Samui Wining & Dining
Critical Criteria

When assessing wine, it’s well worth having a strategy.

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One of the great perks of writing a wine column is that I’m regularly invited to wine tastings and wine dinners. Often hosted by some of Samui’s finest resorts. It’s a privilege to attend such events, so I feel duty-bound to truly pay attention to, and assess to the best of my ability, the various wines being showcased. So I like to remind myself what I’m looking for in the wines I’m about to sample. My aim is to establish certain aspects of its make-up. Aspects, each of which contributes to the degree of delight, enjoyment, or even indifference the wine will convey. Only then can I justifiably evaluate it. To do this more effectively, I have developed two four-step strategies, one for wine tastings and for wine dinners. At a wine tasting, it’s not only about taste. I scrutinize the wine in the glass to determine four broad criteria:

      1) Its colour. Is it vibrant? Is it compellingly golden, or has it a gorgeous purple hue? Or is it an uninspiring yellow, or a lackluster red? Is it merely unremarkable? At this primary ‘tasting’ stage, we are already putting all our senses on high alert, via the single initial sense of sight.

       2) Its smell. Does the wine’s aroma (or bouquet) suggest a healthy wine? Is it fault free? Does it immediately suggest a grape variety? Or certain aromatic fruits? Is it an inviting, delicious, worthy-of-further-investigation aroma, or is it simply OK? As one’s wine knowledge matures, you realize the full importance of this stage, in judging a wine’s character. Once you have the knack of inhaling hard, you should already have discovered a symphony of notes, melodious or discordant. And an abundance of clues as to the wine’s provenance, and worth, from which you may derive pleasure or pain, or dismiss with a mere shrug of the shoulders.

       3) Its taste. As the wine encounters the taste receptors in the mouth, what is the immediate sensation? Is it richness? Is it tartness? Is it dry or sweet? Or is it off-dry? Is the wine suggestive of a grape? Is it typical of a country or region of production perhaps? Does it live up to the (promising) bouquet? And, most importantly to me, are the elements of the wine – acids, sugars, tannins, alcohol, wood, spice and fruit notes – all nicely balanced?

       4) Its finish. Is there anything left after you have swallowed it? Is the wine’s character lingering? Or is it a let down? (Often the case, I’m sorry to say.) Or is it memorable? Is it just pleasant? Is it harsh? Is it a flash-in-the-pan? What is the mental residue from the wine? The thought of a further glass? Or a ho-hum feeling of nothing special?

       From this cosy and easy to remember sensory quartet, I feel comfortable appraising wines. I note points out of 20 (but only after taking into consideration the wine’s price as well) to remember how one wine compares to another. However, I try not to be too concerned with points, or price. Sometimes, and hopefully without sounding too airy-fairy, it’s the intrinsic nature, or soul, of the liquid in the glass that counts. As if being shot by an arrow from a vinous cupid, one is occasionally inexplicably drawn to a particular wine!

       When attending wine dinners, there is the luxury of more time, and less wine to assess. And the added enhancing factor of food accompaniment. So at these events I adopt another, analytically deeper, four-step criterion, to help me get under the (grape) skin of a worthy wine:

       1) Does the wine have character? Or is it superficial? That is to say, does it have, like an individual person, depth and fascination? Or is it just a surface charmer? Are layers of texture and flavour discernible? Character implies complexity and personality. This kind of inspiring wine may be very expensive, but that’s by no means a certainty. I’ve encountered some ‘Ernest Hemingway’ wines, from the New World, priced very competitively.

       2) What is the nature of its fruit? Is it typical? Does it have an element of individuality? This has to do with how a wine compares to similar varieties. And how it might express its vineyard, region, or, most likely these days, a particular winemaker’s style. In a wine of true individuality, a certain singularity of aroma and taste is detectable. Perhaps even quirkiness. This kind of uniqueness is, in my humble opinion, highly desirable.

       3) Is the wine elegant? Has it complexities above the norm which will age well and develop more character and fascination over time? Certain aspects, like tannin, sugar, acidity and alcohol levels, will give good clues as to how well a wine will age and develop. Unfortunately, natural corks can play a crucial role in this process, and it’s so often a lottery as to whether the end result will be good or bad. For this reason (amongst others), I prefer screw-caps. Alcohol content is also vital, higher levels are needed to successfully age a full-bodied red wine. Any drinkable young 10% alcohol red wine, for example, would not be expected to age for more than a couple of years (although many 9% alcohol sweet white wines can be kept for decades).

       4) What food might it best accompany? Most wine lovers instinctively recognize those special wine-and-food matches that make the whole add up to more than the sum of the two. When attending sumptuous wine dinners, with menus composed by skillful chefs, there are occasionally classic pairings of which culinary dreams are made of. Chef Aziz’s rich ‘Foie Gras’ with a biodynamic sweet white wine was an unexpected triumph at Rocky’s last year. To truly get to know a wine, rather like if it were human, you should ideally meet it when accompanied by its chosen partner.

       Finally, I would like to thank all the stylish establishments, and prestigious wine importers, who continue to invite me to their local wine functions. It’s always a pleasure to taste new wines. And an even greater pleasure, to mix with the island’s like-minded wine enthusiasts

 

Peter James

Wine Guru


 


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