Tasting in the rain

February 8th, 2010



The recent El Niño-spawned rainstorms hitting the Los Angeles area have caused me to suspend my wine evaluation. I do not review wines during rainy weather. I’m very particular about my wine tasting environment. The environmental factors of interest to me are: temperature, humidity, barometric pressure and ambient aromas.

While much emphasis is placed on the serving temperature of the wine itself, the temperature, humidity and barometric pressure of the tasting environment impact the way a particular wine shows by affecting the way its aromatic compounds volatilize (emerge out of the wine).

Winemakers may be inclined to wax poetic (or maybe romantic) and say that their wines taste different in their tasting rooms because they are “at home”, as Foxen’s Billy Wathen once told me. However, the temperature, humidity and barometric pressure in wine country are very different from those at my home.

Tasting at a festival held in a mountain community illustrated this point for me a few years ago. The June temperatures combined with a light breeze and lower pressures to make wines I had tasted several times before to express quite differently. Sometimes, tasting outdoors can be a futile endeavor. At one event, temperatures exceeding 100° F, were paired with strong winds. I simply gave up.

One thing that has always puzzled me is the mention of aromas of “rain water” in some tasting notes. This is not a very specific aroma, although at least one source has organized the origin of this smell into a concise article.

I have personally noticed that in certain weather conditions, this sensation may be more attributable to greater water vapor content in the air. If one is smelling and tasting in an environment with wide swings in humidity (and is not aware of this factor), then it is possible that the observations of “aromas of rain water” may, in many cases, be simply a tactile sensation of humidity perceived in the nose rather than any specific aroma.

I am an ardent proponent of the idea that the difference in how the same wine is perceived by different observers can be significantly narrowed (if not eliminated) by training. However, it is not uncommon for the same wine to express differently in different environmental conditions when assessed by the same trained evaluator. I believe this is more often, and in larger part, due to variations in the tasting environment than it is due to variation in the the contents of the bottle.

I cannot replicate the environment in which the winemaker makes their blending and bottling decisions. Nor can I predict the environment in which people who purchased a wine based on my description or recommendation consume that wine. All I can do is control my tasting environment to achieve as much consistency as is possible. While this will not necessarily assure that my readers will experience the same wine in the same way, it allows me to consistently communicate the character of the wines I review. I believe I owe them that.

Look for my piece on how ambient aromas intrude into wine assessment. Coming soon.


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3 Responses to “Tasting in the rain”

  1. winesooth.com » Blog Archive » Don’t know what black currant is? Says:

    [...] there is some small variation in the same wine from bottle to bottle and between tasting environments. However, what this disparity in tasting notes points to is a lack of the ability of some [...]

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    [...] recently wrote about how environmental variables can impact the way a wine expresses its character. That concept may seem esoteric to many, but it is based on the principles of physics and [...]