Likes and Loving

Written by me and published on the 31st July 2009 in the Life and Leisure section of The Australian Financial Review*

‘If I only listed what I like,’ MASTER SOMMELIER Isa Bal told me, ‘The list would be boring and not very clever for business.’ I’ll take Bal’s word for that as he’s acknowledged as one of the world’s most gifted ‘somms' and is the current European champion title holder. Bal** is thoughtful, considered, passionate, articulate, and you can imagine yourself falling under his spell at The Fat Duck, Heston Blumenthal’s acclaimed Michelin three-star located in Bray, Middlesex, England.

Bal continued, ‘In fact there are wines on the wines on the list which I don’t really like. But I can of course appreciate the quality.’ My questions to Bal were slightly loaded as this is exactly the way that I select the wines for these pages. There have been many times when I've reviewed wines that I don’t particularly ‘like’, but which are great examples of a particular variety or style: so I score and applaud them accordingly.

Like Bal, with the Fat Duck list, if I limited myself only to wines that I either liked or loved then you, dear reader, would probably get a bit tired reading about Nebbiolo, Wendouree, spätlese and kabinett styles of Riesling, and Margaret River Cabernet Sauvignon…Or maybe you wouldn’t?

As a professional, even though one not quite as internationally wine literate as Bal, I realise that you have to step back a bit from the like, love or whatnot of the stuff in your gob and evaluate the substance as objectively as is possible. That is: sometimes you must (attempt to) put ‘personal taste’ aside.

But this poses a problem because so many people assume that when you give a wine a big rap you ‘like’ it. Unfortunately number ratings, and even words themselves, can’t always quite convey the subtle differences between liking and loving, or just admiring and respecting. At least not without devoting a whole pile more words to the matter. And — in print at least — space for these words is often in short supply.

Gerald's Bar matchbook 23-01-14%2001

This subject came up the other day at my local, Gerald’s Bar in Carlton North. Friend and proprietor Gerald Diffey asked me why it was not possible to give more indication in wine reviews as to whether the author would really want to drink the wine themselves. ‘If you can do that,’ Gerald suggested, ‘You’re going to get people closer to the wines you love.’

Excellent points I thought: I do attempt to do this but sometimes limitations of space get in the way (as it where). So in honour of this, this week (and forever in print and on-line***) I’m introducing a hedonic rating (marked out of ten) to sit alongside my regular ‘objective’ — I now employ the word ‘empiric’ — rating based on results gleaned from numerous ‘half-blind’ tastings, which are framed by previous experiences filed away in one’s palate memory.

I’ve reviewed some of these wines on this week’s page before, but I think it important for you to get a handle on the subtle differences in scoring, especially with a hedonic rating, when there are some seriously high quality wines are involved.

Returning to Bal I ask what wine regions he’s visited on his short stay in the country. Well he’s just about to head off to the Mornington Peninsula to visit Kooyong and Ten Minutes by Tractor. He tells me he’s always loved 10XT because he just thought the name was great, which relates to the distances between the winery’s vineyards: that was what grabbed him, as well as wine quality, of course

He’s also visited the Barossa (unsurprisingly as Peter Lehmann brought him to Australia). It was his first time in the region and he was really thrilled by the experience of seeing all the old-vine shiraz vineyards. ‘We visited one grower,’ he recalls with a grin. ‘And he was there in his wellies and we just shared a bottle of wine. That’s something I’ll always remember.’

Wine is — of course — so much more than words or numbers on a page. More even — sometimes — than the contents of a glass.

Pertinent addenda
* I’ve made a few minor corrections which do not alter the context of this piece or the individuals views represented in any way.

The genius who is Isa Bal MS (Master Sommelier) is now responsible for matters wine at Trivet@trivetrestaurant — in Bermondsy should anyone who reads this ever visit London. Unsurprisingly the wine list is incredible, on so many levels.

Unfortunately, my empiric and hedonic rating system did not last long in the The Australian Financial Review as a change in the page format and layout precluded me from offering my Gerald’s inspired conception.