A mixed day of Italians at Decanter tasting
My mouth was numb as if my gums had been pumped full of novocaine.
I am not a seasoned taster; my responses to wine become increasingly impressionistic (if I’m being generous to myself) the more wines I taste and my written comments end up as inebriated squiggles.
I think I am also an absolutist. Or an either/orist. Either I would drink the wine or pour it down the sink. When I judge my last instinct is to imagine the putative consumer surveying the supermarket shelves, scratching his head and wondering whether that 4.99 Grigio plonk is palatable. Having implied that the sweet wine of human kindness does not flow through my veins one eventually has to calibrate one’s scores for much as I would love to play the role of dismal Doug, a one man Greek chorus of wailing disapproval, it screws up the system when a member of a small panel is operating in his private universe of certainty. In the end I was submissively scoring 15 for wines that made me shudder when I put them in my mouth.
Perhaps I was searching for the unattainable; to elicit and enjoy the nuances of terroir in a mass wine tasting. Italy has such wonderful diversity, a myriad of grape varieties and climatic subtleties. I was surprised at the ugliness of conformity and the superimposed technical knowhow that was a just a technical no-no. International, bland, choked by oak, sweet, confected, alcoholic were the words that repeated like a virulent pickled onion on my tasting sheets.
And what a gallimaufry of gruesomeness. Pretentiously-priced Montepulciano d’Abruzzo that looked like black treacle and tasted like an explosion in an oak factory, Sangiovese blends mugged by Merlot with overwhelming sweetness and overdosed Prosecco rose which taste like pop.
Without wishing to generalise we discerned the winemakers’ obsession with overegging the vinicultural omelette. Curious because one associates Italian cooking with simple ingredients beautifully executed that so many of its wines are cooked to death. Late harvested grapes (check out the hang time), extractive fermentation and new oak with high toast are the recipe for palate fatigue. Hold up the glass to see unappealing hues, tainted blue-ish reds; smell jam, plaster, acetone and vanilla (burnt or milk chocolate), taste bitterness from the stalky fruit, astringent oak tannins and a coarse acidity that sits uneasily in the mix.
There were a few diamonds in the rough. A flight of Pinot Grigios from Lombardy were pleasantly citric and mercifully free of sulphur. The Chianti Classicos spanned the range of styles; some conveyed cool red fruits and fresh acidity. We awarded gold to one example that was verging on pink in colour. Its simple vibrancy communicated the crunchy vitality of the Sangiovese unencumbered by oak and manipulative techniques. A further Chianti aroused a tad more controversy – this was a rare, natural wine with a reductive nose, pronounced aromas of leather, fur, undergrowth and barnyard. There was some nice red cherry fruit, and, as the wine opened, the reduction dissipated. Despite Andrea and I happily hanging a silver around its neck the über-judges returned the wine to us with instructions to think again and preferably downgrade it to the chamber of horrors. Philosophically, I would argue that its naturalness is not faulty – if it were the wine would destroy itself toot sweet. I would submit moreover that the sheer contrast of the wine (bloody, earthy and raw as it was) makes it stand out in bland company. Is my earthiness and gaminess someone else’s dirtiness? By that token I would bounce about fifty of the wines for spectacularly clumsy winemaking. If a wine is not drinkable then what the hell is it for? The smelly Chianti was a statement of old-fashioned intent. Aged in botti (one assumes) with secondary aromatics, yeasty flavours – it wasn’t compromising and was a veritable ray of rude of humour in some grim-lipped company.
Day two to follow - quick, dental nurse, the screens!