Making a sweet red wine to order

I need to reboot this blog, if ever it is to get going again. It’s over a week since I returned from an excellent trip to Portugal (to think now, on a cold damp Cape Town day, of so recently sweating in the heat of the Douro Valley is strange). As disincentive to effort, however, I brought home – as well as some interesting wines, including a greatly expensive 1972 Grahams Tawny Port and a ludicrously expensive Blandy’s Bual Madeira 1969 (I must have been heat-struck at the time of purchase) – a summer cold.

So when, the day after my arrival home, I was confronted with the delivery of my first assignment of wines to taste for Platter, all I could do was sniffle mightily and blow my congested nose, and pack away the wine for another day.

It looked such a huge pile, too! Quite beyond the question of my bunged-up nose, as always at this stage of the Platter process, I was struck with the impossibility of the task – not just carefully tasting my way through all the wines in time to meet the deadline, writing up more or less meaningful notes, but, worst, of all, dithering and retasting while settling on a rating for them, a process which seems to me more and more an abstract and absurd act of vinous violence…. Ok, not quite so bad as that – but a difficult task and even an impossible one sometimes: I confess I’m actually relieved that all wines nominated for more than four stars go into the blind tasting at the end of August and that process will take responsibility for those final scores. It will get some things wrong, I’m sure, but the procedures for that tasting are, I genuinely believe, as good as it’s possible to get. (Let’s dare to hope the skills of the tasters are commensurate….)

Anyway, the clouds of mucus cleared after a few days, and I’ve been able to get down to what is always a fascinating – as well as scary – job.

One side benefit of the whole tasting business as I conduct it is getting an occasional insight into how “ordinary” wine-tasters react. I take my opened, sipped-from bottles (occasionally drunk-from bottles) to my place of morning employment, where of my colleagues about a dozen come to claim a bottle when I bring in a bunch. Sometimes there are some grand – or at least expensive – bottles there, sometimes it’s just the lower end (I don’t bring in the very few wines that I think more or less undrinkable), usually a mix of the two. A few of the people know a bit about wine; most just enjoy drinking it occasionally (especially when it’s free).

It being winter, they generally move on the reds first. If they recognise a producer or a variety they like, it’s easy, but often they hover uncertainly, presumably guessing from the label design (if there is one – many of these come with scrawled temporary labels) what might appeal. If I know their tastes, which I have come to do with some of them, I can give advice.

It’s the (fairly rare) feedback that can be disconcerting. Especially when there’s a wine that I have felt notably unenthusiastic about, and it gets a rave notice…. At the very least (and, frankly, perhaps at the most) it’s a reminder that tastes differ and, while I don’t believe that quality differs in the same way, I am reminded that for a forum like Platter being a professional taster means not judging simply according to my own tastes. I have to admit that there are different kinds of quality, some of which I don’t like but are nonetheless valid.

I had one enjoyable task this last week, when I was asked in advance by a non-wine-drinking colleague to bring in “a sweet red wine” for a dinner party over the weekend. Of course, I knew exactly what was wanted – the sort of stuff that Four Cousins and 4th Street sell by the milllion litres. But I only rarely get to taste such wines for Platter. I wanted to help (it’s a colleague I like) – but how?

Disapprove if you will, but this is how I solved the problem. I handed over a bottle of moderately decent cabernet (softly structured and, by my standards, horribly sweet – about 4 grams of residual sugar), together with a not very distinguished muscadel. And suggested a bit of judicious mixing. I’m looking forward to finding out how well this did the job. Surely can’t be worse than the real thing….

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