We watched an interesting documentary last weekend on Sommeliers, specifically the process for gaining the highest level of certification (I know, I know…but it was the only thing on Netflix we wanted to watch).
The part I found most fascinating was the emphasis placed on wine tasting. For those who don’t know, there are three components in the Sommelier exams – wine knowledge/theory, wine service and blind tasting (the ability to tell what a wine is just from its colour). The first two didn’t get very much coverage at all (especially the last one, which had about one scene in 90 minutes! But it all seemed to be about the tasting portion.
By the end, that got me to thinking about why and, more importantly, whether that is – or isn’t – important.
Let’s look at it from two perspectives – what a sommelier needs to serve his or her customers, and what a customer needs.
The second one first! As a wine drinker anywhere – restaurant, home, etc. – how important is it for you to be able to correctly taste and identify the wine you are drinking?
Personally, I think not very important at all. Aside from being able to tell if a wine is “off” or oxidized (from being left open too long), why does it matter? All that really matters is if you enjoy it. If part of that enjoyment is being able to describe it to your friends or partner, great…but hardly a necessity. It tastes, good, pour me more!
And in terms of the advice you are looking for from the sommelier?
Well, if you haven’t had a wine or grape variety before, it would be nice to know – in general terms – what it will taste like. From the basic (sweet vs dry, oaky or not) to the specific (the kind of fruit, amount of herbal tastes), all can be helpful. But do you need to hear – and the therefore the sommelier have to know – the details i.e. wet dog fur, cat pee, fallen leaves, earth floor, etc.? I’m not sure.
Not only that, but is it really possible to smell and taste these flavours? Personally, I doubt it. There is only so much your nose and mouth can do…the rest, I think, is just good marketing.
Finally, regardless of whether you can or can’t “get” all these different smells and tastes, I think everyone does it differently. Aside from the basics, we all taste very differently. What are cherries to one person may be plums to another…even fruity can have a very different definition depending on the taster (see Bordeaux tasting as a good example).
I just don’t think that tasting is a science the way it is portrayed. So why should we put so much emphasis on it?
This was actually reinforced in the movie when some of the candidates were talking to each other about some of the wines they were tasting during training. One set of white wines was either white Hermitage (made from Roussanne and Marsanne) or barrel fermented California Chardonnay (make from…well, you know what!). Now, in my experience, those wines could not taste more different! The former has a flowery nose, but a distinct waxy, almost resiny taste…some would call it an acquired taste. The latter has vanilla, butterscotch and citrus. This is particularly the case for the actual wine they used, the Beringer Private Reserve, one of my favourite wines and almost instantly recognizable for this flavour profile.
But guess what…these professional tasters mixed up these wines, and couldn’t agree which was which! If this is possible for wines this different, then anybody can get it wrong…or right.
That, I guess, is my point. Whatever you smell and taste is personal to you…not right or wrong, just what you are experiencing. That experience will be different for the next person, just like it will be different for the sommelier.
And if it is different, then why put so much emphasis on it? Just enjoy what is in your glass!