Taste like a wine critic?

I was very excited to find that Lisa Perrotti-Brown MW had published a full, book-length, study entitled Taste like a Wine Critic. A Guide to Understanding Wine Quality (The Wine Advocate 2014).  The literature on tasting as an activity is quite limited, while there are any number of books about wine regions or reviews of individual or groups of wines.  Plus Lisa (as we will call her) is eminently qualified for this task. She is a Master of Wine (including winning the Madame Bollinger Medal for excellence in wine tasting) and is Editor-in-Chief of Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate.  Having read the book I am both impressed by it … and have a sense of disappointment.  Why is this?  There is a huge amount to commend here in terms of understanding wine production.  But really the book has the wrong title, setting up the false expectations which then are then not fulfilled.

Quality, negative and positive

Let’s start with the positive. What Lisa has done admirably is to introduce the subject of tasting and then proceed to the main subject of wine quality.  She deals with quality first negatively (various types of wine fault) and then positively (fruit health and ripeness, concentration, balance, complexity, length, other factors).  The former is an excellent and balanced treatment of familiar baddies.  Cork taint, brett, oxidation, reduction, volatile acidity and superficial faults.  For example, the treatment of brett and the two (usually) unpleasant chemicals it leaves behind, 4EP and 4EG, is exemplary. The science is clearly explained, as is how to deal with this issue in the winery. The effects on wines are outlined as are the exceptions where a small level of brett in some styles of wines can be seen as a contribution to quality.   

It was once I got on to the main chapters about positive attributes that I  began to have real problems.  The chapter headings are fine and unconventional. Under ‘fruit health and ripeness’, ‘concentration’ etc what we are actually given are the underlying reasons – in the vineyard and winery – which can contribute to desirable qualities in wines.  Thus, dealing with ripeness, the topics covered are the effects of diseased/pest affected grapes, the process of ripening on sugars, acids and tannins, the debate about yields and the development of aromatic compounds in juice and wine.  This is the pattern for all the chapters that follow – a statement about the implication for wine quality followed by a theoretical and general account of the technical factors which result in different outcomes in wine.  

Quality and wine production

So what is the problem?  Firstly the discussion is all very theoretical.  We never read the author’s reflections on how these processes affect the style and quality of, er, actual wines.  If you think about what you would like to see in a top quality Loire Cabernet Franc and in a Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon you will immediately understand that the treatment of ripeness, extraction, ageing and resultant wine styles are very different.  ‘Concentration’ and ‘balance’ would mean very different things for these two styles.  It is really frustrating to not have one of the world’s leading wine critic’s reflecting on the aromas, flavours and textures of leading wine styles. This is surely what you are expecting from the ‘taste like a wine critic’ of the title. Or to put this the other way around I doubt that wine critics spend many hours of the day thinking about ideal conditions for shipping and storing wine which is given 10 pages of text here under the heading of ‘supporting quality factors’. There is nothing wrong with the subject matter or its importance. It’s just that it is not what the reader has been led to expect.

A demanding read

And then there are some minor gripes. The book has been published by Wine Advocate itself and it feels that they lack the expertise of a book publisher. The visual appearance on the pages is tiring and, to be honest, ugly. The extensive glossary of wine terms, in itself very useful, is related to the text by printing every glossary word in red every time it occurs. This results in a sort of rash of what looks like highlighting but is in fact cross-referencing. It reaches its nadir with a phrase like ‘pre-fermentation cold soak’ (p. 79) with a cross reference to ‘fermentation’, not to the cold soak which is the point of the sentence. Then some of the quite long FAQs which break up the text (in the modern manner) just don’t answer the question that they ask, e.g., can you reduce the vegetal character in the winery (p. 69) or fruitiness (p. 81). Once again what we have is a theoretical account of factors which lead to certain outcomes in vineyard and winery.   Some of the diagrams just don’t capture the nuance and balance of the text. For example, the tannins diagram (p. 59) does not distinguish between the amount of tannins and the nature of tannins – a strange fault in a book on wine quality.  On the positive side the book is well-illustrated with the author’s own photographs.  

If this book had been called something like ‘Wine Quality – how wine production effects the wine in your glass’ then the reader would indeed get a rich feast provided by a very capable chef.  Once you have understand what the author is interested in, then it is highly suitable for advanced WSET diploma and MW students.  But it will only indirectly help you to taste like a wine critic.  

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