RECENTLY, I had the chance to organise some very exquisite tastings, something different and unusual from the regular line-ups we put together. But more than the drinks themselves, it was the nature of the progression of the two sessions that, in retrospect, made me wonder whether there was one particular way to conduct an ideal tasting and what, if any, were the pre-requisites for a perfect tasting session.
The first session was in Gurgaon, Delhi’s commercial backyard. Gurgaon is quite the mud slush, save for the occasional isolated sanctuaries, where some properties manage to shine amidst all the shinola. Anya Hotels is one such vision and its small verandah of a beer garden is quite an effort in propagating the cause of good beer. I qualified that with ‘good’ because it automatically eliminates all that passes for microbrews in that state. Without mincing words, they mostly taste like something that came out of the wrong end of a sewage plant.
Good beer, the stuff that survived wars and droughts, the kind that had even monks excited and which can match wines in complexity, is not easily available on tap. Barring a few brands that come by the keg, imported bottles remain the most reliable source for a proper beer experience. So, to launch the beer garden, we organised a beer tasting for the invitees but the difference was that the beers were each served with individually paired snacks that were carefully chosen to accompany them. But, to make it more interesting, we paired each beer (or rather beer style) with food. So light beers were assigned to certain snacks, the heavier beers had a different mix and so on. The idea was that it is good to enjoy a drink with some food alongside (and the food here was superb, from imported sausages to greed-inducing burgers). And it worked. Many beers that were otherwise considered heavy seemed just right with some chow to balance it. All in all, it was a great event. If you are in the vicinity, I encourage you to try some of the pairings that have been put in place.
The other event was a tasting of some premium Australian wines, many of which are yet to be distributed in India. These were big wines from young vintages and we were serving a set of about 10 of them, of which eight were red and boisterous. Barring some bread, there weren’t any nibbles provided for. That is how we generally evaluate wines—objectively and in fairly sterile environs without being influenced by food or any other distraction, as that would be unfair and could tip the scales in favour of a wine, which otherwise may or may not be deserving.
So which is the best way to taste: with or without food? Is it wrong to introduce this external element, which can definitely influence the taste of the beverage, or is it mandatory, considering how nobody is expected to drink without some food to accompany? The question extends to beyond wines and beers, and also questions the validity of results that some group churns out after locking themselves in a room for hours armed with nothing, but some bottles and a spittoon. In other words, is it permissible to allow a tasting session to be ‘fun’, or should all such seances follow a strict unwritten code, where anything that can distract from spartan objectivity is to be rejected?
As a professional who tastes often, I do feel that grading a product without food is a good way to understand its nuances, but beyond that, it is always good to extrapolate the situation to fit into normal life and see how the same beverage performs there. It reminds me of a wine tasting I was a part of sometime ago, where everybody thought a particular wine was horrible and dismissed it outrightly, little knowing that it was the same wine that was later served during lunch, which the jury drained to the very last bottle. On being told that it was the same wine, I guess they weren’t too pleased, but they did take home a priceless lesson that day.
The writer is a sommelier