Grab Grabers to tame tannins

Wine Press NorthwestDecember 20, 2012 

When wine competition judges taste hundreds of wines over several days, how do they manage to avoid palate fatigue? In the tasting group I belong to, many of us find tasting even a dozen wines -- especially big red wines -- leaves us feeling we may not do justice to the last couple wines we taste.

I think virtually every wine judge I've ever talked with or judged with shares your concern. I have judged Pacific Northwest tastings with veterans of 25 to 30 years of competitions, and I have yet to sit through a multi-day event at which the topic of palate fatigue does not come up.

First of all, savvy organizers can make a major difference. They try to avoid loading onto a judging panel several flights of big red wines and then following up with dozens more big reds. At one recent event, for example, my panel of judges was relieved to learn we would be judging a flight of whites after we had concluded a set of chewy, high-alcohol, tannin-laden Syrahs.

Judges also appreciate organizers who set up the judges with an array of ways to cleanse their palates. At Wine Press Northwest's major tastings, master facilitator Hank Sauer and his crew always ensure judges have both bottled water and sparkling water, plus an array of foods that can augment the judges' endurance. They include bland crackers, such as oyster crackers, white mushrooms, apple slices, a mild cheese and Graber olives from Ontario, Calif.

Grabers are much different from the typical black olives for sale in most grocery stores. The typical canned black olives labeled as "ripe olives" are picked while green and very firm and turn black during the curing process.

(Grabers are picked when they've ripened to a cherry-red color, then "cured in covered vats without being oxidized," according to Graber Olive House. That atypical treatment gives their olives a nut-like color and a succulent flavor that's much milder than the typical black olive.)

Each judge's routine will vary somewhat, but most drink a bottle or two of water during every three- or four-hour session and use the sparkling water to supplement it and to help clear away the tannins and other red wine elements that coat the tongue and teeth. Small amounts of crackers, cheese and the Graber olives -- usually eaten between flights -- are important in neutralizing the elements in both reds and whites that can overwhelm a judge's senses of taste and smell. Some judges consume very little of the fare they're offered; others much more.

And I suppose I also should also note that wine judges sip only small amounts of wine -- usually an ounce or less -- and swallow virtually none. Anyone who swallowed even a small amount would be overwhelmed by the alcohol, not to mention all the other wine components. For example, over three days during the recent Wine Press Northwest Platinum Judging, I tasted 304 wines. Even at an ounce per wine, that would be the equivalent of consuming a case of wine if I had swallowed even an ounce of each wine!

As an aside, wine drinkers who are participating in a several-course dinner or similar event with an array of wines can adopt some of these strategies. Dan Berger, who oversees the Riverside International Wine Competition, said he drinks plenty of water at such events, starting with a glass of water before he drinks any wine. That gets the kidneys functioning and ready to begin handling the alcohol as soon as it arrives, he said.

His basic rule is a glass of water for each glass of wine -- and that's at least an 8-ounce glass. And, he says, stay ahead of the wine with the water. The time it takes to drink the water, combined with the dilution the water provides, will slow both the consumption of wine and the absorption of its alcohol. He also recommends eating plenty of food, and especially some fatty food, as an assist.

Wine words: Trockenbeerenauslese

Ah, those wonderful compound words that the Germans have a special knack for creating are something, aren't they? Who else could come up with a 20-letter word with such ease? Most of us with Anglo-Saxon in our blood struggle to get beyond a mere four letters.

In short, it's the word for a fine dessert wine laden with sugar but not frozen on the vine as ice wine is. These "TBA" grapes are individually selected from clusters that are allowed to hang for several weeks past the usual harvest date. The individual grapes are dried out like raisins, shriveled up by the fungus botrytis and uniquely flavored by it. The resulting wines typically show off intense, rich aromas and flavors of botrytis, caramel, honey, apricot and dried peach.

Riesling is the most common variety used to produce it, and a handful of Pacific Northwest wineries have tried to emulate the style. Among the best that I've tasted was a Riesling made in 2010 by Koenig Vineyards in the Snake River Valley. At harvest, the grapes were 37* brix and, after fermentation, the wine was 12% alcohol with 14.7% sugar.

The Koenig effort won a Platinum award in the 2012 Wine Press Northwest Platinum Judging -- high praise indeed for its makers and for the improving state of Idaho winemaking.

Ken Robertson, retired editor of the Tri-City Herald in Kennewick, Wash., has been sipping Northwest wines and writing about them since 1976.

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