"Gustatationary Substitution"

“Is a power far beyond the wildest notion

only one precise solution is the key

Gustatationary Substitution is for me”

I came across a unique example of substitutionary gustation recently, whereby tasting notes were declared defunct and replaced by a tennis pro-esque fist pump to indicate the quality of the wine. Presumably a single fist pump was preferred as there was a glass of wine in the other hand? As entertaining, and momentarily exciting, as I found the concept I was mortified at the increased likelihood of spilling the wine during such an energetic method of approval.

When I first joined the wine trade, it existed somewhere between mothballed and food stained pinstripe and the shiny, man-made fibres of the future. And I didn’t fit in. My personal preference, for impartial advice, came from the be-t-shirted hipsters and college drop outs of Oddbins, whose witty and irreverent descriptions filled the shelves of their teeming, untidy and exciting high street stores.

My first boss was a man who saw himself as a jewel in a dung heap, whose shine masked a deep insecurity that manifested itself in appalling and ungenerous snobbery. Being a callow youth, I was unable to see that he was afraid of me and my big nose - as he was already suffering from the presbyosmia, or loss of smelling ability, that begins in middle age. Despite this unheeded affliction he was trusted to buy pallet loads of wine - with a myriad of faults - for people whose taste buds had caught the Last Train to Clarksville. A more generous and magnanimous man would have asked my opinion, given me the fist pump of approval and then passed the opinion off as his own. Moral: don’t diss the young when it’s your duty to help them.

My next lash from the tongue of disapproval occurred during a vertical of Cos D’Estournel going back to before the Great War. After so many brilliant, but aged examples, of this venerable property my tannin jaded, but distinctly un- presbyotic palate was enervated by the exciting, fruit forward and recently bottled 1985. As I enthused about the wine in the glass – after being asked my opinion on this occasion – I was immediately admonished for preferring it to the superior 1986. Now, I had read my Clive Coates and Michael Schuster and I knew the received opinion about the 86 being the better wine – but what if I loved the wine in the glass and wanted to buy it? It certainly got my fist pumping. Moral: don’t diss a potential punter.

Where is this leading to you may ask? Well, there are two types of tasting note and taking into consideration inexperience and received opinion (together with a glimpse  of a label) neither can be replaced by a fist pump.

The first is an objective note, purely analytical, often devoid of emotion and listing the wines constituent parts, merits and demerits, quality and potential longevity. It is also used to provide context as to where the wine sits in relation to others in its region or commune and to frame it within its own vintages. This kind of note often comes with a shorthand, and often controversial, score.

The second is of the journalistic variety, often subjective and full of personal opinion and perspective. Although designed to promote and sell the wine, it contains a description of what the wine smells, or reminds the consumer of, great if its flowers,  fruits and holidays, not good if its sweaty saddles – but then again. This is a positive note, usually unconcerned with shortcomings and centered around the wines affinity with food.

To conclude this rather long post, I want to illustrate how easy it becomes to overlook the true purpose of wine in the pursuit of nerdyness.

Some years ago, during day two of the Master of Wine examinations, students were asked to identify two pairs of French wines in a new/old world flight of four. The traditional double blind format also required comments on region, commune, vintage, quality, capacity to mature and use of oak. Diligently working through my allotted three minutes per wine, I was struck by the clarity of the final wine of the flight, a 1er Cru Les Amoureuses, Chambolle Musigny 92 from Comte Georges de Vogue, so much so that I stopped scribbling and drank it.

Moral: Wine is a wonderful drink, best shared than consumed alone - as friendship is its engine and true purpose. Analyse it by all means, but remember to retain perspective and a sense of  humour, together with an ability to communicate your enjoyment and wonder through your tasting note – a fist pump is not enough.

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