This might sound like a cliche to some of you, but I do believe that becoming a wine taster is a learning process. Most people are not born with a fine palate, but, like other skills, tasting is learnable. I am certainly a novice: I have only been seriously tasting for two years, and although I’ve seen a lot and learned a lot even in this short span of time, I still find that I’m all too often seduced by the loud, obvious and overstated, and don’t always notice the elegant, refined and stylish. I am reminded of young children’s taste in colour. Most like reds, harsh pinks and yellows. It’s OK. I like, for now, such reds and pinks and yellows on my palate because they are so easy to notice, and easy to enjoy. Oak and vanilla are direct and striking and they overwhelm and no detective work is to be done. But I’ve always wanted to be a detective, so this will not suffice.
Still, when I took part in my first ever serious champagne tasting, I raised an eyebrow. What’s all the fuss about? Why do people pay hundreds of pounds for a bubbly that to me doesn’t seem that different from a £7 Cava from Tesco? And then, having heard myself ask that question, I begin to think. What should one be looking for in a champagne? Surely it’s not all hype and fashion and snobbery. And the detective work begins. How should I taste champagne? I bombard Tom Stevenson, arguably one of the worlds’ greatest experts of the sparkling beverage, with beginners’ questions. Where is the kind of intensity I’m used to in still wines? Where are all those fruity flavours? Why do all these wines seem so uniform? And Tom explains, and then I read up on the subject and slowly slowly a clearer, sharper picture of fine champagne begins to take shape in my head – and hopefully on my palate.
As a novice, one of the distractions I have to deal with when it comes to champagne-tasting is, of course, the bubbles. Be they as fine and silky as they may, they still keep my palate busy and turn attention away from individual flavour characteristics. But perhaps this is just as well. Perhaps this is the way towards learning to judge and enjoy a wine as a whole. Anyway, since champagne is made from very different base wines to the aged, matured still wines I’m used to drinking, I can’t expect to discover the same flavours, the same ripeness, the same intensity. The fruits tend to be more subtle, more citrusy, or light red fruit. What predominates in champagne is the flavours that come with age, partly developing during the autolytic process (this is when the wine sits for months or, ideally, years in the bottle, having received a dose of sugar/yeast/wine to start a second fermentation, having completed that fermentation and developed lots of bubbles) whereby the dead yeasts, or lees, are creating added flavours and contributing to a creamier texture in the wine. As Tom tells me, the toast and biscuit and yeastiness that are the dominant flavour characteristics of traditionally made sparkling wine do not come from the autolysis, but rather from the next stage of ageing, after disgorgement (when those dead yeasts are collected in the bottle’s neck, frozen and popped out), after dosage (a wine refill of varying sugar levels; the more serious the wine, the less the sugar content of the dosage, it seems) has been added. So, autolysis will produce floral fragrances, and post-disgorgement ageing will give us the toast and yeastiness.
So we look for these flavours, and for good acidity and of course balance and structure. But one needs to fine-tune one’s palate. Champagne is chamber music, not a symphony orchestra. There won’t be much crash boom bang (except when you drink Krug’s!), but it doesn’t mean the music is not just as great, the expressions as intense and beautiful, and the overall experience as cathartic.