Many of us have had this experience – while holidaying in a hot sunny paradise, you taste a fantastic wine (let’s say it’s a rosé) and decide to fill up the suitcase. Uncorking the same wine back at home, it’s utterly disappointing – thin and acidic, instead of the fruit-filled, lip-smacking gem you remembered.
This is context – or the lack of it. Environment, state of mind and the company you’re in can hugely influence the impression of anything you ingest. But it doesn’t stop there – context is everywhere. If you know the provenance of a wine, or how much it costs, it’s almost impossible not to subconsciously form opinions.
Even the esteemed Michael Broadbent once related the tale of a grand dinner with wines served blind, and a seemingly rather closed red which didn’t invite much comment from the guests. When it was later revealed to be a mature Chateau Latour, everyone went back to it and mysteriously found added layers of complexity and finesse.
The shape of the bottle, the label on the bottle, the temperature of the room you’re in, the meal you just ate, or the argument you just lost can influence whether you enjoy what’s in your glass or not.
Tasting blind is a way to remove at least some of these contexts, to more fairly assess a wine and to form an honest opinion about whether you like it or not. I wanted to put some highly individual, or even challenging wines in front of an audience, to see what their reactions might be, without any context, expectations or preconceptions. And so “Wine out of context” was born, as a tasting and panel discussion at this year’s Digital Wine Communications Conference in Montreux.
Wine out of context
Take three panellists – Swiss biochar expert and winemaker Hans-Peter Schmidt, British MW Justin Howard-Sneyd, and Julia Sevenich, an American wine writer based in Austria. Add six deliberately tricksy wines, and 60 willing participants and we were all set for some fun. The panel tasted blind, along with the audience, but yes there were some catches.
We kept the discussion focused on fundamentals: “Do I like this wine?” and “Is it a good or high quality wine?” – I encouraged everyone not to try to playing guessing games (almost impossible given the choice of wines). The wines’ identities were not revealed until the end.
Here’s what we tasted, with a summary of how the discussion between the audience, myself and the panel opened up.
I thought this charming blend from Eduard and Stephanie Tscheppe would be a reasonably easy place to start, yet some of the audience were instantly troubled by the nose, which was rich and aromatic, showing some slight influences of skin contact. Justin praised the texture and the balance, although some found the acidity a bit jarring (not me). In general though, this was a crowdpleaser, with some 50 out of the 60 participants briskly raising their hands when asked if they liked it or not.
2. Edgar Kampers – Homemade elderflower wine (Amsterdam)
Ok, this was a bit mean – but the first time I tasted Edgar’s lovely elderflower wine, it had me fooled that it might be some kind of muscat (I was also served it blind). In this tasting, we didn’t manage to chill the wine enough, meaning that its extreme perfume and considerable residual sugar were more obvious. Justin impressed as ever, venturing after only a few seconds “I might be sticking my neck out here, but I don’t think this is just made from grapes – or if it is, I’m really curious to know what variety it is!”.
Perhaps predictably, most of the audience hated this wine – the nose was overpowering and the sugar also over the top. That said, 5 people had the guts to admit they liked it, and when challenged, one simply said “because it’s interesting”. This lead to a fascinating discussion about whether “interesting” means good or bad – or neither.
My conclusion was that we had a mixture of adventurers and comfort seekers in the room. For the adventurers, interesting is good.
3. Domaine Barmès Buecher – Riesling Hengst 2010 (Alsace Grand Cru, France)
Biodynamic (Demeter), 19.4g residual sugar
This turned out to be a clear favourite, perhaps because it was the only recognisable “classic” style in the line up. I showed Barmès Buecher’s wonderful Hengst to see whether the considerable residual sugar would bother anyone – and it didn’t. This wine had such terrific balance and poise that virtually the whole audience loved it.
Richard van Oorschot gave me some fascinating insight when he said “I was initially bothered by the nose – rubber tyres, smokiness. I didn’t like it, but then I tasted the wine, realised it was Riesling and that made me go back to the nose with a different attitude”. So Richard actually created his own context for the wine, and was able to revise his opinion based on recognition of the style and the grape.
This demonstrates both how useful, and how pernicious context can be. We are absolutely beholden to our experience and preconception when we taste, like it or not.
4. Barraco – Grillo 2013 (West Sicily, Italy)
Well, I had to show at least one proper “orange wine“, and this was it. Antonino Barraco’s Grillo is like nothing else from Western Sicily, and has invited controversy before. I showed this wine to demonstrate that a skin contact wine (this only has a few days, but there are noticeable tannins) can be fresh, lively and clean. I was delighted when Julia and Justin both gave it a thumbs up. Justin was initially bothered by the slightly funky nose, but the palate won him over with its freshness and balance.
For me, this wine has plenty to say about Grillo, with high acidity and wonderful nutty quality on the finish – but also, it celebrates a very traditional, low intervention style of winemaking, and is utterly delicious. Just over the half the audience liked the wine, with the rest split between actively disliking or just not sure.
5. Azienda Agricola Cornelissen – Munjabel Classico 2013 (Etna, Sicily)
Nerello Mascalese, organic, no added SO2
Frank Cornelissen’s wines can be divine, or sometimes hard to love. This was in the latter category. Knowing its identity, I could clearly taste Nerello’s wild, assertive fruit and enjoyed the crunchy tannins on the finish, but Magnus Reuterdahl nailed it when he said “The nose smells of old lady’s soap”. There was indeed a soapy character, and a pungent aroma that distracted attention away from the palate.
Nevertheless, there were still people in the audience who found something to like in this wine – the complex array of flavours, distinctive fruit, the structure that suggested ageing potential. No-one seemed to notice or be bothered by the alcohol – which was 15%. I should stress that there was no variation between bottles.
6. Mythopia – Pi-No 2012 (Valais, Switzerland)
Pinot Noir, organic, no added SO2
Made by panellist Hans-Peter Schmidt (something kept secret from the other panellists and the audience), for me this was quite distinctively a Swiss pinot, with good savoury fruit and elegant structure. Audience reaction was mixed, with some finding it the “least interesting” wine in the list. Perhaps it was inevitable, with so many unusual and conflicting styles.
Some were bothered by Brettanomyces in this wine, which though at a low level, was detectable. Jonathan Reeve found the nose too “farty”. That said, a majority (40 out of 60?) of the audience said they liked this wine – without knowing that the winemaker was present (which would of course add considerable context).
We returned often to the tricky issue of “interesting” versus “good”, and it became clear that the audience was quite split between those who wanted to remain within their comfort zone, and those who were happy to be challenged come what may.
One participant (whose name I will add when I can track down her details) remarked that she would rather taste unusual and “interesting” wines, even if she found them dislikeable, than be faced with a row of “conventional, boring” wines. Clearly she, like me, is in the adventurer bracket.
The panellists all had their own interesting takes on context. Hans-Peter Schmidt felt that a blind tasting such as this was creating its own context – which for him was inescapeable. His choice of wine was also governed by this – he brought his “most conventional” wine, in terms of flavour profile, as something that was almost out of context for Mythopia.
Julia Sevenich returned often to the theme that understanding the winemaker, their region, philosophy and background are key contexts that shouldn’t be forgotten when tasting a wine. I agree, but how often do people drink with the benefit of this information?
Justin Howard-Sneyd meanwhile reminded us of the context that the customer creates, drawing on his long experience as consultant to Laithwaites/AKA Direct Wines, in the UK.
Those who know me made the point that I had created a context for this tasting, as they knew (or at least strongly suspected) they were going to be served “natural wines” (whatever that means). Just another example of how unavoidable context is – but I did indeed select wines that I personally found interesting and/or enjoyable.
I learnt a lot from listening to the audience’s reactions to the different wines. Many, if not all were tasting these wines for the first time. It was heartening to see that some less obvious styles (particularly Barraco’s Grillo) got a good reaction and were genuinely enjoyed. Would that have been the same in a different context?
This tasting was generously sponsored by Gut Oggau and Frank Cornelissen. Many thanks to the other producers for submitting their wines, and to all the panellists and participants. This was an incredibly lively and invigorating session. I had a blast!