Becoming an expert in anything takes a lot of work. But when that involves tasting a lot of wine, how hard can it be?
Words Joëlle Thomson.
Australian wine lover Dr Alex Russell devoted his PhD to whether novices can become wine experts. He says while a lot of people think experts are “full of it”, after investigating for the past seven years it turns out there is a knack to the sniffing and swilling. Throughout his PhD, Russell invited novices in to the laboratory to smell and taste a wide range of wines. Most people remained for an hour and did not learn much, but those who stayed for just 30 minutes longer began to show signs of improvement and, after four hours, were doing really well. “They weren’t experts by any means, but it didn’t take them years to get the hang of it, either,” Russell says.
Here are some of his tips for improving your wine knowledge:
Drink different types of wine
No expert became an expert by drinking only their favourite wine. Branch out, be willing to try new things. Try wine by the glass at bars and restaurants rather than buying a whole bottle. Try wines made from different grapes, regions and countries.
Taste wines side by side
Odour memory is quite robust but just like any other type of memory, it is prone to interference and forgetting. Instead of relying on your memory to compare the wine you’re drinking now to the one from last week, open a few different bottles at the same time so you can directly compare them.
Shut your eyes
The main skill of wine experts is consistently putting a name to an odour. Wines that smell like blackcurrant aren’t made from or with blackcurrant, and it can be difficult to identify a smell when you can’t visually associate it with the obvious source. In fact, wines contain chemicals that, when isolated, smell very much like blackcurrant. So get a friend to go through your pantry and pick out various herbs and fruits. Smell and taste them with your eyes closed and try to identify them. Learn from feedback. It’s hard but you’ll improve over time.
If in doubt add your own flavours and smells
Not sure what peach tastes like in a chardonnay? Add a little bit of syrup from a can of peaches to your next glass. Then you’ll get an idea of what the flavour tastes like in wine. Gradually reduce the amount you put in until you can find that flavour without any additive. There are hundreds of possible odours coming out of a glass of wine, including chocolate, green olive, eucalyptus and coffee.
Get your tongue around the wine and the words
You might be a food or fragrance expert but you’d still have to master wine and its associated lingo. Wine expertise is all about linking an odour or flavour with its recognised name. Experts share information using similar terms whereas novices generally can’t describe wines very well and don’t know many, if any, of the experts’ tasting terms.
You don’t need a super nose or mouth
Many studies show that there is no difference between the smelling sensitivity of novices or experts. Essentially, experts smell and taste the same things novices do, but they’re better at processing the information. Similarly, chess experts can look at the same board as novices but will determine which pieces are immediately relevant more quickly – it’s a processing advantage.
You can start with cheap wines, but they won’t make you an expert
Although price isn’t the best indicator of quality, it is often the case that more expensive wines better reflect where they come from. And learning about wine regions is part of being an expert.
You’ll need to read as well as taste
Wine experts aren’t just good at tasting wines: They also know a lot about how it’s made, where it’s made, and all the other things that you read in wine books.
Don’t give up if you make a mistake
A lot of people avoid wine tasting games because they are afraid to fail. But it’s okay to make mistakes. A famous French experiment in which white wine was artificially coloured red with odourless dye wrong-footed lots of experts. It highlighted the impact of our thoughts and expectations on what we taste in a wine. Even experts can get it wrong.
Provided you have a working nose and mouth, it’s within your reach to become a wine expert. You’ll start to see improvements after a few hours. To build that into expertise you’ll need time, money and dedication, but it’s not impossible. You may not want to become an expert but being able to describe a wine or understand a description of a wine is very handy for anyone vaguely interested in wine. Four hours is all it takes to start training your nose, mouth and mind to be in
sync and become a more attuned wine taster. Reading also helps and if you get it wrong, it’s not the end of the world.