Real-world road testing

22 February, 2008

Tastings aren't the only way to assess whether your customers will like a wine

Trade tastings are strange events. This part of the year is full of invites to go to far-flung places in the UK (well, London mostly) and taste your way through the portfolio of a supplier, a generic country-specific body, or even a loose coalition of independent importers. Having been to a variety of these events over the years, both as someone "in the business" and as a paying punter, I've experienced everything from jumble sale-like scrums in front of the Cloudy Bay stand, to rooms so empty you feel uncomfortable approaching one table to the exclusion of others.

If you've never been to one of these events, it's hard to convey the idea that these are actually work for most people there. Yes, I know that swanning around a room tasting wines, perhaps with lunch thrown in, doesn't sound tough, but it can be. I approached the last tasting I attended as a military operation, determined to remove any fun element from it, and systematically ploughed my way through about a hundred wines. The result? A shot palate, sore gums, and really none the wiser.

Halfway through the reds, someone started handing out finely-cut Parma ham, which was great for reviving the palate, but unfortunately gave me such a skewed perception of an ordinary (but perfectly serviceable) five quid Bonarda that we've only just managed to sell the last of it. The rep was right to laugh good-naturedly at my enthusiasm for this fat-flattered quaffer, and also right to take my order. Caveat emptor. Tastings are difficult situations in which to get an ­impression of a wine, and harder still if it's the 20th red of the day.

How, then, to work a tasting? Well, if you're lucky, you can just ring up your suppliers, ask them to send you a few bottles to try, then you can take them round to dinner with friends. This not only enables you to taste the wine, but also to show it to other potential customers, see what they think, see how it works with or without food, and how it stands up against the latest half-price deal at the supermarket (someone will always bring one). It is, if you like, a real-world road test.

Now, I hope this doesn't induce apoplexy in anyone, but I happen to think this is a good way to taste wine. Sure, it's slow, unscientific and impractical, but it does give you a real impression of what a wine is like.

I know how to taste wine along the WSET's rigorous criteria - I have an advanced certificate with a distinction attached to it - and I know how it's meant to go. But I personally find it all a bit off-putting, the whole approach of swilling it repeatedly round the gums, teeth, under the tongue, trying to squirt it out through one's tear ducts before honking a ­cracker-flecked gobful into the spittoon and walking around with ­medievally blackened teeth.

I know all the reasons for doing this, but I don't actually know anyone who drinks wine like this. I'll smell and taste it, run some air through it and sluice it over my gums to assess tannin and heat, but I'm not using it as a mouthwash.

Early start, early finish, and then a nice cold beer and some tapas afterwards to revive the palate. In fact, there's a thought - a sip of cold beer to clean the palate between each wine. As with all new ideas, someone has to be first...

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