No subject is as intimidating to me as wine. We hear so many experts with so many different views that it is hard to know which one to believe. Terroir or winemaker? Grape variety or region? To decant or not to decant? To swirl or not to swirl? And so on.
There are still no clear answers to the big questions. I don’t think there ever will be. But I have been reading a fascinating book called Flavour by Bob Holmes, where he looks at some of these questions and explains what science has to say about them.
Decant: I decant most red wine. Old wine needs to be decanted to get rid of its sediment. And young wines benefit from contact with oxygen, a process known as aerating.
Moreover, because I have often noticed that the last half of the final glass of wine from every bottle is usually the best, (or maybe I am just so drunk by that stage of the proceedings that I like everything more), I try to wait a while after opening a bottle of red wine. Wine changes its character in the glass and many people advise us to let a good wine stand in the decanter for at least an hour before serving it.
There are many people who disagree with these practices. A lot of Burgundy wine-makers I have spoken to say that decanting a) makes no difference or b) that it bruises the wine.
Then, there is swirling. If you watch wine professionals closely, you will notice that they swirl the wine in their glasses to release all the vapours and the flavours. Is this really necessary? (Each time I do it, I spill wine on the tablecloth.)
Holmes offers a scientific perspective. He comes down in favour of decanting wine, accepting that the reaction of oxygen with the wine creates new flavor compounds and —upto a point—improves the taste. (Too much oxygen and the wine spoils). Plus, he says, there are “off-flavours” which have accumulated in the bottles which will escape during normal decanting.
On swirling and decanting, he has an interesting perspective. He quotes the currently trendy food writer and science nerd (he used to work for Microsoft), Nathan Myhrvold, who recommends “hyper decanting”. This involves pouring the bottle into a blender and whizzing for 30 seconds or more.
Myhrvold has written “even legendary wines like the 1982 Chateau Margaux benefit form a quick run through in the blender.”
So: don’t just swirl; use a blender to swirl faster.
Holmes organized a blind tasting to test this hypothesis. He put one third of a bottle into a blender, one third into a normal decanter and kept one third in the bottle.
The blind tasters found little difference between the decanted wine and the stuff that had remained in the bottle. But the wine from the blender dazzled the guests with its huge and vivid aromas.
There was a catch though. It only tasted great for ten minutes. After that, the wine was dull and lifeless while the other ones kept their flavours.
Winetastings: Wine professionals hate blind tastings. All too often they get wines completely wrong. At the famous Judgment of Paris tasting in the 1970s, the great masters of French wine were fooled into praising California wines, believing that they were French.
The question people ask after seeing experts fumble at blind tastings is: if these guys can’t get it right when they don’t know the names (and prices) of the wines they are tasting, then how can we trust their judgments at all?
Holmes quotes the experience of an American wine-maker called Bob Hodgson who persuaded the organizers of the California Wine Fair to let him tamper with the wines they had put out for tasting. The experts were given 30 wines to taste blind.
Hodgson rigged it so that three of the 30 were glasses of exactly the same wine. And of course, the experts did not get that. They gave each glass of the same wine a completely different rating.
Hodgson then compared how wines had done at other competitions. He discovered that there was no consistency. A wine that had won a gold medal at one would not ever be ranked at another.
So, is there an objective standard? Or are these experts just making it up as they go along.
There are several answers to this question.
Yeah, some experts are humbugs.
But a tasting is the worst way to judge wines. You taste them within a context that is never revealed. A sour wine may be followed by a less sour one; one may be eaten with bread, the other without anything and so on. If there are 30 wines to be tasted then won’t palates start dying after the tenth wine?
Nobody can ever make objective judgments in that atmosphere. And yet, these are later presented as gospel.
But there are people who know good wine from bad. Not all of them are professionals. I recently went to one of the world’s most famous restaurants with a wine-loving (and rich) friend. He ordered Haut Brion, one of the world’s greatest wines along with a bottle of a very good Spanish wine. I liked the Spanish wine but Haut-Brion is Haut-Brion. My friend was not convinced. Give the Spanish half an hour, he said. We did.
And lo and behold it tasted better than the Haut Brion despite being one-fifth the price. Only an expert could have ignored the brand names and judged how both wines would develop. I have witnessed many such instances so yes, there are super tasters who are more gifted than the rest of us when it comes to judging wine.
But there’s also a lot of bullshit out there.
Price: Do people like more expensive wines even if they are not very good.
There are numerous studies documenting how people respond differently to exactly the same wine when they are told it is more expensive than it really is.
But it isn’t just snobbery. We actually allow our perception of the wine to be altered by price: that is what our brains are hardwired to do.
Holmes writes about an experiment where volunteers had their brains scanned as they tried different wines. Once again, they were tricked into drinking the same wines again and again but told there were different price tags. And yes, they liked the ones they thought were expensive.
But here’s the thing: the scan showed that in the brain, the reward centre was more activated by wines that were supposed to be more expensive.
So, it is not always hypocrisy. We genuinely enjoy things that we believe are more expensive.
Terroir: One difference between old world and new world wines is that, in the old world, they much make much of ‘terroir’. This is a complex concept that includes all kinds of factors such as micro-climate. But one of its key components is the soil.
French wine-makers will point to Burgundy where all the white wine is made from the Chardonnay grape. Yet the wines change every 20 miles or so. A Chablis, for instance, is very different from a Meursault. The French say this is because of terroir: the same grape yields a different wine in different soil.
New world wine-makers are skeptical of this idea and Holmes is dismissive of the notion that soil can make any difference to the taste of a wine.
He is uncharacteristically forthright. “The notion that you can somehow taste the soil in a wine is completely false. Grape vines take up only water and simple nutrients like nitrogen, potassium and calcium from the soil. They make all their more complex biomolecules in house. To put it more bluntly, none of the volatile molecules that determine a wine’s flavor come directly from the soil.”
There is more in a similar vein (he hates the term ‘minerality’ favoured by wine writers, for instance). The differences in flavour of the various wine made from the same grape, argues Holmes, have to do with other things: ripeness, perhaps.
He gives the example of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc which is noted for its passion fruit and green pepper flavour. The green pepper notes, he says, come from young grapes. Those harvested later have more passion fruit. Methods of harvesting also matter. New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc which is mechanically harvested has a more pronounced passion fruit flavour than French Sauvignon Blanc which is gently picked by hand.
Most interesting though are Holmes’s conclusions about the fermentation process. All Indians know about the role of microbes in creating dahi. If we make a bowl of dahi in London, using exactly the same milk and the same process as we do in say, Lucknow, the dahi will taste different because the microbes in the London atmosphere are different from those in Lucknow.
So it is with wine. Holmes gives the example of a test carried out at the University of Auckland where batches of identical Sauvignon Blanc grapes were fermented with six different yeasts. In the end, each wine was noticeably different.
So perhaps the French should widen their definition of terroir to include the yeast in each region.
And finally: I don’t necessarily agree with Holmes about everything (terroir, in particular) but it is good to do a little scientific detective work in an area like wine which is dominated by so much hype and myth. Anything that cleans up mysteries is welcome.
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First Published: Feb 27, 2019 19:14 IST