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Jefford on Monday: Changing Tastes, Failing Powers

Tastes in wine vary from person to person. But take just one person: you. Do your tastes vary – in time?

This was a question fellow wine writer and Loire specialist Jacqueline Friedrich raised with me recently. Assuming that tastes do change in time, would it be ethical to use old tasting notes in a revised book?

My answer was ‘yes’ – because wines and time are on intimate terms with one another, and understood to be so.

A note is a critical snapshot; it becomes instantly historical. The taster might or might not have changed; the wine assuredly will. Readers recognise this historicity – though it does imply that tasters should always date their notes, and that producers or retailers who wish to quote notes should always include the date of tasting or publication.

The general question about how one’s tastes in wine evolve over a lifetime is harder to answer. I asked some friends and colleagues about this, and discovered that everyone’s tastes had changed – but never in exactly the same direction.

Most, for example, claimed that they now shy away from overtly oaky wines, as I do. A palate I greatly admire is that of Justin Howard-Sneyd, an MW, wine buyer and now Roussillon wine-maker (excitingly dense, profound wines from a tiny estate called Domaine of the Bee). “I still have a soft spot for unreconstructed oak and tropical fruit explosions,” Justin surprised me by saying, “but they are hard to find nowadays, more’s the pity. The mantra that ‘no-one likes oak’, and financial expedience have put paid to any ‘confident’ use of oak barrels, except in the most expensive wines.”

Acidity and tannin are divisive, too. A number of the non-professional wine tasters I surveyed said that they had grown increasingly averse to overtly tannic wines – yet Professor Barry Smith, the Director of the Institute of Philosopy at London University’s School of Advanced Studies, thoughtful wine drinker and a follower of neuroscientific research in this area said that he now looked for “more structure: the wine maker’s obsession with smoothing out all the awkward parts for us is something that I have come to dislike”. Smith, too, said he “now liked cool-climate reds that I would once have thought thin and almost sour.” He feasts on Northern rather than Southern Rhône reds (“I avoid anything with a hint of jammy”) and relishes Beaujolais, which he formerly dismissed.

Howard-Sneyd, too, said that time had brought a love and appreciation of acidity “especially when accompanied by ‘minerality’ … I still don’t really get Viogniers (which I often consider to be flabby and flaccid) unless from the best sites in Condrieu.” Minerality, of course, is a vexed term (see Jefford on Monday: The Party’s Over), but the unfruity flavours to which it refers do seem to be increasingly popular with drinkers as they age; my non-professional cohort mentioned this too. Howard-Sneyd also mentioned “salinity, by which I mean some flavour dimension that isn’t adequately covered by ‘fruit’ or ‘acidity’ or ‘minerality’, but which triggers some receptors that leave me wanting more, in the way that salt adds flavour to food.” The charm of fruit alone, in other words, palls with time.

Variety, Smith suggested, tends to be better appreciated as one ages. Young drinkers like to repeat the same experiences just as children like to eat the same dishes over and over again, whereas with time “and through habituation they no longer give us the hit or the interest, so we seek out new experiences, some out of the ordinary – and if we are lucky, something extraordinary.” But is this always so? “I sometimes think,” said Howard-Sneyd, “that many of us who now LOVE exploring new flavours forget how daunting it is for many people. It’s a bit like learning languages — as Peter Ustinov once said, after you master your fifth different language, the rest are easy. But when you only speak one language, the idea of trying to communicate in another one is terrifying. That is how a lot of people feel about wine.”

Personally, my tastes seem to have gone in a different direction to either Smith’s or Howard-Sneyd’s. I love tasting a variety of wines, and seem to find it much easier than I once did to assess and intellectually understand new wines – but when it comes to buying for my own pleasure, I know very clearly what I like, and hunt within those parameters. Namely, extractive, richly tannic reds (in skins lies profundity) whether light or dark; weighty, perfumed whites; or vinous, understated whites. Such wines tend to have low acidity – but the more minerality or salinity, the better.

What about that subject which makes us all nervous: failing powers? “What we do know,” reports Smith, “is that our sense of smell declines from around 50 onwards. It is no longer as acute and it will fade fairly rapidly between 60 and 70.” “My father,” remembered Howard-Sneyd, “reported that as his palate aged past 60, he started to find subtle flavours rather elusive, and was more prone to opt for the big and obvious in order to experience wine-drinking pleasure.” Smith had good news here, though, too. “Recent research by Thomas Hummel in Dresden, a leading neuroscientist of olfaction, shows that if people practice their sense of smell by smelling four essential oils – say, eucalyptus, lavender, rose oil and lemon, last thing at night and first thing in the morning — they keep their sense of smell longer and remain more acutely sensitive. It’s use it or lose it, as far as the brain is concerned.”

For an abstract of Hummel’s research, see the Wiley Online Library.

Written by Andrew Jefford

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