Written by Geena Whiting

Any athlete would agree that one cannot simply succeed on talent alone. Practise is key to becoming one of the greats. One cannot simply wake up and decide to run a marathon or swim an endurance race that same day. Your body is not the only thing that needs to be trained, mental endurance plays a major factor in achieving anything.

Recently, I had the privilege of being invited to sit on a judging panel. What a fantastic opportunity, to be able to sit with outstanding members of the wine community and taste some of the best wines our country has to offer.

Sitting there bright eyed and bushy tailed I was blissfully unaware that I had just stepped onto the starting block that would put my mental endurance and my passion to the test.

Generally a standard tasting at a wine farm is 5 wines. Where you can sit with your friends and laugh and chat. You enjoy the ambiance as the time flies by, sometimes easily spending 10 – 15 minutes tasting one wine as you are immersed in conversation and taking in the view. It is easy for 2 hours to slip by without ever glancing at the time.

Each day of tasting was spanned over about 4 hours; one would assume this is ample time for a great tasting. However this was no ordinary tasting, the wines were bought to us, twelve glasses on a tray. Each wine had to be carefully analysed: if any faults were present, for colour intensity, aroma, taste on palate, mouth feel, linearity of the flavours, the body and balance of the wine and of course the finish. For any avid wine taster this may seem standard practise, I too thought (quite naïvely so) it would be easy enough to analyse a couple of wines and then break early for lunch, but the trays just kept coming, like a turbid ocean the waves never seemed to stop.

At wine 52, I could feel myself wavering and we had already had our tea break.

“Wine 53, wine 54, wine 58… wait… did I skip a few? I haven’t written any scores since wine 53! I can’t even recall whether I rated them highly or not… Do we seriously still have 20 more to do? This is harder than I thought it would be; I can’t do this.”

Many thoughts such as these passed through my head. I felt overwhelmed as I watched how the other judges analysed wine after wine with precision and accuracy; it seemed to be easy as breathing for them.

“I cannot give up.”

I recalibrated myself, had a cracker to cleanse my palate and a glass of water to wash it down.

“Deep breath, start from number 53…”

It was imperative that I applied my mind equally to every wine, to give each wine a fair opportunity for analysis and the chance to amaze me.

Everyone has preferences: Tea vs. Coffee, Soccer vs. Rugby, Cats Vs Dogs. The same obviously applies to wine: White vs. Red, Sweet vs. Dry, Cultivar vs. Cultivar.  Looking a bit deeper into wine there can even be preferences of different styles under a Cultivar, different styles such as  fruit driven,  oaky/spice driven, a wine trying to be true to its terroir, full bodied or light bodied. Even details down to cellar management/practises can be tasted and preferred in wines.

By wine 50, day 1, it became more difficult to judge the wines as naturally I favour a certain style over others. It was important to constantly recalibrate and give the wine credit for its specific style.

One must also be very aware of the possible terroir influences that the wine may present, i.e. is there a fault in the wine or is the wine simply representing its terroir. Is the wine degrading and showing early onset tertiary characteristics or is it displaying qualities due to poor cellar practises. All of these things needed to be constantly contemplated whilst tasting quantities of wine on such magnitude.

The more and more I taste and learn, the more I realise how little I know and the more excited I get to learn more. Aspiring sommeliers and wine makers, the only thing we can do to improve our tasting skills and our mental endurance when it comes to fully analysing wines, is to taste more wines and when I say taste, I don’t mean to simply visit more wine farms. We must sit and analyse the wines we drink over a meal, we must organize tastings with our colleges, we must become more exposed to wines not just in or immediate region but from all the wine regions this country has to offer. The only way to improve our palate and become mentally stronger is to taste and analyse more.

Each wine, like a snowflake, is unique. Quality cannot be based on preference. One must have a keen mind and a good understanding of wines and wine faults. Which is why in my opinion to judge and taste many wines of the same cultivar in that have been made with different stylistic approaches requires the mental endurance of an athlete.