I think they call it the coal face of wine tasting because your teeth end up looking like a coal face: black and petrified.
Last month, I spent two weeks tasting nearly 1,000 wines from the 2016 vintage in the Rhône Valley. The majority of them are red, and many are still unfinished samples, ominously labelled brut de cuve – raw from tank. Tasting just a few of these unborn liquids quickly becomes an assault on the senses; tasting hundreds at a time is surely senseless.
But this is the reality of en primeur tasting – so-called because the objective is to assess the newest available vintage of a region, providing guidance for anyone who wishes to buy them in advance of bottling. It’s a bit like the vinous version of astrology: it only works if everyone involved is delusional in one way or another. (Although I hasten to add that my forthcoming coverage of the Rhône in 2016, due for publication from 22 November, will be a comprehensive look at what is an overall very good vintage!)
For years, such practice has become the norm in Bordeaux (see The Bordeaux primeurs circus), where there is now a perverse race to be first to pronounce on the newest wines. It’s like reviewing the new Star Wars movie from its trailer alone.
Okay, that looks pretty good. Which brings us conveniently to the arguments in favour of en primeur tasting. To wit: firstly, that a suitably experienced taster should be perfectly capable of discerning quality in unfinished wines. Secondly, that tasting intensively is the best way to get a comparative picture of a vintage, and of assessing variations within and between certain appellations and producers. And thirdly, that it helps put dentists' kids through college.
Thus a person with sufficient expertise and knowledge should indeed be able to review the new Star Wars film from its trailer alone. Let’s see: predictable good versus evil storyline, impressive space battles, rousing John Williams soundtrack, finishes perhaps too quickly, the force is strong with this one.
Whereas for wine: predictable varietal flavours, impressive oak integration, rousing acidity, finishes perhaps too quickly, the tannins are strong with this one.
Which brings me neatly on to tasting notes. One of the strangest skills required for en primeur tastings is being able to come up with useful and accurate notes while avoiding undue repetition. No mean feat when you’re tasting 100 wines which are more or less identical in terms of flavour profile.
Some reviewers like to sniff out an increasingly elaborate set of flavours. But I find that the more specifically a wine is described (stewed mung beans with freshly squeezed persimmon et al) the less enlightening it is for the reader, so I prefer to keep flavours fairly generic. Red fruit, black fruit, spice – it gives a general impression without being over-prescriptive.
That won’t do by itself, of course. It’s hardly useful to say that wines made from Grenache have red fruit flavours dozens of times over. So with those simple descriptions must come some critical appraisal. This is the trickiest bit: passing judgement on a few sips of liquid that equates to an entire year’s work for some poor soul. Will the reductive drainage aromas dissipate once bottled? Will the hard tannins ever soften?
And on top of that set of ostensibly objective quality criteria must come a personal opinion, which summarises your feelings succinctly and fairly. Not only that, but all those factors must then be distilled into a two-digit score – about which you can read more in Excoriating scoring.
Finally, and perhaps most inaccurately of all, comes the assessment of la fenêtre de buvabilité, as Andrew Jefford once called it. This really is astrology, divining the future development of bottled liquid, often decades into the future. Again, experience helps inform such predictions – but then again, the more older bottles that you try, the more confusing the results become.
Every wine lover knows the pain of trying a great vintage that is decrepit before its time (as witness so many poxed white burgundies), as well as the unexpected pleasure of theoretically past-it wines that are still fighting fit. Furthermore, personal preference becomes even more relevant with older wine, so trying to gauge whether you might like the same wine equally in its youth and its dotage, and all the various stages in between, is speculative at best.
And all these judgements must be made within two or three minutes before the next wine is poured.
Thankfully, in a good vintage such as 2016 in the Rhône, there are plentiful reminders of how simply delicious great wine can be, even in its most nascent form. With such wines, the purity, complexity and balance make appraisal easy, inspiring effusive words and enthusiastic numbers. It's like working at the coal face but striking gold.