Tuesday, February 20, 2018
Last updated: 2 years ago

Wine tasting: talent or training?

Illustration Indiana Joel / The Ubyssey

Illustration Indiana Joel / The Ubyssey

Having been seasoned by the drinks industry for a little over two years, I can confirm that, yes, wine tasting is sometimes a seemingly arrogant activity.

At the risk of sounding like an English 110 paper: wine really is an enigmatic art, capturing both the essence of the vineyard and the guiding hands of the winemaker in forms we can smell and taste, not unlike the filmmaker or musician, who is a creative crafter of sight and sound. But you can’t play wine on the radio or sample wine before your YouTube video buffers, so that’s where it becomes a little bit more exclusive.

“Blind tasting,” or determining the identity of a wine whose label is unbeknownst to the taster, is perhaps one of the more clichéd images of wine douchebaggery, but it’s something that alcohol aficionados are trained to do. While it’s mostly a parlour trick to determine the minute details of a wine — a Cos d’Estournel from the region of Saint Estèphe in left bank Bordeaux vintaged 1982, for example — it’s more important to determine where a wine lies on the scales of quality and commercial importance. It’s a fundamental ability for the world-renowned and amazingly difficult master of wine and master sommelier examinations, but we can’t forget that on the other side of the spectrum, wine tasting can be a fun and drunken non-serious hobby.

Wine reviews often describe fruits, which isn’t weird. We all know what apples, pears, cherries and blueberries smell like. But eyebrows are raised when connoisseurs refer to “freshly baked baguettes,” “cat pee” and — if I may borrow this last one from a friend — “leather chaps of a sweaty cowboy after he wrestled his friend in a blackcurrant patch.” These descriptions might seem like they’ve been uttered by a Freudian case study, but these particular outlandish aromas are legitimate: yeasty bread-like aromas come from broken-down yeast cells in Champagne; cat pee is a pungent aroma commonly found in Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand; and leathery scents with brushes of smoked oak are common in aged Rioja from Spain.

But no one is a “natural wine taster.” Just because you can jump high doesn’t mean you’ll start winning basketball games right off the bat, in the same way that your ridiculous brilliance for math still means that you’ll need to work hard to crunch those cosines and curves. Many wine experts suggest connecting aromas to memories, like that one Australian Viognier reminiscent of your childhood because it smells unmistakably of Froot Loops; that one wine that makes you gag because it smells like the basement of the SUB; or that Cabernet Sauvignon that makes your heart race because it smells like the cologne of the guy who makes your cheeks turn the colour of a rosé.

As with every passion, wine tasting is something that absolutely needs experience, practice and research. And thankfully, it’s one of the few passions that often alters sobriety.