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Tasting Notes: Please Add Salt

It is nearly two weeks since I battled my way from Angers down to Le Landreau in order to visit Pierre Luneau-Papin and to taste the 2011s from cuve, plus a large selection of older vintages and cuvées, everything from very young Folle Blanche (perhaps better known as Gros Plant du Pays Nantais to some) to aging bottles of L d’Or. When I say ‘battled’ I’m not being too melodramatic; the snowfall of the night before had turned many smaller roads from convenient thoroughfares into treacherous, ice-bound skating rinks. Only the autoroute had seen any gritting or salting, and then only a single lane, making for slower progress than was ideal. Nevertheless after a couple of hours we arrived at Luneau-Papin’s residence. The sight of his vineyards, swaddled in a blanket of snow, was something quite special.

Tasting Notes: Please Add Salt

The scene reminded me of my trip to Finland a few years ago (although there were no vines there!) or indeed one or two days from recent winters in Scotland (no vines there either!), when the sky has that heavy, grey-white appearance which almost blends into the snow on the ground. It was a photographer’s paradise – it’s just a shame I’m not much of a photographer!

Anyway, the ‘salt’ referenced in the title of this post is not the salt that the French authorities were half-heartedly spreading on a small and select number of the roads, but rather than large pinch of salt required when reading tasting notes (and scores too, I suppose) and, specifically, using those tasting notes to determine whether or not the wine is to your taste, or of sufficient quality or value to merit a purchase. These thoughts came to me during an early-afternoon tasting and lunch with Pierre Luneau-Papin and his wife and son.

The wine in question was the 2003 L d’Or; for those not in the know L d’Or is his classic Sèvre et Maine sur lie cuvée, serious and bold, fine in its youth but better with a little bottle age and capable of very long aging – my favourite vintage tasted during this trip was the 1989, but I also tasted the remarkably fresh, still-going-strong 1976 from magnum, so this is certainly an ageworthy cuvée! The 2003 vintage wouldn’t be my first choice for just about any wine, from any appellation, in all honesty; the heat of the vintage comes through in a soft, baked, roasted character in many reds (recently tasted Burgundies tasted more like Châteauneuf du Pape) and the whites display low acidity and a tendency to flabbiness. There are always exceptions to the rule though and this 2003 struck me as – for the vintage – uncommonly interesting.

Sure, on the palate (so I’m talking about sensory assessment, not figures for titratable acidity) the acidity was way down, giving the wine a much softer feel than many (probably all?) other vintages of L d’Or, but there was some acidity there, so the wine didn’t fade into a soft, shapeless form in the mouth, and there were some grippy phenolic notes helping to give the wine some shape as well. And there were interesting flavours too, not archetypal for Muscadet admittedly, but rather interesting notes of fruit with a rather dried, desiccated, candied edge, atypical but enticing, and there were little notes of almond tuile coming in from behind as well. All very interesting, not really what most people want from Muscadet, but with prior knowledge of the wine’s style still a worthy wine, not one to be disregarded like so many 2003s. Then came lunch:

Tasting Notes: Please Add Salt

The langoustines came with a dip of crème fraîche seasoned with lemon, salt and pepper – together they were absolutely delicious. The scallops, meanwhile, bathed in a sauce of beurre blanc, the sauce for which was based on a Muscadet reduction – one bottle of Muscadet reduced down to a teaspoon of liquor before adding a little crème fraîche and butter. Also absolutely delicious. And a slug of the 2003 tasted with these foods would obviously do the trick, I thought.

The wine hit my palate; uh-oh – this was totally wrong!

Surprisingly, having been swayed by the character of the 2003 in a slightly more clinical ‘tasting’ setting, when putting the wine up against a little food it fell completely flat. Whereas other more classically styled vintages of Muscadet really came into their own here – the 2007 L d’Or worked particularly well, the acid really shining through – the lack of acidity from the 2003 thwarted its usefulness at table. What had been at least an interesting wine, the low level of acidity coping quite well when tasted alone, fell apart when challenged with a few langoustines and a little beurre blanc. In this situation there simply wasn’t the desired acidity.

OK, in retrospect this finding is not that surprising. But at the time I was taken with just how different the wine seemed when tasted without food, and then with food. All wines do this of course, but this seemed to be a completely different wine, chalk one minute and then cheese the next. Wines often show different sides of their characters in different situations, but this one changed its personality altogether.

All of which led me to thinking of the veracity of tasting notes, and their usefulness to consumers, when ‘tasting’ and ‘drinking’ are such different experiences. Tasting thirty-plus samples of Muscadet in the cellars on a freezing cold, snow-bound Sunday morning, or in a clinical setting at the Salon des Vins de Loire, or tasting one barrel sample after another at the Bordeaux primeurs, dashing from one appointment to the next, are all very different scenarios to how I will eventually drink the wine. I’ve always regarded wine as something to drink with a meal (and before and after it) but the principal purpose of wine is to highlight, accentuate and complement the meal (and vice versa – the food should bring out the better features of the wine). I suspect the same is true for most Winedoctor readers, who are probably just as food-interested as you are wine-interested. But I know some see wine differently – as a beverage of relaxation, with a bottle open in front of the fire or the TV, rather than something for the dining table. For me, a positive tasting note on the 2003 – from my clinical tasting – would be misleading, as it doesn’t work in the context I want it to – with food. But for the consumer sitting with an open bottle, the lower acid of the 2003 may well make it the best option.

Bearing this in mind, it seems that tasting notes from wine reviewers/critics have to be taken with a pinch of salt (or perhaps an even larger pinch of salt than the one you already use). Not only do they represent one palate’s opinion of a wine at one point in its evolution, but they may often be falsely negative/positive based on the context of the tasting and how that relates to your use of the wine. I wonder if the ideal method of wine reviewing might be a series of wine with food reviews (“Twenty Muscadets with Langoustines – Which Works Best?”) rather than reams of tasting notes and scores?

8 Responses to “Tasting Notes: Please Add Salt”

  1. Nice posting Chris.

    It’s interesting to note your comments on the differences between wine quality when the wine is tasted by itself and when it’s then paired with food. When I used to cook (and sometimes judge) the now-defunct Wine Magazine’s Sommelier Challenge, we used to split the marks allocated to wine quality between ‘pure’ tasting notes (ie the wine in isolation) and those for the wine’s quality and character when paired with the dish.

    They sometimes differed widely due to the phenomenon you note in your article.

    As a side note, it was also fascinating to discover, time and time again, that the wines we thought looked like the best matches for the dish on paper were seldom the ones that shone out once tasted alongside the food.

    I’m thinking of reviving the Sommelier Challenge (or a version of it) for my own website, http://www.natashahughes.com, because in real life, wine is seldom tasted in isolation.

  2. Hi Natasha

    Sorry to take so long to reply – your comment fell into a “needs approval” list. It sounds like you were way ahead of me on the interplay between wine and food when tasting.

  3. A terrific piece of writing, all wine geeks should read this and print off for future use!

  4. Thank you Bob, that feedback is much appreciated.

  5. Those are very interesting observations about the effect of food upon one’s impressions of a wine. I often wonder how far apparent bottle variation is due to different food pairings.

  6. Good question Jim. I suspect there is a lot of variation in factors *other* than the wine!

  7. Chris,

    Terrific commentary. You know how I feel about this subject given the number of posts on your website that I have submitted on this topic. Most of those which I wrote on other websites were almost universally ignored which, not only turned me off, but also said alot about how those participating on those sites view wine.

    Could not imagine having a burgundy, for example, as a stand alone drink. IMO at least it is the meal that brings out the true character of the wine.

    Gary

  8. Thanks Gary, I appreciate you taking the effort to make those comments. And Burgundy is perhaps the most food-needy style of all, so a good choice as an example of wine with food rather than as a ‘relaxation beverage’!