How to Taste Wine

From the wine mistress herself, Jancis Robinson MW

By Robyn Lewis
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Jancis Robinson MW (portrait by Matt Prince)

Jancis Robinson MW (portrait by Matt Prince)


Early in 2009 I had the great pleasure to meet and dine with Jancis Robinson MW, where she was chair of a session at the International Pinot Noir Celebration on Victoria's Mornington Peninsula, on what turned out to be Black Saturday, the 7th February.

Fortunately we were spared the fires, but the ferocious heat made wine tasting almost impossible, especially for that most delicate of red varieties, pinot noir.

However Jancis (I use her first name deliberately; it's become a brand, especially in the UK) was the true professional, and spoke knowledgeably of wines she knew, and humbly of ones she didn't - a far cry from many wine critics. The first female Master of Wine and the first to gain this prestigious qualification from outside the wine trade, there is no doubt that wine knowledge exudes from Jancis' every pore.

Yet she looks as far from the 'big red nose' image of an older generation of wine-tasting men as is possible to imagine - petite and elegant, with unstained teeth, no broken capillaries and clear enquiring eyes that mirror her razor-sharp mind and quick retort. How she has survived the years of wine tasting (and drinking) unscathed is testament to good genes perhaps, spitting often and maybe the milk thistle tablets by which she now swears as an antidote (I've since tried them and can report good results).

 How to Taste Wine is a revision of a book she wrote 25 years ago, when Jancis was indeed a female pioneer in a male-dominated wine world. As with trout fishing and many other (then) mainly masculine pursuits, 'how to' books were scarce, and those that existed were so esoteric and usually disorganised as to be only comprehensible to those already in the know. The thought that you might even need a book to explain these things to novices - in language they could understand - was almost groundbreaking in itself. After all, boys had their fathers to teach them such things.

 Times have changed;  now we are flooded with how-to books and idiots' guides on every subject imaginable - there are  wine (and fishing) books for the novice, for Gen X, Gen Y, books on food and wine matching, four kilo wine atlases, three kilo wine dictionaries, books on every grape variety, wine producing country and character under the sun. Not to mention the internet.

Wine is no longer a guarded secret - although many of its makers would wish it even less so - nor as associated with class as it once was. However, some wines still retains the unapproachability of old (although perhaps not sauvignon blanc, which surely accounts for its recent popularity), and it's long overdue that this was undone. Just like wilderness and our vanishing environment, if people understand it more, they will value it more highly.

Will How to Taste Wine help unlock the chateau gates? It certainly prised them open a generation ago. As Jancis says in her 'foretaste': "this is a book for people who want to know more about wine, but ...(who) have... realised that drinking (it) is a lot more fun than reading about it.... What actually counts is how it tastes ... wine exists to give sensual pleasure".

Or in four words: wine is to enjoy.

Jancis's view is that by knowing more about wine you can maximise your enjoyment. There are obvious parallels with food - think of the ignorant sisters in Babette's feast, versus the flood of recipe books and magazines we now devour.

All wine drinkers fall somewhere along the spectrum from quaffer to connoisseur. There is nothing wrong with being where you are - like everything, the amount of wine knowledge you have or want depends on how much time, energy and money you choose to apply to it, relative to other things in your life. There are Nobel prize winners to whom wine is only something to wash down a meal.

Jancis's thesis (she's quite an academic) is that everyone has wine tasting equipment and can therefore be a taster, and as taste is so subjective and the vocabulary so poorly developed (hence meaningless tasting terms like 'tropical fruits', which could cover everything from bananas to coconuts) we can never know or truly compare what someone else is experiencing.

However, we can still learn from someone who knows more than we do. How to Taste Wine is set out like a series of school courses: learning to taste - first the theory, then the practice - including how to practice your spitting (in the bath or shower). I wish I'd found this book when I started to learn about wine - it would have filled many gaps in my wine knowledge left by trial and error, that have taken nearly two decades to rectify.

Wine tasting is like sport, or most hobbies - ultimately we learn better by doing it ourselves, by practice and by benchmarking against our superiors, than from books. You'll learn faster, if not more, by attending a wine-tasting course at a local TAFE, wine club or cellar than between these covers. But if practical courses are not available, How to Taste Wine will teach you an awful lot. I can see a Chinese translation doing very well, although Gen Y will probably prefer the easy style of Matt Skinner's Heard it Through the Grapevine, even if it doesn't last the test of time as well.

How to Taste Wine is - like Jancis - no nonsense and well organised. The overall impression is of a school mistress giving a lecture, albeit not a strict one, but one who in sommelier Dan Sims' words 'we all had a bit of a crush'. Jancis is far more humble that many wine critics with 1/100th of her prodigious knowledge, and she is certainly prepared to share it in this book, which still remains small enough to be portable and to read in bed.

It will take you through the wine basics, how to recognise the most popular grape varieties - Chapter 3 on the whites, and 4 on the reds - to the nuances of Burgundy and Bordeaux, and why you should choose a good sparkling wine over cheap Champagne. It  includes an updated section on food and wine matches including pairings to avoid,  which will help in these days of 'dining at home'. I'll leave it to you to discover which grape variety she thinks sometimes contains 'a certain hint of household cleaning powder'.  If you knew all this you'd be well along the expert end of the spectrum indeed.

As dinner drew to a close, Jancis admitted than soon it might be time for her and her husband to leave London, and relocate to San Francisco. Perhaps with Napa and Sonoma as her new backyards -  and with her superior palate and communication skills - her best might be yet to come..... Meanwhile, this is a pretty handy distillation of decades of knowledge.


How to Taste Wine is published by Conran Octopus UK (2008), and was first published as Masterglass in 1983.  RRP A$35. and Winepros Archive subscribers and Members can purchase How to Taste Wine via our book partners, Seekbooks, at 12.5% off RRP (postage extra). 


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