When the news of a 'robotic wine taster' developed by Japanese engineers hit the newswires at the end of last month, I thought, "Great, now someone's trying to put us wine reviewers out of a job." But reading the actual lines that followed the sensational headline, it became clear that the 'robotic wine taster' was simply a wine analysis machine that at this stage can only detect 30 different organic compounds that are unique to 30 different wine varietals. It can determine that a wine in a bottle is the same as the varietal stated on its label, but only for the varietals it knows about. So it's not really a wine taster at all. And with its rather bulky size that is twice the size of a 3-litre wine cask, it is not something that you would want to carry around. Now any wine scientist will tell you that this is simply another piece of analytical laboratory equipment and there are already wine scan machines around that break down the components of a wine and record them in a computer database. They may not be able to determine the variety, or the country or region it comes from, but they tell you everything else.
But there's something exciting in the wind as Japanese inventors are working on developing a 'robot' that will 'taste' the wine or food for you at restaurants before you do. Named 'Popero', this micro-sized robot will fit inside your cell phone and use infra-red to tell you not only how many calories food contains, but also if the food is fresh or off, and of course it will know if the wine is faulty before it passes your lips. Perhaps, in the future, there will also be a micro-sized wine identifier that, with a passing over of your infra-red beam on your multi-functional cell-phone, will tell you variety, country, region, vintage and producer as well. But what a killjoy this would be for blind tasters. It would take away all the fun and guesswork, that's for sure.
Technology is taking off at an unprecedented rate and things we once thought as science fiction are already reality. But will there ever be a 'robot' that can identify all the subtle nuances of a wine and explain it, using excessive adjectives, the way that wine reviewers, like myself, do? Wine is so subjective, after all, and what one wine taster might perceive as something could be interpreted as something completely different by another wine taster, so how would such a machine be calibrated? Mind you, vague terms like 'mineral', would quickly become redundant.
Once of the hardest varietals to calibrate would be Pinot Noir. It is the most fascinating varietal of all, with many hard-to-define subtleties. I made a list of descriptors once, using all the terms I could apply to Pinot Noir, and came up with over 100 options. Add to that adjectives like 'slightly', 'a hint of', 'dominant' and so-on, and the list becomes even bigger. Not that all could ever be applied to one wine, because that would be plain stupid.
Many of my tasting notes are long, however, because in the best tasting conditions the wine is tasted over a period of time and during that time the wine in the glass aerates and changes. So it would be unlikely that an identical description would be applied to the first taste poured from a bottle and to the last of the dregs. Of course there will be similarities, but there will be subtle, or possibly quite distinctive, differences.
But sometimes wines do not need lengthy tasting notes to convey their quality and this was true of one wine when I tasted a few Pinot Noirs last week. The wine I liked the most was the wine I had written the least about.
Shaky Bridge Pinot Noir 2003, from the Alexandra sub-region in Central Otago, was that wine. A well-coloured red with little fading for its age, the aroma is earthy and savoury, even a little 'pongy' to start, with dark, spicy oak and subtle cherry and red guava fruit that carries through to the finely structured, silky textured palate. It's very dry but with natural fruit sweetness imparting balance and a touch of clove-studded orange peel coming forth on the lingering smoky finish.
Shaky Bridge is the export label of established Alexandra company, William Hill, but as there's an established Napa Valley winery called William Hill, the export label was introduced for international sales. It takes its name from the Shaky Bridge (built 1878) over the Manuherikia River, a tributary to the mighty Clutha. William Hill has established a vineyard on the south east side of the river and in the growing season the green vibrancy of the vines is a stark contrast to the towering black schist rocks of Bridge Hill, behind it.
Cross the historic Shaky Bridge by foot to go the café where you can taste and buy the wines as well as partake in a few refreshments, or drive there via the road bridge in Little Valley Rd and turn off right down the unsealed Graveyard Gully Rd. Old stone buildings give a feel of the pioneering days
The grapes for the Shaky Bridge Pinot Noir 2003 were a mixture of clones grown in William Hill's original vineyard in the Springfield suburb of Alexandra, as well as from the new plantings in the Shaky Bridge vineyard. It was made by David Grant in consultation with Gerry Rowland from the USA. Sealed with a screwcap, it carries 13.9% alcohol by volume and costs $36 a bottle. Buy online or find out more from www.shakybridge.co.nz.
What to match with Pinot Noir?
Quite a lot, actually. I decided, however, that I wanted something classic, yet easy, and the butcher helped me out with a perfectly sized piece of fillet steak that I could cut into four pieces.
Pieces of streaky bacon were cut to the same width as the cut pieces of fillet steak and the bacon wound around the circumference of the steak and secured with a toothpick. A smidgen of butter was added to the non-stick pan I had prepared the potatoes in earlier (see below) and given a burst of heat. The heat was lowered just as the steaks were added to sizzle for a couple of minutes each side, then turned on their sides to get the bacon cooked.
The steaks were moved to a warm oven, where I had my potatoes finishing off, to rest.
Mushrooms were sliced and these were added to the pan with a little butter, then doused with some pinot noir and finished off with a touch of cream.
In another pan, broccoli and cauliflower, that had been steamed, were being sizzled in a little rice bran oil, to give them a crisp edge.
But the piece de resistance was my potato crisps. A large, yellow-fleshed Agria potato, had been peeled and thinly sliced using a mandolin slicer. With a tiny bit of rice bran oil in the pan, these were cooked each side until they started to crisp up, then moved to a cake rack which I had sitting over an oven tray. When the cake rack was covered, it went into a fan oven @ 150 degrees C for the potatoes to cook until they were crisp and starting to brown.
These potatoes had no other flavouring except the rice bran oil - not even any salt and pepper - but they were the tastiest crisps I have ever tasted. No more Eta crisps for me. These, I knew, were as healthy as crispy potatoes could be.
With the Shaky Bridge Pinot Noir 2003, this meal was perfect.
© Sue Courtney
6 August 2006