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We Are What We Taste (July 22, 2004)

Whenever you read a wine review followed by a numerical score, consider its source. Does the writer share your particular taste in wine?

As objective as wine critics try to be, we all taste through our own cultural ciphers, which are highly subjective.

I was reminded of this yet again while judging at the Finger Lakes International Wine Competition in Rochester NY in April.

There were five of us on our panel – two New York State winemakers alongside Philip Dowell, Inniskillin's winemaker, Darryl Brooker of Flat Rock Cellars, a new Ontario winery, and myself. Both Philip and Darryl, incidentally, are Australian.

All the wines were placed in front of us in flights of different varietals. All we were told about each flight was the grape variety and the vintage; we had no idea where the wines came from. After tasting and marking the wines we read out our judgement to the rest of the panel and said whether we thought each individual wine deserved a gold medal, a silver, a bronze or no award at all.

We were pretty much in accord until we came to a flight of dry Riesling. Then it turned contentious. Both New York winemakers gave a particular wine a gold medal. Dowell, Brooker and I gave it a bronze.

To the three of us with "Ontario" palates the wine did not smell or taste like Riesling; it had a grassy, gooseberry-like nose that – in such a blind tasting – could have easily been mistaken for a Sauvignon Blanc. So we marked it down as not being varietally correct.

"But that's the way Finger Lakes Rieslings taste!" argued the two winemakers from the other side of Lake Ontario. Which means, of course, that's the way Riesling ought to taste according to their palates and they will forever look for that as a marker when judging Riesling.

The same sort of thing happened when it came to a flight of reds. One of thee Merlots tasted to me of iodine and not what I believe Merlot should taste like, according to my organoleptic image. The same judges protested that that character I found somewhat offensive was inherent in Long island Merlots. They gave the wine high marks because of this. I didn't. (That particular flavour – iodine or tar – I associate with Pinotage from South Africa or Syrah from the Northern Rhône.)

Our palates are acculturated by the diet we are used to. Australian kids are brought up on Vegemite, an evil-smelling, boot-polish brown spread made from yeast and salt that they devour on toast for breakfast. As a nation they love it. The rest of the world is happy for them. The point is that we are accustomed to the foods we grow up with – and the same is true of wine. The wine style of the region we live in becomes our norm. Californians judge wines against the yardstick of their very ripe, fruit-driven Chardonnays, Cabernets and Pinot Noirs. The French and Italians, used to wines that are lean and more acidic, find California wines overblown and fat. If you compare the scores accorded to California Chardonnays in the Wine Spectator with those in the British wine magazine Decanter you'll find a marked difference in the national judgement.

In the early 1990s Steven Spurrier, the English wine merchant who staged the infamous Paris event in 1976, pitting California Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon against white Burgundies and red Bordeaux, held a tasting of six clarets of the celebrated 1982 vintage in Toronto. When he asked the room for our preference, virtually everybody voted as their top wine the forward Leoville-Las-Cases for its opulent mouth feel and generosity of fruit. Spurrier confessed that his favourite was Château Montrose, a St. Estephe wine notorious for its tannic structure.

He was tasting the wines through his English wine trade cipher, looking for attributes in the future rather than the hedonistic pleasure of the moment.

So when it comes to following the advice of wine writers you have to choose your critic carefully. It's rather like having a favourite movie reviewer; you trust their judgement because their taste historically has coincided with your own.

But then I don't think of myself as a wine critic, more of a wine evangelist. My mission is to turn you on to the wines that I like. There's enough negativity in the media without having to add more. It's much easier to be amusing in print by damning a wine than by praising it. After all, the Devil has the best vocabulary.




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