Tasting – our popular wine appreciation pastime

By Ian Hickinbotham

October 22nd, 2010


'Tasting' is a word that is entirely inadequate for defining our popular wine appreciation past-time. Officially, the activity is 'organoleptic examination'. That said, other than academics, we tend to choose the single word.

Tasting is probably the most difficult social pursuit, an assertion that does not seem to be generally appreciated. Compare appreciation of art: we look with our eyes, talk about the work and listen to other peoples' opinions. If we enjoy music, we look, we listen, we talk to others about opinions and read critiques. When tasting wine, we look, smell, taste, talk, listen to other opinions and read wine writers' reviews.

An aspect that is never considered is that we do not all have the same tasting attributes. Thus, some people find the tannin in dry red wines quite repulsive; others do not enjoy 'sour' wines (wines of high natural acidity).

Further, we vary in perception degree: thus, it has been established that most people can just taste four grams per litre of sugar dissolved in water. In other words, our threshold is four grams per litre, but I observed a woman taste one gram per litre and importantly (or significantly) she repeated the test five times. That exercise rather nullified the popular push for winemakers to print sugar content on labels so potential customers have some idea of a wine’s sweetness before committing to purchases.

That leads to the point, it is not enough (and 'significant' is the correct word) to get a test correct just once. The old bar-room bet – you cannot tell the difference between beer and stout when blind-folded – is not a legitimate test. You could be right half the time by just guessing, meaning, without tasting at all. It should be attempted at least five times and the correct glass selected at least four of those attempts.

Ability at wine tasting is not a God-given gift! Just like reading and writing, we can be taught, but ability to concentrate is paramount. And given that wine contains alcohol, that ability is also tested.

Further, judges at capital city shows are required to taste about a hundred wines a day and I have actually seen their swollen tongues. In other words, the sense of feel is also involved.

The most in-depth and original studies of 'tasting' have been done at the University of California. Perhaps because of the 13 years of the Prohibition, those academics approached 'tasting' without entrenched and romantic beliefs and irreverence (according to some Europeans). Thus, they demonstrated that you cannot tell the difference between an apple and an onion if you are blind-folded and have a peg on your nose!

Also, we 'taste what we expect to taste'. When we ran our Toorak restaurant, I remember the bottle-o’ laughing about the empty bottles of Australian Corio whisky he collected around the suburb. It was the days when decanters were in vogue as whisky containers and he made the assumption that hosts poured ‘Scotch’ for guests from such a container.


Ian Hickinbotham, one of the most innovative and influential oenologists in Australia over his 50 year career, is the author of Australian Plonky (see related review below).

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