There’s no question that environment affects your experience of a wine. Tasting a particular champagne at home, in a restaurant or in a discothèque is likely to produce quite different results. (Not that I know so much about discothèques.) At the same time, tasting can sometimes be an unpredictable thing.
This afternoon I was tasting with François Domi, the chef de cave of Billecart-Salmon, who is an exceptionally intelligent and sensitive taster. We were tasting through the current range, and I had an extremely intriguing experience with the Brut Rosé. The bottle that we were tasting was perfectly correct, but while we were both smelling it, Domi asked me if I was satisfied with the nose. I said that it was fine, but as he knows the wine infinitely better than I do (he did make it, after all), I chose to defer to his opinion. He took me outside to the little courtyard in front of the house, and we smelled it again. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced so profound a difference in the way a wine smells from one environment to another: in the tasting room, which is a perfectly neutral and controlled “tasting” environment, the wine smelled correspondingly neutral. Outside, however, the wine gained a smoky complexity, and the fruit was much more vinous and pungent, with intense aromas of blueberry and strawberry. I’m quite accustomed to wines smelling different in different contexts, but this was surprising to me nevertheless, especially as conventional wisdom dictates that outside is a terrible place to taste wine. The nose was so much more expressive and fragrant when we were standing outside that it seemed like a completely different champagne. As soon as we returned inside I smelled the wine again, and it was like a switch had been turned off: the nose returned again to a relatively neutral, pleasant but innocuous state.
Honestly, there is no perfect tasting environment. Cellars are full of cellar smells, outside environments are often disastrous due to the caprice of nature, and as my experience today demonstrates, neutral environments are often simply too neutral. Restaurants are generally too full of external odors, and anyway, I’m usually more focused on my dining companion than on my wine (indicating that my priorities are indeed in the right place). Perhaps the very best tasting environment is at one’s own home, simply because it’s the place that one is most accustomed to, and there is always a consistency in stemware as well. But it just goes to show once again that wine is a far more elusive creature than we generally give it credit for, and that the variables involved in tasting are myriad and complex.