The Taste with Vir: Wine lessons from one of America’s greatest sommeliers, Calcutta boy Rajat Parr
By universal acclaim Rajat (Raj) Parr is one of America’s greatest sommeliers. For at least two decades now, his fame has spread from the West Coast to all over America.Updated: Nov 13, 2019 13:20 IST
By universal acclaim Rajat (Raj) Parr is one of America’s greatest sommeliers. For at least two decades now, his fame has spread from the West Coast to all over America. His tasting skills are legendary. He can take a single sip of a wine and tell you what has gone into it (grape, region, year etc.) and usually, the name of the wine too. (Unless it is a little mediocre wine that no one has ever drunk—in which case you shouldn’t be asking a great sommelier about it anyway.)
For us in India, Rajat’s success is specially interesting because he is a Calcutta boy, educated at the Manipal Catering Institute. He wanted to be a chef and had never drunk wine till he got to New York when he was in his 20s. What’s also fascinating is that he has now crossed the aisle and is actually making his own highly rated wines in California and Oregon.
I will write about Parr in detail in Rude Food in a couple of weeks (Brunch deadlines!). But till then, here is a little about wine that I gleaned from Parr in the four days we spent together, tasting, eating and drinking in the glorious surroundings of Velaa Private Island in the Maldives.
Parr will be attending wine dinners in Mumbai and Delhi (at Americano, The Taj Chambers, Le Cirque at the Delhi Leela Palace and even West View at the Maurya) over the next few days so you can probably taste his wines and talk to him yourself if you are a wine buff.
You should also read his two books: Secrets of the Sommeliers and the more recent The Sommelier Atlas of Taste. They tell you nearly everything there is to know about wine. If they made me king of the World, I would make it mandatory for every sommelier to have studied these books before going out on the floor.
Here are some highlights from our conversation --- much of what we talked about can also be found in his books.
Our sense of taste and flavour:
The most important thing to understand about flavour is that every human being possesses the most complicated and impossible-to-replicate mechanisms for identifying smells and flavours: the palate and the nose.
As much as science has advanced, it still cannot identify the scents and flavours in wine as well as a human being can. For instance, we may smell tropical fruit in a white wine or a cigar box in a red wine. Science usually cannot detect those notes --- not because they are not there but because the technology required to find them has not yet been invented.
Parr quotes Mark Schatzker (author of The Dorito Effect): “The best aroma-sensing equipment money can buy will run you $ 35,000. It can take that equipment hours to ‘taste’ a single substance, and it can’t even say if it tastes good or not. It can tell you only what’s in there. And even then it will still miss stuff. The human nose is instant. The human nose is technology money cannot buy.”
How do we taste?
We all know the theory about the taste receptors on our tongue. But this is not a full explanation. First of all, we don’t quite know what receptors there actually are. Only recently have scientists discovered umami taste receptors, finally setting the debate about whether umami is a basic taste.
Also, so much of taste has to do with the nose not with the tongue. We smell food and wine before we taste it. Food memories (the smell of bacon frying, the aroma of butter and ghee, the re-assuring scent of vanilla etc.) are often more scent-oriented than taste oriented. With wine, aroma is even more important. (As it is with spirits --- I wrote a couple of weeks ago about watching cognac master-blenders at work: aroma was more important to them than flavour.)
Moreover, flavour is still a frontier science. New elements are constantly being discovered. And the existing ‘basic tastes’ seem inadequate to capture the flavours we encounter in everyday life. When we say something tastes ‘metallic’, what do we mean? You can’t really explain it away in terms of sweet, salty, sour, bitter or umami.
In 2010, Japanese scientists wrote about Kokumi, which is not exactly a basic taste but which profoundly affects flavour. The Japanese are struggling to explain kokumi in English but it has a lot to do with amplitude, and the way in which flavours affect the mouth. In that sense, it is related to what we call mouthfeel.
The great food scientist Harold McGee went to Japan and confirmed that Kokumi did make a difference to how foods tasted. Kokumi is activated by compounds that engage calcium sensing receptors on our tongue. Many of these compounds are found in wine. So, as research continues, we are likely to find that texture, mouthfeel and kokumi are as important to the wine experience as the old tasting terminology .
Is there such a thing as terroir?
Parr is clear. Terroir exists. But it is not a term that applies to any kind of soil. He prefers the wider definition of terroir (micro-climate, irrigation etc.) and argues that terroir is not everywhere. It refers to conditions that produce good wine.
His sense is that wine-making has three components. The first is plant materials. We don’t realise this but plants have an intelligence of their own. Not all vines are created equal. The root structure is important. So is the age of the wines.(Older vines can be wiser.)
As civilians, we think of pinot noir as no more than a single grape. For professionals, it is much more complex. Some growers will plant clones of successful pinot noir vines and try and reproduce the flavour of those grapes. Cloning is now a big business. (It is a little like horse breeding!)
On the whole, Parr is not keen on clones, which sound too much like antiseptic lab grapes to him.
But he recognises that each vine will produce a grape with a slightly different character. Great growers will use a process called Massal selection which takes cuttings of vines with desirable characteristics and then requires you to plant various different vines in the same vineyard.
Most of us, who live outside wine-making circles, often don’t get how important the plant itself is to the quality of a wine.
The second most important component of a good wine is viticulture. This includes soil, terroir, planting process, the density of bushes, the yield of the vineyard, the climate etc.
And the third most important factor is the human hand. A great wine maker can make a great wine from a vineyard that is merely very good and a good wine from a vineyard of no great distinction.
So yes, of course, terroir is vital. But it really goes far beyond terroir.
Old World or New World
I am not sure if these blanket distinctions apply any longer. Too many wines in too many different styles are made all over the world to allow for a New World-Old World kind of separation.
I reckon that Parr loves Burgundy and that preference comes through in all his wines. Yet they are made in America and so, technically, would be called New World.
But in blind tastings, famous wine critics have mistaken his wines for (French) Burgundy. Parr’s preference is for wines with elegance and finesse over the over-extracted style flavoured by Robert Parker which characterises so many California wines.
Like all sommeliers, Parr is a fan of small growers. I told him that all of us agreed with him there. But the truth is that we are dependent on large importers in India who don’t have much time for say, a grower’s champagne. (The one exception is Sanjay Menon.)
Did he have a champagne house or a wine negociant to recommend for people who could not find say, Prevost’s wonderful champagnes or Burgundy from his favourite growers?
He picked Louis Roederer for Champagne.
And what about Burgundy? Any of the big boys that he had respect for?
He picked Drouhin.
You don’t have to agree. But it is worth keeping in mind.