Good Advice about Wine Tasting

Pinot noir grapesOliver Styles argues that Pinot Noir is not a red wine.

What he means by that provocative statement is that Pinot Noir (and other light bodied reds such as Poulsard) lack the robust anthocyanins that give red wine its color and structure. So if we want to evaluate Pinot Noir fairly, we can’t presuppose the relationship between structure and quality we use when assessing Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, or most other red wines.

On the palate, it probably pays to look more for balance than for structure, although don’t be fooled – Pinot does have structure. Think more about the overall experience and the length of flavor. More experienced tasters love talking about “tension” in Pinot Noir and its a term that sits nicely between balance and structure. Tension is probably best described as an irresolute fight between fruit, acidity and tannin through the aftertaste of the wine.

Sadly, this is where poorer examples of the variety fall down: either the color and structure is enough (too much?) to push the wine into the standard “dry red wine” category or, quite simply, the winemaking has entered a cycle of diminishing returns when it comes to imparting flavor on a heavily cropped vineyard – you can generally tell this by actual sweetness or overtly prominent toasty oak flavors.

This seems exactly right. Pinot Noir without tension is unworthy and too much oak, too much sweetness, too much of anything, really, ruins the experience. There simply is no margin for error for Pinot Noir.

So we can’t judge Pinot Noir using standards we might apply generally to other red wines.

His advice for tasting Pinot Noir is to avoid hasty judgements.

It’s not something we’re prone to doing, but give any Pinot Noir some time before you make your mind up. This is also why many tasters, schooled on having two minutes to come to a judgement on a wine (easier in a “dry red wine” category) often fall down in front of a Pinot. Have another glass. And remember, it’s not a red wine, it’s a Pinot Noir.

But I think this is true of most varietals. You really have to know what it is and where it came from before you can make a fair and precise judgment about a wine. Double blind tasting (where you don’t know the varietal or region) may eliminate certain biases but it also screens out crucial information about wine quality.

So Styles argues there is no such thing as objective quality that can be assessed without knowing the varietal.

“Objective quality” is the idea that, even in a blind tasting environment, one is able to identify a wine’s quality through its inherent building blocks via parameters such as balance or structure or color, etc. But if we analyze a lighter (but high-quality) Pinot Noir through the lens of a “dry red wine” (e.g. Napa or Bordeaux Cabernet), it’s going to come up very short. Okay, the length should be a giveaway but the “structure” won’t compute.

I wouldn’t go quite this far. I think we can make broad, general judgments about a wine’s quality without knowing its origin or varietal . There are many dimensions of a wine such as aromatic complexity which are only tangentially related to structure. And although a precise assessment of a wine’s balance requires knowing the varietal, a general assessment of balance is possible.

Wines of quality stand out. There is a depth to them that allows us to make a general, synthetic judgment of quality even if we need more time and knowledge to provide a precise analysis.

But I wish the advice to take more time was followed more often in wine evaluation.

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