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Drinking Out Loud

Blind Spots

Every car has one. So does every palate
Photo by: Jon Moe
Matt Kramer confesses his wine-tasting blind spots.

Matt Kramer
Posted: November 15, 2016

Let me be blunt: There's no such thing as a universal palate. I have never met a taster who, in my opinion anyway, can taste every wine from everywhere with equal insight.

Mind you, I'm not talking here about mere technical tasting. All good tasters are adept at what might be called the basic surgery of tasting: identifying and assessing such things as tannins, acidity, fruit intensity and so forth. That's no big deal once you've had even just a bit of experience—and if you care to take an analytical approach. (Not everyone does, you know. Many tasters prefer an "I like it/I don't like it" approach and call it good.)

What's much more important, and substantive, is insightful tasting. This is when you or I are tasting a wine and have both a real understanding of what a certain type of wine could and should be as well as—and this is vital, I believe—a certain sympathy, an emotional affinity.

How many times have you met somebody who clearly knows her or his way around fine wine yet, upon tasting something that you know to be special just doesn't get it? That the problem is not just a matter of mere taste preference but rather a real blind spot?

I've seen this many times, even among wine lovers with superb and experienced palates. What's more, and here's the kicker, I've also seen it in myself. I sometimes have a distinct sense that I've somehow missed it. That the wine in hand truly is special yet I can't see it. In short, a blind spot.

Let me tell you about a recent conversation I had with a European importer who specializes in so-called “natural” wines. I've written before about natural wines, about how conflicted I am about their admirable ambition to achieve a particular sort of wine purity while simultaneously dismayed by a too-frequent presence of technical flaws such as microbial instability, excessive oxidation, or the odor of invasive brett (a type of yeast infection).

These flaws, as I see them, appear in varying degrees ranging from the barely detectable to the flagrantly obvious.

Anyway, this importer was someone deserving of respect. I, for my part, sincerely wish to understand what it is about natural wines that is so attractive to so many passionate wine lovers.

So I was frank. I expressed my reservations and asked where I was going wrong—if indeed I was going wrong. I suggested that I might have a blind spot.

The importer was generous. "I don't think it's a blind spot, so much as it's a matter of a different way of looking at wine," he said. "Myself, I once sold only wines that you or I would have considered well-made. Clean. Even impeccable. But I slowly came to the conclusion that they were boring. These wines lacked soul.

"It was then that I slowly saw the beauty of natural wines," he added, "That's the thing. What you see as flaws—that bit of brett, maybe a little cloudiness or a touch of oxidation—I and others have come to see as part of the beauty of wine, even the reality of wine. You see, it's the very imperfection that we see as a form of beauty, rather than a flaw or detriment."

This was, for me, as compelling an explanation as any I've heard on the subject of natural wine. It didn't change my mind so much as opened it. I still can't get past what I consider obvious flaws. But I can now better understand how, and why, others might find an attraction in the less-than-perfect, like lovers not minding—or actually finding attractive, even arousing—a whiff of body odor.

We all have blind spots. I frequently see one such blind spot among fanciers of Cabernet Sauvignon who just can't wrap their heads, and thus their palates, around the particular beauty of Pinot Noir. Devoted to Pinot Noir as I am, I can't see how they could possibly miss it. But they do.

Indeed, I increasingly meet fanciers of California Pinot Noir, especially those wines with lush, intense fruit, actively rejecting red Burgundies as being too thin, too light and too acidic. Talk about a blind spot.

Myself, I struggle with Sherry as I simply don't care for oxidized wines. Yet obviously oxidation is part of the very particularity and beauty of Sherry. It's one of my biggest blind spots, I know.

And yours? Surely someone has handed you, say, a great Barolo—which is certainly a particular, even peculiar, red wine of formidable tannins and acidity, as well as unusual flavors—and you found yourself saying, "I'm sure it's great wine. But I don't get it."

Or maybe it's the tart, grapefruit-y zing of certain New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs which many tasters love (count me in) but others find unpleasantly screechy. Another possibility might be—brace yourself—wines with high alcohol. Some tasters, no matter how hard they try, cannot get past that one element. Yet others practically swoon with pleasure and admiration, accepting or even embracing that same high alcohol level as part of the very beauty of the wine, or at least not a detraction.

It's too easy to write off all these examples as merely matters of taste. Each to his or her own and all that. But I think that misses what's really happening.

We do have blind spots that make us miss real beauty. I'll bet that you have some. Care to share?

John Noble
Columbus, OH —  November 15, 2016 12:40pm ET
I keep trying, but I have a blind spot for German rieslings......I just don't ever enjoy them. I love the riesling styles from Alsace and Austria but just don't get the German style, even when they are supposed to be "dry".
Alan Gavalya
Hampton VA USA —  November 15, 2016 12:57pm ET
I find bitterness difficult particularly in White Rhone's Matt. I am fairly sure that the day will come when this component magically finds it's place on my palate and my enjoyment of the wine will be complete, This epiphany has happened for many foods for me and I was glad I didn't give in to the temptation to write them off at my first encounter. Variety is as they say.
Cheers,
Paul P Ritter
San Jose, CA —  November 15, 2016 2:05pm ET
My blind spot is with Pinot Gris, Gruner Veltliner and Albarino... have tasted several highly thought of (rated) samples and have not found one to command more than $10 bucks. Of course price is not necessarily indicative of quality but the QPR is just not there.
Matt Kramer
Portland, Oregon —  November 15, 2016 3:00pm ET
Mr. Ritter: I do know what you mean. Many Pinot Gris--most, even--are rather dull. Grüner Veltliner, for its part, is a particular taste. Myself, I like them. But I can see how, with Grüner's distinctive white pepper scent, it might not ever appeal. Horses for courses and all that.

However, with Albariño, there's one approach that might make a difference or, alternatively, forever close the door on this grape variety.

Sometimes when I'm dubious about a grape variety or wine district I seek out what everyone agrees is the greatest, or one of the greatest, wines of its type or zone. I figure that, upon trying it, if I don't like that example, well, I've given it my best shot and it still didn't work.

With that in mind, may I suggest that you try a bottle of Do Ferreiro Cepas Vellas Albariño in Rías Baixas district in the northwest Spain? I don't think that you'll get much argument from Albariño lovers that this old vines bottling is one of the greatest Albariños produced anywhere. The vines are 200 years old (!); the winemaking is impeccable (wild yeasts; no oak; aged on the lees for nearly a year) and the wine itself is as resonant and dimensional an Albariño as can be imagined. The $40 price is more than reasonable for the rarity and distinction.

Bottom line: If you don't care for Do Ferreiro Cepas Vellas Albariño then you can safely and securely say that Albariño really isn't for you. It's worth a try, I would think.
Peter Vangsness
East Longmeadow, MA —  November 15, 2016 4:14pm ET
Matt,
I share your dislike of oxidized wines - that element overwhelms anything else the wine is offering. If Sherry is an "acquired taste", I have yet to "acquire" it.
I also cannot enjoy Torrontes - not sure why, but it just hits my taste buds badly and the rest of the wine's features are rendered moot.
Pascal Gilliard
Paris —  November 16, 2016 12:11am ET
Definitely the green, vegetal flavors that we find in some Cabernet Franc or Grenache.
Paul Jacroux
Kirkland, Washington, USA —  November 16, 2016 2:16pm ET
You're absolutely right. Every palate is different. Every serious wine drinker must learn his own palate and develop an olefactory and gustatory memory. I have learned (from vast experimentation) that my palate is very limited and my tasting memory is almost nonexistent. I therefore belong in your category of like it/don't like it.

I've also learned that the palates of many of the wine geeks around me have a lot in common with mine.
Mike Olszewski
Newcastle, WA —  November 17, 2016 12:25am ET
You raise an interesting dichotomy here. Is it a blind spot or personal preference that keeps one from “getting” a particular wine? For starters, I am less driven by the grape, origin of the wine, the brand, or the maker. Regardless of the wine’s pedigree, there are universal elements in any wine that I look for and prefer.


In reds, beyond the basics of structure, depth, and intensity, what appeals are wines that have lower acidity, forward berry and pit fruit flavors, modest wood notes, controlled tannins/alcohol, spice, pepper, minerality, and maybe even a little Brett in spirit of the old days of Bordeaux. On the white side, I tilt toward fuller bodied, lower acid wines with melon, tropical-orchard-citrus fruit, floral, mineral characteristics. Remember it’s just me.


Based on these generalities and acknowledging some high-quality exceptions, wines such as Pinotage, many acidic Piedmont/Chilean red wines, Gruner Veltliner, most NZ Sauvignon Blancs (can’t get by the cat pee on the nose), Muscadet de Sevre-et-Maine (sorry oyster lovers) and of course, Retsina are mostly ruled out--a fairly limited list of “blind spots”, if you will. I do love Albarino!
Daniel L Schmoldt
Silver Spring MD —  November 21, 2016 7:49am ET
Maybe I'm going a step too far here...but, in light of the recent U.S. election, I see some parallels between wine-tasting blind spots, as you have articulated, and the appreciation of diversity in all forms around us, including humanity. But, if wine is an expression of culture, then maybe we are talking about one and the same thing. While something, e.g., a wine, may not be our personal style (and therefore lands in our blind spot), we should still be able to appreciate those aspects that make it unique and that it adds to the patchwork of the broader wine world experience--as hard as that may be sometimes.

But, more to your intended point...when I taste a wine for scoring purposes, e.g., in CellarTracker, I try to put aside my blind spots temporarily, to identify a wine's various characteristics. And, then I score it based on those. Only then, do I express a like or dislike for the wine or its style. Whether I decide to drink that wine again, or its stylistic brethren, is determined by personal preference. Having said that, I do periodically return to a particular wine style that is in my blind spot (e.g., high-acid, grapefruity NZ Sauvignon Blancs or a high-alcohol Chateauneuf du Pape), maybe at a different time of year or with different foods, to see if I can make peace with that wine and appreciate it in a new way.
Paul P Ritter
San Jose, CA —  November 21, 2016 5:28pm ET
Hi Matt,
Thanks for the suggestion. Here in the SF bay area I am blessed with a huge number of quality wine suppliers. Not one could come up with a bottle of Do Ferreiro Cepas Vellas Albariño of any vintage... went to Wine-Searcher and they come up with only two suppliers... both in Spain. Would like to try it but not if I have to order it from Spain.
Matt Kramer
Portland, Oregon —  November 21, 2016 5:53pm ET
Mr. Ritter: Very curious, this apparent unavailability of Do Ferreiro Cepas Vellas Albariño.

I have e-mailed the national importer seeking clarification. As soon as I hear from the importer I shall report back.

Stay tuned!
Matt Kramer
Portland, Oregon —  November 22, 2016 5:56pm ET
Mr. Ritter: I received the following brief e-mail from the importer of Do Ferreiro Cepas Vellas Albariño:

"Cepas is in extremely high demand and is unfortunately not made every year. We are going to release the 2015 in May 2018 (There was no 2014)."

This certainly helps explain why Do Ferreiro Cepas Vellas is apparently not to be found at the moment.
Benoit Souligny
quebec canada —  November 29, 2016 12:27pm ET
Mine iis beaujolais,as hard as i try i don t get even more powerful morgon or moulin a vent dont tickle my fancy,that and geuze beer.
Benoit Souligny
quebec canada —  November 29, 2016 2:33pm ET
Mine iis beaujolais,as hard as i try i don t get even more powerful morgon or moulin a vent dont tickle my fancy,that and geuze beer.
Paul Gallagher
Berkeley Heights, NJ —  January 18, 2017 11:04pm ET
Sorry Matt, but Pinot Noir is a blind spot for me. I've had versions that I've enjoyed over the years, but what I've tasted in recent memory (mostly from the New World) has that vanilla/cinnamon side to it and/or a charry wood note that I don't care for. I've tried some Burgundy, but apparently not the right ones yet. I hold out hope. I'd love to hear your suggestion for a Burgundy in the $20 - $25 range (I rarely spend more than that for anything retail) that you like and isn't too hard to find.

Not a big fan of voluptuous and viscous whites either. Viscous is nice when the acid balance is there though.
Matt Kramer
Portland, Oregon —  January 19, 2017 12:06pm ET
Mr. Gallagher: A good red Burgundy in the $20 to $25 price range? You don't make life easy, do you? [G]

Still, much to some people's amazement, it is possible to find good deals on Burgundy.

That said, your caveat about it not being "too hard to find" is actually the real hurdle. Forgive the levity, but I mean, it's Burgundy. The good stuff is always hard to find, which is to say that it always takes a bit of effort. You're not going to find the good stuff, let alone the good deals, stack-cased in a supermarket.

So, that addressed, you might look for the Pinot Noirs (and the Chardonnays too, while you're at it) of Guilhem and Jean-Hugues Goisot. This small producer is located near Chablis in northern Burgundy and all of their wines are delicate, pure and beautifully made.

Also, more generally, look for "basic" Bourgogne rouge from well-regarded estates or shippers. One you might look for is Maison Roche de Bellene (Nicolas Potel). Many Burgundy lovers are often surprised at how good a so-called basic Bourgogne rouge can be, especially in the best vintages.

Also, don't forget producers outside of Burgundy, as winegrowers in Oregon, California, New Zealand and Australia are now creating Pinot Noirs that rival all but the very greatest red Burgundies.

In Oregon, for example, you can find superb Pinot Noirs that are dead-ringers for a really fine red Burgundy from Westrey, J. Christopher and Evesham Wood, to name but three--and their prices are more than reasonable.

That's a start, anyway. Good luck. And, please, don't give up!

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