” dilemma as two tasters, cheeks bulging, approach a spittoon, simultaneously trying to gauge how far through deconstructing that mouthful the other person is. It’s a clumsy waltz that one must be alert for at all times.

At the busiest of tastings, pub rules apply. Once you’ve got your drink, step away from the bar and let others in. If you’re going to take up space at the front asking questions, they better be good. Once there, we hover, unsure of whether we should wait for the winemaker to pour, or whether we should help ourselves to an appropriately-sized sample so as not to interrupt a parallel conversation.

There’s no doubt that we can become so preoccupied with negotiating the delicacies of a busy trade tasting that the actual wine in the glass can become rather secondary to, say, the lack of a spittoon, or a conversation with a colleague who has caught you mid-mouthful.

It’s certainly not easy to make buying decisions at such events. Large-scale tastings are useful for getting an overview of a vintage or a region, for trying new wines or discovering the ethos of a new importer. Yet these classically formatted events can deliver an experience a bit like listening to 10 seconds each of 63 songs on Spotify and then trying to decide what you want to buy.

The reason I’m even discussing such an institution is because the recent Austrian wine tasting at the Institute of Directors took a rather different tactic. Of course, there were plenty of distinguished paintings, grand gilt frames and eye-catching chandeliers. But instead of a ring of tasting stations around the edge of the room, there were tables, individual spittoons, phenomenally detailed tasting materials and six Riedel glasses per person.

Normally this might take place on a smaller scale, for a seminar or masterclass featuring perhaps a dozen wines, but this was on a different level, offering a total of 105 wines across 19 flights and two sessions, with each flight co-ordinated and poured by multiple service teams allocated to a number of tables. The focus was on indigenous Austrian varieties, which meant there were, among others, multiple fascinating flights of Grüner Veltliner and Blaufrankisch but, sadly, no Riesling.

While this format certainly isn’t coming to a pet nat tasting near you, for such serious, rare and expensive wines, it was a revelation, giving time and space not just to the wines, but to the tasters, much to the credit of Willi Klinger and the Austrian Wine Marketing Board. One can only hope it’s not a one-off.

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