Virtual wine tasting: does it work?

Virtual Wine Tasting — PHOTO BY SHERWIN LAO

I had gone out with my family on a recent Saturday night to watch the last screening of the day of Top Gun: Maverick, a rare occasion in recent years that has seen us go out late at night. What we all observed was the large number of people outside, the high volume of cars, heavy traffic and bustling commerce in bars and restaurants – all indications that Metro Manila’s nightlife has returned to pre-pandemic levels. Restaurants are busy again even though take-out and delivery are readily available, as consumers also place high value on ambience, presentation, service and, of course, food served hot and fresh. This could actually be said even more with the wines.,,, are just a few of the more popular online alcohol websites that sell a lot of wine, especially during times of quarantine and movement restrictions. However, we have the feeling that some things are really better experienced in situ. I just feel like wine consumers want to see, and even touch, their wines when they go to their favorite supermarkets or liquor stores.

L’En-Primeur is the most important business meeting place in the city of Bordeaux. It lasts between 8 and 10 weeks. First, which literally means “first”, is the practice of buying wines before they are commercially released. It is also known as “wine futures” and is basically like investing in commodity futures and hedging against fluctuations in asset prices.

During this annual meeting, the Châteaux obtain deposits on their wines (18 months minimum in advance), while the buyers, mostly merchants, obtain their wines of this vintage at supposed pre-release prices. lower than those practiced when the same wines are marketed. published.

Apart from the wine industry, the whole city is also bustling and directly benefits from the thousands of wine professionals who come from all over the world and spend euros in hospitality businesses including hotels, restaurants and transportation. So when this COVID-19 curse fell on Bordeaux and France in general, the people of Bordeaux had to do something to save this financially critical En-Primeur tradition. Virtual wine tasting, previously completely unknown, is now a reality.

With a lockdown in place, the only way for castles to entice interested buyers to buy scoop wines was to send in samples and do what are now commonly referred to as virtual tastings. Even the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux, a powerful group of more than 130 top-level member chateaux from Bordeaux’s top appellations, had members sending cask samples to negociants and wine critics. Instead of face-to-face barrel tasting and chatting with winemakers and chateau owners, it has been replaced by real-time virtual Zoom meetings and remote tastings of submitted samples.

The experiment may have worked as the 2020 and 2021 En-Primeur both did their job for the 2019 vintage (mainly due to a price reprieve from price growth over the past few years) and 2020, another well-priced vintage. But there were also gripes and concerns about the virtual tasting experience. Along with suspicions that the barrel samples were not the same as the final wine blend, meaning the tastings conducted remotely were in fact different from the finished product, there were also volatility issues and noticeable defects of the samples.

As of this writing, the 2022 En-Primeur for the 2021 Bordeaux vintage has returned to its successful pre-pandemic head-to-head setting and is ending – and, as I learned from my good friend and contact person Yann Schyler, there is no official start and end date for En-Primeur.

I already feel that the return to a real En-Primeur will be beneficial for the châteaux, with a rather disappointing 2021 vintage which should do much better than expected. The mere rebirth of real, live interactions and tastings between buyers, critics and château owners, after two “virtual years of tasting”, can have a huge influence on the positive reception of the wine trade at this vintage 2021.

During the lockdown years of 2020 and 2021, virtual wine tastings were the buzzword among wine businesses. In wine-producing countries, from Australia to the United States, wine tastings in cellars or cellars have been replaced by virtual wine tastings where customers receive a selection of bottles of wines before the tasting program and were then guided through each bottle by a winery representative via Zoom or Google Meet as scheduled.

For us here in Metro Manila, instead of wine dinners, brave wine companies have offered wine and food sets for scheduled virtual tastings. I thought there weren’t many successful virtual wine dinners in 2020 and 2021. Virtual wine tastings are only temporary solutions, but their novelty might end sooner than we think. And let me explain why.

1. No personal touch — Virtual tastings are a bit impersonal. You are looking at a screen while tasting wine with the person on the other side of the screen. Wine is and always will be a social drink. Wine needs company, and wine events need people together to be successful. Laughter, clever commentary, the sound of glass clinking and even simple gestures can be missed on virtual platforms when these little things add to the magic of a wine event.

2. Rhythm problem – With scheduled virtual tastings, pace is important, and getting every attendee from different households, or even one household, to the same page or at the same pace will always be a challenge. In the live tastings, there are no distractions as everyone is properly seated and waiting for the host to guide them through each of the wines in the lineup. In a virtual setup, people can tinker with their phones, watch TV, or do other things because these activities are just second nature when you’re in the comfort of your home.

3. Less selection — With virtual tastings, only certain wines are presented and delivered because you cannot overestimate the price of a virtual wine tasting event by sending more than three bottles. With more than three wines, the price of a wine package for virtual tastings can get out of reach. Whereas in real live wine events, multiple wines may be featured, from cocktails before the formal dinner, to each wine served with the four or five courses of the meal. With a virtual tasting, it could be a single white wine, a red wine, and a sparkling or dessert-type wine.

4. Wastage or forced consumption — Since the majority of these virtual wine tastings will deliver full-size bottles, wastage or forced consumption (especially for households of three or less) is the natural consequence. At real live wine events, wines are portioned, and it is even difficult to get seconds because no extra bottles are normally opened. Unlike spirits which, with their higher ABVs, can be left undrinked for days, weeks or months, unfortunately for opened wines, they must be consumed in their entirety within the next few hours. Unless, of course, you have wine storage gadgets like the expensive Coravin or an inert gas canister to store wine properly. Contrary to popular belief, a screw cap cannot store wine once it has been opened because air would already have entered after opening.

Virtual wine tastings for avid learners are indeed much better than drinking clueless. However, this phase should be over once the country opens up and normality returns. There is simply no substitute for real live wine events. I want to see the rosy cheeks of my fellow wine drinkers up close and hear the clink of wine glasses – that’s how it should be.

The author is the only Filipino member of the UK-based Circle of Wine Writers (CWW). For comments, inquiries, wine event coverage, wine advice, and other wine-related concerns, email the author at [email protected]or consult his oenological training website

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