Champagne Diary part 1: Brut versus Zero Dosage. Visits to Laurent-Perrier, Ayala, and Philipponnat

“A zero dosage Champagne is like a woman without makeup,” they are fond of saying at Champagne houses that have chosen not to produce this style. “You need a little sugar to bring out full flavor variety.” You could not say that the trend to zero dosage is sweeping through Champagne, as nonvintage Brut remains the vast majority of production at all houses, but there is definitely a trend to reduce dosage in Brut and (sometimes) to go to the extreme of using no dosage. The big question is what does this do to the style: is zero dosage simply the same wine but without the touch of sweetness, or is it something different?

Zero dosage (or Brut Nature) or Extra Brut or Brut is not entirely reliable as a description any more. A general reduction in dosage in Champagne means that some houses are now making a Brut with dosage below 6 g, so it could in fact be labeled Extra Brut (the regulation is simply that Brut must be less than12 g, and extra Brut must be less than 6 g), but they usually stick to the Brut description out of concern that people might think there had been a change in style. “We don’t use Extra Brut,” says Bruno Paillard, “because the category has been ruined by poor wines coming from producers who want to say ‘my wines are purer than pure’.” Zero dosage is a direct statement, however, but the style isn’t as different from the Brut (or Extra Brut) as the name might indicate, because the usual practice is to give the zero dosage longer (as much as an extra year) on the lees: the extra time brings a richness that compensates for the lower dosage. Or put the other way round, a zero dosage champagne does not allow sugar to influence the taste: it’s a wine in which the quality of the fruits is directly exposed.

“The trend for zero dosage is nothing new to us,” says Ann-Laure Domenichini at Laurent-Perrier. “Veuve Laurent Perrier created the first non dosage champagne – Grand Vin Sans Sucre – around 1881, at the request of British customers. It was withdrawn around the first world war as it wasn’t to the taste of the French. Bernard de Nonancourt reintroduced it in 1988 when nouvelle cuisine started the trend for sauces without cream. He called it the naked Champagne.” Today the Ultra Brut comes from an equal blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay chosen for high ripeness and low acidity; in fact, it’s not made in years that aren’t ripe enough (such as 1996). Indeed, I am not sure I would peg this as zero dosage in a blind tasting, because the fruits are so ripe. “This is not the nonvintage with no dosage, but is its own wine,” Ann-Laure emphasizes. The style shows great purity of fruits, poised between Blanc de Blancs and Blanc de Noirs in style, with more precision than the Brut. The Brut is quite deceptive because dosage feels extremely moderate although in fact it is quite high at 11 g now that it has 50% Chardonnay (it used to be 12 g when Chardonnay was 45%). These are two different wines, both in the light, elegant Laurent-Perrier style, but personally I’m inclined to regard the Ultra Brut as a step up from the Brut in refinement.

Ayala is another house that has a history of lower dosage Champagnes. In 1865 it was only 21 g, about a third of the standard for the time. Old posters for Ayala from the early twentieth century emphasize its dry character. Since Bollinger bought Ayala in 2005, the brand has been repositioned – or perhaps you might say has returned to its roots of the early twentieth century – by focusing on a Chardonnay-driven, crisp, pure style. The flagship Brut Majeur (a blend of 40% Chardonnay, 40% Pinot Noir, 20% Pinot Meunier), which accounts for about 80% of production, has a crisp, elegant style, emphasized by low dosage (7 g). The Brut Nature is exactly the same blend but has zero dosage; the only difference with Brut Majeur is that the lack of dosage is compensated by an additional year on the lees before disgorgement. So when I tasted the two side by side at Ayala, the current Brut Nature had a base wine from 2009, whereas the Brut Majeur had a base wine from 2010. The house style is recognizable in both wines, fresh and elegant, with a similar balance and without an enormous difference in perceptible sweetness; the difference for me is more that I find the Brut Nature to show more precision and purity of fruits. Another bottle of Brut Nature, disgorged somewhat earlier with base wine 2008, provided a fascinating contrast: extra time in the bottle has brought some development to a broader, less overtly mineral character: so zero dosage can evolve. Another demonstration of this capacity was the prestige Perle d’Ayala Brut Nature from 2002, which added savory brioche to the usual salinity, but, it has to be admitted, was not as complex as the Perle d’Ayala Brut of 2005.

Direct pairwise comparisons of Brut with Zero Dosage show that much more than sweetness is involved. The closest exact parallel was at Philipponnat, where the Royale Réserve Brut and Non Dosé both had base vintage 2010, and are exactly the same blend. The only difference was that Brut has 8 g/l dosage and was disgorged a bit earlier (December 2013) compared with the Non Dosé, which was disgorged later (April 2014). The non dosé has a more citric impression to nose than the Brut. It’s certainly drier, but more to the point, shows more minerality with suggestions of salinity at the end. But the Brut feels more like a full year older, with more sense of flavors broadening out with development. This seems to support the idea that zero dosage Champagnes mature more slowly (some people argue that they don’t mature at all), because the normal development of Champagne depends on the reaction of sugar with nitrogenous components in the wine. A fair summary is that the non dosage is less generous, less broad, but more precise. The main point is that the difference is not just a matter of the sweetness level, but the whole flavor spectrum is shifted from stone to citrus.

Everywhere I was able to perform a direct comparison of Zero Dosage with Brut, I preferred the former, not because it was drier, but because the fruits were more precise and more elegant, but I would be more inclined to have zero dosage with a meal and Brut as an aperitif. It is a fascinating comparison because so much more than mere sweetness is involved: it offers a whole new insight into Champagne.

Alsace Diary part 1: Valentin Zusslin – Master of Subtlety from Riesling to Pinot Noir

Spending this week in Alsace, I am finalizing the producers to be included in my book, The Wines of Modem France: a Guide to 500 Leading Producers. While a producer should be judged on the range as a whole, I’m inclined to look at Riesling as the defining variety: top Rieslings should show minerality, piercing purity, freshness, and increasing breadth of flavor with age. I look for Pinot Gris to balance expression of stone fruits with more savory notes including a characteristic note of mushrooms (yes, I know that’s considered pejorative in some quarters, but it’s part of the character when subtle). Gewurztraminer is not my favorite variety, I find it simply too perfumed, but when the perfume is delicately balanced with lychees I can appreciate its qualities. I usually find Muscat a bit too obvious, and have lower expectations of Pinot Blanc (and Auxerrois), Chasselas, and Sylvaner, but I’m on the lookout for unusually fine examples that I could recommend. I hesitate to include Pinot Noir as a criterion in a region whose reputation is established for white wine, but full marks go to producers who have taken advantage of global warming to make fine Pinot Noir in Alsace.

Long vertical tastings of Pinot Noir and Riesling with Jean-Paul Zusslin at Domaine Valentin Zusslin fly into the top ten list for both varieties. We tasted Pinot Noir from the Grand Cru Bollenberg (formally the wine does not have Grand Cru status because Pinot Noir isn’t admitted as an eligible variety at Grand Cru level), but the clay-calcareous soils here are suitable for red varieties. I hadn’t encountered these Pinots previously, but they seem to me to capture the essence of Alsace in the context of red wine. They are destemmed, vinified in wooden cuves with pigeage to begin with, switching to pump-over half way through fermentation, and matured much along the lines of top flight Burgundy, in barriques with 50% new oak. Color is deep, fruits are round, the palate is exceptionally smooth, silky tannins support the fruits, the overall impression is quite soft, and some wood spices show when the wines are young. I was puzzling over how I would relate them to Burgundy, and I think the main difference is in the aromatic spectrum: if it isn’t too fanciful, they have a more aromatic impression that seems to relate to the general character of Alsace in growing aromatic white varieties. A barrel sample of 2013 shows as very ripe, 2012 is a touch livelier in its acidity, 2011 conveys a sense of a more earthy structure, 2010 has closed up a bit and is more upright (the counterpart of the often crisp character of the white wines in this vintage), 2009 (my favorite) shows the first signs of evolution with an elegant nutty palate that is reminiscent of the Côte de Beaune, and the 2008 has lightened up and is moving in a savory direction. These are serious wines by any measure, and anyone who is serious about Pinot Noir should try them.

Our Riesling tasting started by comparing three Grand Crus from 2012, which seemed to increase in their savory impression as we went through the line. Bollenberg is precise without being tight, a very pure expression of Riesling. Clos Liebenberg brings more intensity and adds herbal elements to complement the citrus and stone fruits of the palate. Pfingstberg isn’t exactly drier than the other two but is more savory, showing herbal notes including tarragon before the citric purity of Riesling returns. Then we went back in time with Pfingstberg. In the 2010 vintage the savory notes of 2012 are joined by the first notes of petrol. (The first bottle we tried was very slightly corked, and the petrol was quite evident, perhaps because the fruits were a fraction suppressed. A second bottle brought the fruits out more clearly, and the petrol was less evident.) There’s a tense, savory edge to the palate, with an impression of salinity at the end. Back to 2008 where petrol is just beginning to replace savory elements as the first impression, and the palate follows with a classic blend of citrus and stone fruits. The defining word about age came from the 2001, a lovely golden color with some honey, tertiary aromas, and touch of petrol. The flavor spectrum here is moving in the direction of late harvest, but the wine is bone dry: that’s a wonderful combination that I’ve only really experienced in Alsace. Then with 2000 we had a Vendange Tardive, as that was the only Riesling made from Pfingstberg in this vintage. This is a very subtle wine for late harvest, with the sweetness of the apricot fruits cut by tertiary aromas and herbal impressions. In fact, if you want one word to sum up the style of this house, it would be subtlety.

The Black Wine of Cahors Turns Into Modern Malbec (Sometimes)

On a recent visit to Cahors, I gained an entirely new view of the effects of terroir on Malbec at two producers. At Cosse Maisonneuve, wines coming from the bottom, middle, and top of the slope of vineyards surrounding the winery showed a transition from fruit-driven at the base to fine and elegant at the top. At Clos Triguedina, Jean-Luc Baldès gave me a box of his Trilogie wines from the 2011 vintage to take home and taste at leisure. I have been waiting for the weather to cool down to provide appropriate tasting conditions for these strong red wines, and August Bank Holiday Monday in London seems the perfect occasion: cold and rainy. (Is this global warming? What happened to summer?)

To best demonstrate terroir, the Trilogie wines are 100% Malbec. Malbec is not a grape that occasions a lot of discussion of terroir. The basis for the old “black wine” of Cahors, it reached its peak in France in the fourteenth century, when Cahors amounted to as much as half of all exports from the port of Bordeaux. One of the dominant grapes of Bordeaux in the nineteenth century, it was replaced with Merlot after the phylloxera epidemic, when it also essentially disappeared from Cahors.

Malbec was revived in Cahors in the late 1940s; when the AOC was created in 1971, regulations required a minimum of 70% Malbec. Most people’s view of Malbec today, of course, comes from its success in Argentina (which now accounts for almost three quarters of world plantings). Yet this has not been bad for Cahors. “The success of Argentina opened the door to export and to making another style of wine. The Malbec from Argentina is a different wine, different terroir, different climate – even here the terroir is not the same 10 km away – that’s what we try to show with Trilogie,” says Jean-Luc.

The terroir of Cahors consists of a plain around the horse shoe bends of the river, rising up a couple of hundred meters to the south across a series of terraces. Each terrace represents a different geological era. Trilogie includes wines from the second, third, and fourth terraces.CahorsCrossFrom the second terrace, closest to the river, Au Coin du Bois comes from near the town of Puy l’Eveque, and its evident ripe fruits give a distinctly modern impression. The black fruits are balanced by a delicious counterpoise of acidity and savory notes. I might not go so far as to draw a direct parallel with the New World, but, this is certainly the most approachable of the Trilogie, and would be a fine introduction to the modem style of Cahors for anyone familiar with Argentine Malbec.

The reputation of the third terrace, a little higher up, is that the wines are richer, but in the case of Les Galets, which comes from the area of Vire sur Lot, I was more struck by its structure. With less obvious fruit and more acidity, there’s a more restrained impression. This is the most backward wine of Trilogie; the fruits can’t quite get out from under the tannins yet. Here you can see the resemblance with the old Black Wine of Cahors, known not only for its dark color but for its impenetrable tannins.

Petits Cailles lives up to the reputation of the fourth terrace for producing the finest, most elegant wines. Black fruits are supported by fine-grained tannins and good acidity, with just a touch of tobacco at the end. This shows most clearly the origin of Malbec in Bordeaux, and there’s a resemblance to the wines of the Médoc.

Trilogie expresses all the aspects of Malbec in one box, running the full gamut from a fruit-forward modern expression of Malbec, to a fine elegant Bordeaux-like impression, to the traditional tough youthful structure. It’s a fascinating combination of showing terroir with recapitulating the history of Malbec

The Obsession with New Oak

I have been wondering about the obsession with new oak. Now I don’t mean that in a pejorative way, and I don’t want to get into the details of how and why use of new oak has somewhat declined recent years. I’m not looking at this so much from the winemaker’s point of view as from the taster’s. Why is it that one of the first questions you ask when assessing (at least certain types) of wine is: how much new oak does it have? I have found myself questioning winemakers all over France about this during visits this year. I suppose it’s a sort of quick metric for getting a handle on style.

But the responses have left me feeling that the question is simplistic to the point at which answers can be misleading. The reason for my confusion is that all too often I have tasted a significant amount of oak on wines where in fact there is little use of new oak. My notes on one Chablis producer, who always used to use quite a lot of new oak but now uses very little, make comments to the effect that the oak may have been cut back but I can still see enough that I want to wait a few years for it to integrate. So the stats on usage of new oak (when available) don’t tell me very much.

Why do producers use new oak? This is not such a silly question as it sounds. Often enough it’s not because they want the taste of oak in the wine. “We use just enough new oak for each vineyard but I don’t want to taste it in the wine,” says Dominique Lafon in Meursault. “If a wine comes from new oak without the (sense of) oak, it’s a sign of purity of terroir,” says Mounir Saouma at Lucien Lemoine in Beaune. “(Oak flavor) is the taste I hate most.” There’s a widespread belief that barriques of new oak results in more exposure to oxygen than old oak: “It’s not the new wood that’s interesting for me, it’s the oxygenation,” says Olivier Bernstein, one of the new micro-negociants in Beaune. I am a bit uncertain about this: I thought oxygen exposure comes more via the bung than between the staves.

Anyway new oak can usually be sensed in the wine, but the impression of oak can also come from use of first or second year barrels. I wonder whether a formula such as

oak = (100% x new oak)+ (50% x one-year oak)+ (25% x two-year oak)

would give a better sense of the impression of a young wine? I’m afraid, however, that winemakers might not have the patience to provide the detailed stats needed to work this out. The moral is not exactly beware of new oak but beware of believing that the proportion of new oak will directly predict the style of the wine.

Burgundy Diary part 6: Sea Change in Meursault – Visits to Comtes Lafon, Guy Roulot, Michel Bouzereau, and Pierre Morey

My recent visit to Meursault showed a real change in style from the old view that Meursault is soft, nutty, and buttery (compared with Chassagne Montrachet that has a more citrus edge, and Puligny Montrachet which is taut, precise, and mineral). As Jean-Baptiste Bouzereau explains, “There has been an evolution in Meursault over 20 years, the wines are less rich and opulent than before. People are looking for a finer style.” This applies especially to the premier crus, as “the exposure naturally makes the village wines a little heavier.”

Dominique Lafon has made a similar transition since he took over in 1987 at Comtes Lafon. “During this period (the late eighties and early nineties), winemaking was close to what my father had been doing; he was a classical winemaker, so there was long aging, two years in barrel, with lots of new oak. The premier crus were 100% new oak. That’s what people wanted at the time: big round toasty white Burgundy became very successful, especially in the U.S.A. All the work we’ve done since then has been focused on a move towards elegance. We use just enough new oak for each vineyard but I don’t want to taste it in the wine. Now aging depends on the cru and some spend longer than others.” Is this change typical for Meursault, I asked. “I think it’s typical for the good producers,” is Dominique’s view.

What is the typicity of Meursault, I asked Anne-Marie Morey at Domaine Pierre Morey. “What sort of style should Meursault be: buttery or mineral? Meursault is more butter, Puligny is more mineral, but Meursault is the largest appellation and has terroirs that express both styles. We have the chance to have terroirs that express minerality,” she says. But when asked what changes she has made since taking over, she says, “I think we are not great revolutionaries in Burgundy.”

So you might ask: if there’s something of a consensus to move to a lighter, more mineral style, away from oak and vanillin, what’s the real typicity of Meursault, and what price terroir? If the distinction between Meursault and Puligny is less clear than it used to be, the distinctions between different terroirs within Meursault seem clearer now that the cover of oak and vanillin and butter has been removed. Take the lieu-dits at Domaine Guy Roulot, where Jean-Marc Roulot says, “The style was defined in the sixties by the decisions my father made to separate the cuvees. If you see the difference in the glass it’s justified, but if you don’t there is no point. Excess is the enemy of terroir – too much alcohol or too much oak… Our wine is lightly colored for three reasons: early harvest dates, not too much oak, and not too much battonage.”

“The first difference between the lieu-dits is the exposition, then elevation on the slope, finally the clay-limestone proportions. There’s about a week’s difference in harvest between Luchets and Narvaux.” Going through the 2013s with Jean-Marc, you move from the restraint of Meix Chavaux or Tillets to the rounder impression of Luchets, the gritty texture of Narvaux, and the more powerful Tessons. Each is distinct.

Comtes Lafon may have the widest range of premier crus in Meursault. I tasted all six from 2012 with Dominique Lafon. Bouchères is vibrant and lively, pointing towards citrus, then Poruzots is more stone fruits, Genevrières is rounder with a silky sheen, Charmes, always more backwards, has a smoky restraint, and Perrières is the most powerful. Once again, all are distinct, yet showing that commonality of Lafon’s elegant style.

I didn’t mention Coche Dury because I didn’t visit on this trip, but his wines are really the epitome of minerality in Meursault. Some feel that Arnaud Ente is a very close second in this style. No doubt there are still Meursaults in the old style, fat and oaky, but I have to say that I didn’t encounter any on this trip. Previously I’ve always been a devotée of Puligny for expressing terroir in that ineffably steely, mineral style, but Meursault is now running it a close second. Here are four examples to make the point.

Domaine Pierre Morey, Meursault Tessons, 2009: “This is a mineral terroir: the rock is about 30 cms down and the roots tend to run along the surface. This was a precocious vintage but the wine was slow to develop and elegant,” says Anne-Marie Morey. A slight sense of reduction brings a really savory impression to the citrus fruits – this one won’t succumb to premox. Fruits are elegant, citrusy, and emerging slowly. 89.

Domaine Guy Roulot, Meursault Charmes, 2012: Faintly smoky, mineral nose with citrus fruits. More subtle than Bouchères, more texture, less obvious gloss on surface, but deeper flavors with good extraction and depth. Very fine indeed. 92.

Domaine Comtes Lafon , Meursault Charmes, 2012: Restrained smoky nose. Most overt sense of structure among the premier crus, more granular on palate with strong impression that the structured citrus and stone fruits will last a long time. Tension and texture would be a fair summary. 93.

Domaine Michel Bouzereau, Meursault Genevrières, 2013: Similar to Charmes with citrus hiding some nuts, but more intensity. Lots of extract here, great concentration of fruits marked by citrus and apples, long finish. Deep and concentrated, this might be what Meursault would be like if it had a Grand Cru. 91.

Burgundy Diary part 5: A Peak of Natural Wine? – a Visit with Lucien Lemoine in Beaune

A Bach cantata was playing when I arrived for a meeting at Lucien Lemoine in Beaune. From outside the premises look like a run down property in a street just outside the town center, but workmen were coming and going, and the interior had been handsomely renovated, practical rather than flashy, but with a certain contemporary flair. LeMoineTW1Lucien Lemoine is the creation of Mounir and Rotem Saouma, who have been making wine here since 1998. It’s perhaps Burgundy’s top micro-negociant. The name reflects Mounir’s past experience working with monks. Mounir is a complicated person – “I listen to Dylan every day and read Nietzsche” – and conversation with him is thought-provoking, running in every direction like quicksilver. For every question I asked, the answer provoked more lines of investigation. He has a very definite view of winemaking. “I saw the need for a place where we would make wine in the old tradition – not the young tradition, which is the last 30-40 years. There was a window for a policy of ‘I don’t do.’ Many people were saying ‘I do so and so.’ The objective was to be as classic as possible.”

Before coming to Burgundy, Mounir was a winemaker in many places with many varieties, including Pinot Noir in hot climates. “It was hard to make good Pinot Noir so I came to the birthplace to see. I wanted people to see many examples of terroir and to see the difference.”

“Hundreds of years ago there was polyculture, there was a simple way of making wine: if it’s red, put it in a tank, push down the cap, press, wait, bottle. I tried experiments in 1997 in making wine very simply putting it in tank and leaving it. In 1998 we decided how to proceed. We are two people and we wanted to do 100 barrels of wine in premier and grand crus. We reached this size in 2006 and we are still at that size today. I have seen many negociants start small and become large. We do it all ourselves,” Mounir says, waving his hand to show a bandage where he hurt himself moving barrels yesterday.

There is just one village wine to show the potential of lower appellations. In the first year, there were 33 barrels representing 19 premier crus and 15 grand crus. In 2012, there were 112 barrels representing 75 premier and grand crus. 55% is red and 45% is white. “We could have done 10 barrels from each village, but we are making many more wines, in smaller amounts. Why do we have so many wines? Because I find the variety interesting.” 85% of the wines are the same every year. “Most of the growers from 1999 are still our growers today.”

The approach to winemaking is direct: let the wine have a slow and very long fermentation, and keep it on full lees for élevage. “We have very cold cellars so we never complete fermentation before ten months after harvest. Today (July 2014) we are at the end of the alcoholic fermentation and the malo is now starting for 2013.Mounir emphasizes. “We put all the lees in the barrel, we use the heavy lees, I hate ‘fine lies,’ it means nothing.” There is no filtering or fining., and minimal use of sulfur. “I have a very curious friendship with sulfur…If I were the big boss of Burgundy, I would forbid the use of sulfur at two times: now in the spring, and at bottling. When you sulfur young wines very early, you keep them virgin and very shy. So when the wine finally sees oxygen it will be destroyed. Great Burgundy must be approachable when it is young. The problem with the sulfur is that it kills the wine. You can put makeup on, but it’s dead… We do not do wines without sulfur, but we age wines for 18 months without sulfur; this is a religion but it’s a risk thing. And then the sulfur is 15 ppm where Burgundy is usually 50 ppm. The key is that with slow alcoholic fermentation, late malo, and no racking, my wines are bottled with three times the average carbon dioxide for Burgundy.” The back label of every bottle carries a warning that the wine needs to be decanted before drinking in order to shake off the gas.

I don’t know whether aficionados of natural wine would apply the term “natural” to Mounir’s wines, but when I raise the question he says “I don’t like titles, natural means others are not, I do wine like people did in the old days, before the new tradition , I don’t know how you call it , we don’t add and don’t take out.” One of the charms of Lucien Lemoine as a producer is that it’s hard to peg by conventional descriptions. Take the question of new oak.”The policy in oak is not to talk about oak…  I am happy you did not mention the presence (in the wines we tasted) of what I hate the most – oak flavor. New oak is expensive, it’s very complicated to use , but the moderate oxygen is very important for agibility of the wines. If a wine come from new oak without the (sense of) oak, it’s a sign of purity of terroir.”

“Unfortunately a lot of wines are more the man than the terroir, and they are boring. They do not change in the glass. And they are dead, they do not age. At the end of the day you open the bottle, you carafe it – any bottle we produce must be carafed – and it should last a week. The wine should change every day. It’s an obligation to respect the terroir and to keep the life in the wine. The definition of great wine in Burgundy for me rests on three points: the first is the place, the wine should smell and taste of the place; second is that it must have a life, it must change in the glass; third is that it must be able to age.

Do you control the vineyards? “We do the opposite of the others: I consider the best growers in the world are here, with a relationship between man and terroir. Who is going to stand in the vineyards and tell the growers what to do?” Basically, Mounir has confidence in his growers. “We try to find the person who makes the best interpretation in a cru. All arrangements with growers are on handshakes. We buy every year, we pay the price, we never say to a grower you must do something. In 2003 some growers said to me, you’ve made wine in hot countries, what do we do, but I wouldn’t intervene. I have no control, I learn from the growers, The growers have thirty vintages and then you have someone who arrives here and says, I’ll buy your grapes, and I’ll make wine. A lot of people ‘make’ Burgundy but you don’t have to ‘make’ Burgundy.”

For me, these wines are as natural as they need to be, with a wonderful purity of fruit allowing terroir to show itself at every level of the range. They are expensive and hard to find, but an eye opener as to the potential for minimal manipulation.

 

Why Does Wine Criticism Try to be Objective When Everything Else is Personal?

“The wine has a ruby appearance and the nose shows a mixture of earthy strawberries and red cherries. The palate has delicate nuances of tobacco and chocolate to offset the red fruits, and there is a lingering bitterness on the finish from presently unresolved tannins.” Sounds sort of objective, doesn’t it? You have to wonder whether really the purpose of a tasting note in the modern fashion to identify the various influences on nose and palate wouldn’t be served better by a direct chemical and physical analysis of color hue, aromatic components, acidity, alcohol, phenolic compounds, etc. At least that would be objective instead of pretending to be, although whether it would tell you whether you would like the wine is another matter.

But how can a tasting note tell you whether you would like a wine when everyone has a different palate? Sample the diners at a restaurant – everyone likes a different amount of salt on their food, why should they all like the same wine? (And what is it with restaurants that refuse to put salt on the table? Isn’t it the height of arrogance for a chef to decide that his level of salt and pepper is perfect for everyone? Is that different from the position of the wine critic? I have noticed a correlation, by the way: at restaurants with salt on the table, I rarely need to add salt to my food; at restaurants without it, I often have to ask for salt. I suspect this reflects an attitude problem with the chef – for some reason that is obscure to me, chefs who under-salt are adamant about it…)

The old style of wine criticism that went in for flowery metaphors wasn’t to my mind much more useful than today’s more technical analyses. “This wine is like a friendly Labrador bounding out to meet you,” is one that has stuck in my memory. I suppose technical criticism gives you more sense of what a wine might be like, although I am puzzled by the contrast between the trend to soi-disant objective analysis with the general focus in today’s environment on personalization. Look at Twitter and Facebook: it’s all about ME, and the more personal the anecdote, the better. Look at the decline in newspapers, where in desperate attempts to keep readership, half the articles are about the writer not about the news? Why is wine an exception, why do we look for comment that’s actually about the wine instead of about the taster’s totally subjective reactions and reminiscences?

It’s interesting that in a group of tasters, people can usually distinguish different wines but often describe them in different, sometimes opposing, ways. The difficulty of relating to someone else’s tasting notes may be less in differences of perception than in differences of description. I used to taste with someone who often distinguished wines as having black olives versus green olives. I could see what he meant, although my own descriptors were quite different – but I would have been puzzled if not quite misled to have tried to assess wines on the basis of his notes alone. I keep tasting notes on every wine I drink; they are useful to me, but I don’t fool myself that they would necessarily be useful to anyone else.