WBM July 2006
From the tasting bench

From the tasting bench is a column about the practical application of tasting wine.   I’ll be sharing my experiences from tasting in several areas of the industry, including classification, blending and quality control issues – which I’m involved in through my consulting work – lessons learnt from judging in wine shows, from my teaching at Charles Sturt University and elsewhere.

Classification is a timely topic, as it’s something winemakers are engaged in over the months of May to July.  This is the process of lining up all batches of wine from the recent vintage and saying “what do we have?”  It’s a critical process, as it has ramifications for the quality, style and quantity of each wine produced.  It has important cost implications, too, like not wasting money by using good oak on ordinary wines. So important is it that even wineries with highly competent tasters like to get another opinion from outside the organisation to overcome issues like ‘cellar palate’ or regional bias.

Here are a few tips.

Don’t be seduced by mere size. One of the critical quality issues with red wines in Australia at present is that many parcels of fruit gain sugar ripeness before flavour and tannin ripeness.  The result can be a 14.5% red with green tannins.  (And young, over-astringent wines develop into old, over-astringent wines.)  I look for a good balance with an even tannin texture spread throughout the mouth.  Unripe, stalky tannins tend to be very forward in the mouth.  Watch out for phenolics in whites, too.  While they can give texture to fuller bodied wines like Chardonnay, Viognier and Pinot gris, they can destroy the finesse of Riesling and Semillon. Balance and shape are more important than size.

Style considerations during classification are very important. How do the new batches of wine relate to the style of previous vintages?  As far as winemaker influence is concerned, this is more an issue for big multiregional blends since, for small producers, style is largely determined by the vineyard site. However, it will still have ramifications for the evolution of the wines in the cellar, including use of oak, time of bottling etc.

Be aware of fermentation characters. Aromatic esters soon after fermentation can seduce you by making whites look more attractive, although this is an advantage, of course, for wines that will be sold very early.  Hydrogen sulfide and other reduced characters can either flatten the nose or, at low level, make it more complex and interesting.  They may also contribute bitterness.  If you’re not sensitive to sulfides, find someone in your organisation – or outside – and use him/her.  (This goes for other potential faults too, like volatility, mousy taint and brett.  All of us differ in our thresholds.)

Rely on your mouth more than your nose. While we in the New World regard fruit intensity highly, I think a seamless palate uninterrupted by sharp transitions is just as important. Balance is paramount.  And, after all, most of our customers don’t smell before they drink.

Don’t ignore the “lesser” wines. Components which may not have the quality and character to be individual wines can still have a role to play in improving balance, complexity and so on. I remember an occasion when I was helping a winery with a Cabernet sauvignon blend.  We had settled on a trial wine made up of three components, but thought it was still a bit dumb on the nose and hollow and solid in the mouth.  I went back to a much lighter weight wine we’d dismissed, as it lacked weight of flavour and tannins, although it did have some sweet berry fragrance.  I tried 5% of this wine in the main blend and, hey presto! the blend now had more fruit lift and a seamless palate, with balanced tannins.  This was a great example of the sum being greater than the parts. One plus one sometimes equals more than two.

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