What happens at the tasting counter?
One place where the rubber hits the road in the wine industry is the tasting room. Here, from our side of the counter we get an intimate glimpse of what styles people like/dislike and also hear the platitudes or stereotypes that are embedded in their brains/tastebuds. e.g. A common response from those with a sweet tongue after trying our dry Rallentando Riesling is “Aw – that’s awful”. This involuntary outburst simply means they’ve noticed the austere citrus attack and find it, without food, hard going. So, gently, and tactfully we suggest “what you really mean is you don’t like it” – that your generalisation is too extreme. Often, a couple (demonstrating a certain incompatibility!) will go – “oh, I like that” while the partner mutters “far too tart – horrible.” We suggest a session with guidance counsellors might help.
What such exchanges demonstrate is that, surprise, surprise, people have different tastes. And it raises the obvious question “What, when all is said and done, is the difference between a nice wine and a better wine” After 20 years of puzzling this conundrum we conclude that it has something to do with subtlety and nothing to do with power, grunt or one dimensional flavour.
Of course the whole notion of subtlety puzzles some (maybe many) people, which is pretty much the same thing as saying there are lots of philistines in the world. Why otherwise would D. Trump have a following? True enough, but it should equally be remembered by us that we come at this topic from a particular point of view, of self- interest. i.e. we think everybody should be drinking (our) wine and that beer, coffee and cordials should be voted out of existence. Which leads to another point that crops up regularly at the Coney tasting counter. Almost the first thing that many visitors say, (often uttered as a bold declaration or accasionally with mild self- deprecation) “I don’t know much about wine but I know what I like”. Well, perhaps, arrogantly, I always regard this as pretty obvious and self-evident because all I can then say is, “yes, you wouldn’t drink some concoction you hate would you”. Most winemakers have a problem with these bald statements because they don’t lead anywhere useful. It’s as if your wife, looking at a picture by Picasso says “I like that” and you say “why?” and she says “I don’t know, I just like it” End of conversation. What you’re actually hoping for is some descriptive stuff you can argue with. Like – “Yuk – this wine’s far too sweet”. This allows the winemaker to indulge in some pontificating explanation about wine balance – the arcane relationship between sweetness and acidity and the role alcohol can play in this etc. etc. blah, blah. And is the dominant taste sensation rhubarb or ratatouille, the olefactories tweaked by rosehip syrup or rhododendron? Who cares? Well, winemakers, because it’s only when you start throwing around some adjectives that a more complete description can emerge. But, again, there’s a trick here – if, in the middle of a tirade, the poor, polite victim’s nose is flaring, not from the wine tasting, but from boredom, it’s important to know when to stop. This leads to the most important conclusion of all – applicable to wine snobs and lovers of other beverages alike – which is – although a wine might have been lovingly and attentively crafted from beautifully ripe and unblemished grapes, ultimately, its main job is to momentarily lift human beings above their drab and mundane existences and help them have a nice time for goodness sake.
Mercifully, most of the visitors to the Coney Cellar Door and Restaurant have a genuine interest in food and wine. Why not? When you get to a certain age these items are about the only mildly sinful things you can experience without being found out and getting into trouble with the missus. So, it’s usually gratifying to have a chat with the punters who like to learn about “your story” and the ramshackle path from city dweller to viticulturalist/winemaker. But not always. Sometimes a bus turns into our carpark and disgorges a mob of blokes who rowdily enter our hallowed premises talking boisterously instead of reverently, and yes, clutching their half-filled cans of Heineken and Tui. I can usually identify such a bunch of tire kickers from a hundred paces and have learned to hunker down. Starting with the dry Riesling usually sorts them out, and if not, you can invite them to experience some wine lees drawn especially for them from the bottom of the tank marked “slops”! I’m then generally reminded tartly by one of our kitchen team to pull myself together because even a hardened beer swiller may someday see the light and switch to a nice Riesling.
The business of wine tasting can also be a two- way street in which instead of imparting, we receive. Two examples come to mind:
After trying our range of excellent Rieslings moving from dry to off-dry, we usually interpose the Piccolo Pinot Gris before moving to the obviously sweeter Ritz and Sticky Fingers. This is because it usually contains about 5gms of residual sugar making it “dry” (defined as less than 7g/litre residual sugar). After the prescribed swirl and sniff, an Irish visitor studiously sipped and declared in his brogue “Not bad, but it’s a bit flabby”. Now we all know what flabby means when it describes the (female??) anatomy. But a wine? Well, it’s a widely used descriptor indicating that the wine doesn’t have enough zip or attack i.e. it misses the first criterion for a white wine which is to be refreshing. Translated, to the winemaker it suggests the need for (another) 1g/litre addition of tartaric acid to restore the perfect balance we strive for. Depending on the intended application of our Piccolo and its best food matches, such comments are taken to heart, discussed roundly and accepted/rejected. All grist to the winemakers mill.
When the alcohol content in red wines exceeds some number like 14 ½ % many imbibers notice a fiery sensation i.e. it’s hot as it goes down the throat. If the taster has just emerged from a snow drift and has a pinched look, this is welcome. Otherwise it’s too much of a good thing. To avoid this it’s best to pick and process the fruit at a slightly lower sugar (brix) level. Sometimes of course, bold fruit can happily carry a higher alc. level. However, if after bottling, your red wine does taste too hot there is a simple remedy. Well known, no doubt in sophisticated circles but news at the time to Coney. Just stick the bottle in the fridge for a short period to knock a couple of degrees off the temperature and voila – no more hot. Advice offered by an interested and enthusiastic American visitor (winemaker).
So, there you have it. Wine tasting is fun and gives you the chance for some verbal gymnastics, while good wine and good food with a smidgen of lively conversation is the last bastion of truly civilised pleasure. Try it.