Richard Hemming MW: Having all the wrong answers
Wine experts are fond of saying that there are no wrong answers when it comes to tasting wine. But that in itself is incorrect. Anyone who has experienced any kind of wine education knows that understanding wine means learning that certain attributes are associated with particular grape varieties and specific origins.
The person who thinks a Muscadet tastes of pineapple: wrong. Describing a Barolo as having light tannins: wrong. Declaring that they don’t like Chardonnay: wrong.
How often have you heard a new wine drinker tentatively describe a wine as “fruity” or “sweet” when the wine in question would never be described that way in official terms? Yet we are all guilty of telling consumers that their opinion is always correct in such scenarios, in a misguided attempt to make wine more accessible and less intimidating.
Yes, flavour perception is subjective (but only to a certain extent} and therefore if someone insists that they taste mint leaves in their Cornas it can be awkward to disagree. But as wine professionals, we know what the real answers are supposed to be.
When we tell consumers there are no wrong answers in wine, we are being disingenuous. As experts, it should be our responsibility to inform and educate anyone who is interested. Pretending that anyone can say anything with equal validity isn’t only absurd, it is obviously untrue.
However, some of the supposed truths that we have learned are lazy at best and downright wrong at worst.
For example, the belief that old vines produce wines with more concentration than young vines; that Meursault is buttery while
Puligny-Montrachet is mineral; or that Gewürztraminer is a good match with Asian food. They might be useful generalisations when starting to learn about wine, but as we gain experience in the wine industry, we should question those statements. It may be true that older vines generally produce lower yields, but are those grapes always more concentrated? And what about winemaking practices that produce concentrated wines from young-vine fruit?
Similarly, the distinctions between the villages of Burgundy have become far more blurred in recent years, so that Meursault no longer has a reliably identifiable buttery style (if it ever did). As for Gewürztraminer with Asian food, I understand the theory, but “Asian food” is so generic as to be meaningless and after living in Singapore for nine months I can tell you that heavy red Bordeaux or Burgundy is far more likely to be served with Asian food out here than aromatic white Alsace.
All these complications are precisely why wine appears so intimidating, but the answer shouldn’t be to tell people they are never wrong. Instead, we need to explain the right answers, without making the subject seem too overwhelming.
Of course, this is no easy task, especially for retailers who might only have a few seconds of contact with customers. We don’t need to have all the right answers; but at least we should be aware of the wrong ones.