Do a swish and a spit reveal all there is to a wine?
Or, does it pay to swallow?
Of course, with training one can learn how to evaluate wine methodically without ingurgitation. Tasting and spitting as to avoid alcoholic intoxication keeps the taster focused for longer than when he or she were to gulp sample after sample.
However, could it be that the rigorous use of the spittoon sometimes causes a wine judge to inversely approve of a wine which is actually not pleasant to drink, one the examiner would probably not rubber-stamp but call flawed if it were swallowed?
I think so. The bottle in question that prompted this idea is a small Maltese producer’s mono-varietal Vermentino of the 2012 vintage. At a recent impromptu tasting session of just this particular wine, it became evident to me that in some instances certain characteristics, good as well as bad, can go unnoticed.
Two well-respected technical tasters whose palates are well-aligned with mine could not fault the Vermentino after having tasted it with me. Admittedly, at first I, too, could not find any technical flaw, surely not on the nose. But, whereas they spat out the wine, I went on pouring a glass for me to drink as an aperitif. After just a couple of small gulps, I had to rethink. Why?
Let’s be reminded that the way ‘taste’ – or perhaps I should say ‘smell’ – works is not that simple. In fact, a complex chemical sensing system is involved in the evaluation of any food and drink.
First, when your nose hovers over a glass, odour molecules reach the nose through the nostrils and impact your smell nerve system (orthonasal olfaction). Then you sip and, as taste nerve cells clustered in the taste buds of your mouth and throat react to flavour compounds mixed with saliva, you begin to detect basic tastes (gustation). By now, more scents have started to travel backwards from the oral cavity, through the connection between the throat and the nose (retronasal olfaction). Unless you spit, wine will finally pass from the mouth through the pharynx into the oesophagus or gullet. This is a ten-inch tube that connects the throat to the stomach and basically acts as the chute to move food and drink from the mouth via peristalsis to the stomach. At the end of the oesophagus is the lower oesophageal sphincter. This valve is usually closed, but when food or drink come into contact with it, the valve opens to the stomach.
So, repeatedly swallowing will cause the valve to open time after time so that volatile odour molecules may travel up to the nose back from the stomach through the throat. In other words: swallowing makes volatile odours ricochet again and again around the retronasal passages. Understandably, this prolonged retronasal olfaction might influence the overall taste experience.
Unlike the other two tasters, I who had imbibed was able to detect the wine’s very faint aromas of cabbage and garlic, and that strange whiff of sweat and sauerkraut. These are all unpleasant aromas for Vermentino and usually associated with higher sulphides that can but must not develop during the fermentation process, or tell-tales of accidental activity of lactic acid bacteria.
Initially, the wine showed little imperfections on the nose and the palate was clean, too. I would never have faulted it in a wine judging session when spitting is the order of the day. In fact, I would have let this Vermentino pass to the detriment of consumers who would probably be put off by its indecent Franco-German armpit whiffs (especially at a price tag of €10 a bottle).
I take two lessons away from this experiment, though. Firstly, there may be a good number of wines that drop beneath the wine judges’ radar because they don’t (have the luxury to) swallow. Secondly, one can only truly be appreciative or discriminatory when the wine is actually consumed.