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Michael Schuster is one of the world’s most respected wine tasting tutors. His book, ‘Essential Winetasting' is regarded by many wine tasters, at all levels from the beginner to the advanced sommelier, as “the tasting bible”. In this interview he talks candidly about his own views on the contemporary world of wine, what is new, what has changed and why this book is now more relevant than ever to those wishing to advance their ability to taste wine.
Nick Breeze: From a teaching perspective how do you separate what is a knowledge based assessment of a wine and a subjective assessment of a wine?
Michael Schuster: It is an important part of what separates a professional from somebody who is non-professional and to be able to do the two. It is really a question of practise. Just looking at the wine, summarising its parts, placing it in terms of quality and then saying whether I like this or not, which is different.
Nick Breeze. What about when people say that wine tasting purely subjective?
Michael Schuster: Purely subjective I think is complete nonsense. Subjectivism is fine. You know, if you say you like something then I cannot disagree with that. But if you talk about a chablis and say it’s a soft wine, then its either a crap chablis or you are not tasting properly.
Also, when you talk about wine as a professional you need to include standards. Standards of quality, standards of typicity. Norms if you like. And those are all different from how much and/or whether you like the wine or not. Whether you like the wine or not, if you ask me, tells you about me. It doesn’t tell you about the wine at all.
Whereas if you are describing the wine, you have to do that from a more distant standpoint, and then say, “having said all that, I don’t think it is a very good example but I absolutely love it.” or, “This is a pretty crap wine but there are many people who will like it” and so on and so forth.
So the two are different and the difference is important.
Nick Breeze: Many people have a preconceived idea of what formal wine tasting entails. Do you think the same formal processes or criteria are at work in tasting for pleasure?
Michael Schuster: I think the first thing to say is that tasting is tasting. The formal process is exactly the same at whatever level you do it. How formal it is is really a question of degree. It depends what your aims are but I think in terms of processes it is exactly the same. It depends on your skill and it depends on what you want to do.
The criteria you use are a question of choice. What are you asking about? Are you asking about how good it is for what it says it is? Are you asking how good it is in terms of value for money? Are you asking where it sits on the hierarchy level? All those sorts of things are criteria which you can choose to use or not. That is a question of choice. Again, completely different from whether you like it or not.
The point about tasting, an important point to make, is that it is different from drinking. Tasting is a deliberate act of scrutiny. Where you look at the wine, you examine it and you try to see what there is to see.
One definition of tasting might be to maximise the number of sensations that you can get out of the wine. If you are an MW [Master of Wine] for example, one talks about reading the wine, reading it with care and being able to see what there is to see.
That is different from just drinking it for pleasure. Which is what we all do. But the one improves the other. And we know that from whether we are looking at gardens, looking at art, [or] whether we are interested in music. Spending a bit of time thinking about what you are seeing, listening to, tasting, you find you get more from it.
Nick Breeze: In the context of going through your book, having that background knowledge reinforces your ability to enjoy the wine, to analyse the wine, to taste it?
Michael Schuster: Yes, the book is essentially a how-to book. It is not a factual book. Of course there are facts in there but… how do I go about the business of tasting? Where do I start? What do I do with the glass? What do I do with my nose? What do I do with my eyes… my palate? And having done that, where do I focus my attention? What sort of vocabulary do I use? And how do I think about it?
I’ve got an epigraph at the beginning of the book by Pierre Poupoul and it sort of crystallises the difference between tasting and drinking: “Il fait déguster á froid, et boire á chaud.” “Taste with your head and drink with your heart.”
Nick Breeze: Are there any wine tasting myths or misconceptions that you regularly encounter when you are tutoring people on how to taste?
Michael Schuster: Yes, wine is full of nonsense and I have a section on wine nonsense in my book.
I guess the best known one is that putting a silver teaspoon in a bottle of champagne will keep the bubbles and of course it is complete nonsense. But it is an entrenched myth and it is difficult to persuade people that it doesn’t work. If you put a bottle of champagne with a tea spoon in it in the fridge then of course there will still be bubbles in it. But if you put a stopper on it then there will be more bubbles than if you use the silver spoon.
Others are that wine is better with age or that you shouldn’t put wine in the freezer… and all sorts of things like that are mostly nonsense. I debunk about a dozen of them.
As for preconceptions, I think one of the most regular preconceptions is that people who don’t know about wine think they don’t or won’t like sweet wine. This is a hangover from the 1970’s and 80’s when we had a lot of rather indifferent and often ghastly over-sulphured medium sweet and sweet wines from Germany and eastern Europe.
One of the great surprises is that after the sweet wine evening, people come up and say, “Gosh, you know, I didn’t think I would like sweet wine but these are delicious.” And that is the point; if you have good ones then they are lovely.
Nick Breeze: What would you say to people who might be interested to improve how they taste wine but think they just don’t have what it takes to be a better taster?
Michael Schuster: I don’t believe that. If you want to learn to taste, you can do. In terms of our ability to taste, most of our abilities are not that different and they are certainly not different enough to say that you can’t learn to taste.
Mainly I think it is a question of motivation, practice and guidance. If you want to do so then it is not difficult to do but you have to want to and as a teacher I can teach people how to help themselves. That’s the point and that is what my book does and if they read it then can learn what to do and if they want to do it, they can do it!
I don’t think there is any impediment. If you like wine and you want to become a better taster, if you put the effort in, no problem. But then I would say that wouldn’t I?!
Nick Breeze: How does Essential Wine tasting work and what are the limits as to how far it can take the student?
Michael Schuster: I’m a teacher, that is what I do. I think you can’t teach well unless you have the subject that you are teaching really clearly in mind. So that you understand it and you can articulate it well. One of the reasons for writing this book is not only to communicate but also to clarify matters for myself.
The book works by taking questions that are obviously important for the subject and asking “what is the answer for this?” and doing it simply.
At the end there is a course with ten tastings. It is a graduated course. It takes you through wine tasting, looking at the most important wines in the world. How you can compare them, how you can explore differences in style and quality, and it is backed up by reading in advance from within the book. So it is a graduated course. It’s a how-to.. like having me in the room with you when I am not actually there, but that is the idea!
How far can it take you? Well, this is not me saying it, it is aimed at beginners but my Master of Wine students treat it as their tasting bible as well.
This arrived yesterday, it’s an email from a professional ex-head sommelier in a 3 star Michelin restaurant. He says:
“I just want to congratulate you on your new book. I am lucky enough to have a copy. I am really enjoying reading it. It is easy, so clear and so well explained.”
That’s a head sommelier who has been doing this job for ten years or so. Talking about the scope of the book, I looked at Amazon, which I have never done before, but I came across a lovely five star quote, there are lots of them. And whoever this is writes:
“As a novice I gained a lot from this book and yet my friend, who is an experienced wine taster, said he also learned a huge amount and it is rare for a self-teaching book to satisfy readers with such a wide range of experience, from a novice to an expert.”
So, it is very wide ranging and lots of people have said this.
Nick Breeze. Do you see a contrast in the way that we communicate about wine, especially from a sales and marketing perspective, and the way that we experience it?
Michael Schuster: You are asking a tasting teacher and not a salesman. Of course there is a difference. The aims are different. If you are selling, You are trying to get an exchange of money for a product but I think the most important thing is to create trust. It goes back to what we talked about in your first two questions and that is the ability to, on the one hand, describe a wine objectively, to tell people what it is like, and at the same time say, “It is not for me but you might love it”.
It’s a very important skill for a sommelier to know how to ask the right questions of the customer to find out who they are and what they want to know, and to be able to separate at the same time, saying what a wine is like and whether he personally likes it or not, and whether he thinks they would enjoy it with whatever the food happens to be.
Nick Breeze: What about when people have an emotional connection to certain wines, maybe because they have been to the place of origin?
Michael Schuster: Well yes, absolutely.
There’s another question and that is the business which has arisen over the past 20-25 years, of wine scoring with numbers. I have very mixed feelings about it because it implies that you can measure a wine with numbers in an absolute way. And actually, you can’t!
People like wines for all sorts of reasons, independent of how good a professional may say they are. And those are related to individual experiences, to places, to holidays, to people they have drunk the wine with. That is a different sort of communication. It comes from the wine. Off course you can communicate that if you want to as a wine professional to people who are learning about it but yes, it is very different and very important.
Nick Breeze: In some respects, it is what the packaging evokes…
Michael Schuster: Well, absolutely. The whole question of origin, of wine labels, of an evocation of beyond what is actually inside the bottle. Of course it is hugely important and marketeers are very conscious of that and there is nothing wrong with that. It is a very important part of the experience. It is why traveling in wine regions makes such a difference, because the landscape in the region, the people, the smells, the occasion, the time you have been there. And all this comes back to mind when you drink the wine regularly and that just enlarges the experience.
Nick Breeze: How is the world of wine different from when you first published ‘Essential Winetasting' and has that impacted this new edition?
Michael Schuster: The first edition was published in 1999, nearly twenty years ago, and now there is this new edition which is very different. It its much bigger. So how long have you got for what has changed? There have been huge changes.
Climate change, of course, is perhaps the most important one but we have got all sorts of different closures, screw caps and so on. We have much wider range of wines than we ever had before. There’s organic wines, natural wines, there has been huge rise in alcohol levels that we may talk about in a moment.
So, a huge amount of change which has meant I have had to change the central part of the book which is on grapes and their wines and I hope that after twenty years I see things more clearly as well.
Nick Breeze: What is your view on organic wine or the production of organic wine?
Michael Schuster: My view on organic winemaking is a little bit like most peoples view on organic vegetables: if they are organic and they are better then great. But the fact you are growing grapes organically doesn’t necessarily make you a better farmer, a better fruit producer, a better grape producer, or a better wine producer. If both those things are there then it will be even better, yes.
I think it is a good thing in general anyway, out of respect for nature.
Natural wines are something different. They are wines that use little or no new wood, and as little sulphur as possible. They are very individual, not to everyones taste but an important, if niche, aspect of the wine market. You can’t not be aware of it and it is interesting to explore.
Nick Breeze: What do you think excites or concerns you the most about the contemporary wine world?
Michael Schuster: I guess the thing that concerns me most, and this is a matter if personal taste, is the unnecessary levels of high alcohol. People think higher alcohol levels must be due to climate change; more sunshine, more sugar in the grapes and so on. Essentially it is a wine making choice when they pick the grapes. We’ve moved from an average of 12% alcohol to 14-14.5% and often way above, in just 30 years.
My issue is not a moral one. It is not a health one. It is that wines of higher levels of alcohol taste different. In many cases I do not like that extra taste. They are hotter and harder in the mouth. They often have a burn, and so on and so forth. It doesn’t mean that I don’t like some high alcohol wines. I do. But there are many where I think it doesn’t make them taste better.
This is a pendulum thing. It is a fashion thing and one is already starting to see a movement towards lower levels of alcohol in places where they have been much higher.
Nick Breeze: I was talking to a producer from the Rhone who said he used to have to chaptalise their wines twenty years ago but these days if they are not careful they are going straight to port strength.
Michael Schuster: It’s difficult. There is no simple answer. For sure, when there is much more sunshine and when there is drought as well, you find your sugar levels, especially in red grapes, are ripening before the constituent parts of the skin, which also need to ripen.
It’s been a problem in the new world for a long time because of the hotter climates. But it is also true that you can regulate… picking is choice and you can certainly pick earlier and make wines that are still very ripe and very attractive without levels of alcohol that are 14 or 14.5% or whatever.
Climate change is not as yet so extreme as to force you up to that level. Of course climate change is a big plus in many areas. The closer you are to the two poles, the more easily you can make wine now in ways you couldn’t before. Sparkling wine in England, southern New Zealand, Tasmania, all sorts of places like that.
Nick Breeze: Do you think that is a sign of a shift in terms of everything moving further north and it will become harder and harder in more southerly areas?
Michael Schuster: It will certainly become more of a challenge in really hotter areas. You may need to change the grape varieties or rethink what you do. It may become impossible to make the styles of wine that you made in the past. Certainly with ease. That’s an open question at the moment.
But my point is that there is more high alcohol than there needs to be. This mantra that it doesn’t matter what the level of alcohol is as long as the wine is balanced is, I think, is complete nonsense.
Nick Breeze: What about this issue from a consumer point of view. People who used to sit at the dinner table with a couple of bottles of wine. From a consumer point of view, high alcohol isn’t great is it?
Michael Schuster: I don’t think it is. I think it is more difficult to drink and its harder to drink with food.
If you keep putting bottles at 14.5% in front of people they will get used to it. It maybe a bit of a health issue but for me it is an issue of taste.
Another issue is price. The point with alcohol levels is that you can change that. Price is a market thing. We can regret it but there is nothing we can do about it. You know, I can’t afford a Rolls Royce. Do I worry about it? No. I don’t think people worry that they can’t afford these great wines. There is so much great wine today that I don’t think it is an issue.
Nick Breeze: So what is exciting about the contemporary world of wine?
Michael Schuster: In terms of what excites me, just the great range of wines that there are today. There is a huge range of wines that are very different, very good and very affordable. And that is great!
We are very lucky to be living now. What will happen in 50 or 100 years time… who knows? But we are living a golden age for the classics, for the inexpensive wines.
Italy provides an incredible variety of wines that are not too alcoholic, not too expensive, very individual, very exciting. Of course, so does France, there’s great wines from everywhere.
It’s just a great time to be living, especially in terms of wine!
Michael Schuster's 'Essential Winetasting' can be bought online at Amazon by clicking here.
Michael has also launched his new website with course and tasting information: https://www.michaelschusterwine.com/