SETTING THE SCENE
Conditions for optimal tasting:
- No Distractions: Refrain from perfume, air fresheners, flowers.
- Good Lighting: Bright natural light is best, but if unavailable, bright lighting will do.
- Fresh Palate: Begin with a fresh palate; avoid use of caffeine, tobacco, or any strongly flavoured food or drink a few hours prior. A cold will also numb a palate. So will two or three martinis…
Wine is assessed on four categories:
- Appearance (sight)
- Aroma (smell, of prime importance to learn and the most underrated sense)
- Flavour (taste, an overrated but nonetheless important sense)
- Texture (touch, mouthfeel)
We describe appearance by:
- HUE: The overall colour of the wine
- SATURATION: The depth of colour
- BRIGHTNESS: The sparkle and brilliance
- CLARITY: The winemaking techniques for cleaning the wine
- TURBIDITY: The opposite of clarity, a hazy or cloudy appearance
The appearance and colour of a wine will tell us about:
- CONCENTRATION: A deeper colour means a more concentrated wine
- BODY: A wine with no body will appear watery or thin
- AGE: A wine with a brown or brick colour will have age. Older wines brown with age. Reds get lighter and whites get darker. Watery or clear rims may be indicative of young whites.
- VARIETY: Chances are a light-coloured red wine may be a pinot noir. Syrah/shiraz tends to make very dark wines whereas pinot noir is light.
Smelling a wine will tell us more about it than all the other senses combined.
Smell is the most underrated sense we have. We hardly ever “stop and take time to smell the roses” as the saying goes. We are bombarded by smells on a daily basis but most go unnoticed unless it is particularly strong or unpleasant (or pleasant). We don’t take time to develop a full library of smells in our memories, preferring instead to evaluate much more on other senses.
We experience a “smell” when our noses detect air molecules given off by its source. We tend to categorize these molecules into only being a part of the source for which we have named them. As an example, it is far easier to articulate the smell of a wine as that of apple or pear, as opposed to the formula for the chemical compound responsible for this smell. The wine does not contain apples—it merely contains a natural chemical compound that produces an apple-like aroma.
The use of common everyday language help broaden the communication of the wine’s character.
- Build a library of descriptive smells in your brain. To do this you must know, for example, what asparagus smells like in order to describe it in a wine. Broaden your library of aromas.
- When developing the skill to nose wine, start with a cheat sheet of many descriptors to help you determine what you are getting from a wine. Quick referencing descriptors will speed up your ability to describe.
There are three levels of smell:
- PRIMARY: Aromas from grapes prior to fermentation (e.g. fruit)
- SECONDARY: Aromas from fermentation (e.g. yeast, oak, butter)
- TERTIARY: Aromas from aging (e.g. oxidation, leather, tobacco)
There are also off-odours that can enhance a wine’s complexity in limited amounts, but can completely destroy a wine in greater quantities.
- Vinegar / acetic acid
- Oxidation (which is best described as a nutty character like that of sherry)
- Nail polish remover
- Corkiness / TCA
- Brettanomyces (Brett) A strain of yeast which gives horse or barnyard aromas in wine.
The University of California’s Ann Noble designed this aroma wheel to help organize objective descriptors to make wine communication easier:
Here are a few tricks of the trade to help articulate aromas:
If the name of the aroma eludes you, try beginning by closing your eyes and thinking of colours, asking, for example, is this wine green or is it yellow? Often this will kick-start articulation.
Begin with generalized descriptors such as earthy, then articulate from there.
To begin nosing a wine:
- Ensure the glass is well rinsed and not defective.
- Pour an ounce or two of wine in the glass. While about 5 oz. is a standard wine serving, you only need an ounce or two to appreciate everything about the wine. For table wines, bigger glasses are preferred.
- Aerate the wine by holding the stem and drawing little imaginary circles with the base. This process will help release all of the aromas from the wine.
- Get your nose right in the glass.
- Inhale slowly but deeply. Some prefer numerous short sniffs similar to the way a dog sniffs. Whatever works…You will be your own best judge.
- Remember that your sense of smell will begin to fatigue in as few as six seconds so concentrate fully while nosing the wine. You can “reset” your nose by taking a break and smelling something else unrelated, for instance, your sleeve or a piece of bread. Then take a few extra breaths, relax and return to the wine.
Flavour is the most overrated sensory evaluation, simply because of the lack of focus given typically to aroma. There are four main components to taste
SWEET (front tip of tongue; sugar)
- Residual sugar detectable: no sugar = dry, some sugar = off-dry
- Sugar in grape is converted into alcohol
- Sugar/acid balance is crucial to quality of sweet wines
SOUR (sides and bottom of tongue toward back; acid)
- Acidic wines USUALLY come from cooler climates
- Acid in wines provides: freshness, balance, longevity, colour, stability
- The two naturally occurring acids in wine are malic and tartaric
- Acids resulting from fermentation process include citric and lactic
SALTY (front, top, sides of tongue; inorganic materials)
- Not commonly found in wines, although saltiness can affect wine, especially during food pairing
BITTER (rear top of tongue, front gums, back of lips; tannins)
- Astringency (tea, aspirin, banana peel)
- Comes from two main sources:
Tannins released from parts of grape during fermentation
Oak barrels in aging and storage
Texture is the “feel” of a wine is the texture and/or body of the wine in the mouth. If there is:
- Too little alcohol in the wine, it is perceived as thin and light
- Too much, the wines are hot and burn at the back of the throat
A well-made high alcohol wine can be described as a full-bodied style, having both alcohol and acid in balance. It may also indicate a warm region wine.
A well-made low alcohol wine can be described as a light & delicate style wine, having alcohol and acid in balance, and may indicate a cool region wine.
GLOSSARY OF WINE TERMS
ACID: Next to water and sugar, acid is the most important element in the grape. The acidity in wine sets it apart from all other beverages. Acidity gives wine its tartness, and makes it thirst quenching. It causes a person to salivate. Without acidity a dry wine would taste flat and a sweet wine would be flabby and cloying. Acidity contributes to the aging ability of wine. There are 2 types of acids in wine; fixed acids include: malic, tartaric, and citric. Volatile acids include: acetic acid (vinegar) et.al. These acids are unwanted and result from flaws, oxidation and long age.
ALCOHOL: Made by yeasts that feed off the sugar in the grape juice (fermentation process). Gives body or mouthfeel to wine. The amount of alcohol in a wine is directly related to the amount of sugar in the grapes that the yeast is able to consume during the fermentation. More sugar = more alcohol strength. Additionally, cool climate wines may contain lower amounts of alcohol than warm climate wines because their growing season is shorter and the grapes may not achieve the ripeness of grapes grown in warmer climates. This is a result of the cooler climate grapes containing less sugar for the yeast to feed on so, for example, German wines are usually 7-10% alcohol by volume, whereas a warm climate Shiraz such as in Australia would be 12-15% alcohol by volume.
AROMA: A single odour given off by a wine.
BALANCE: A good wine has balance. This occurs when no one thing stands out above the other in a wine.
BODY: Described as the weight of the wine on the palate. Think of milk. Cream is heavy bodied. Whole milk is medium bodied. Skim milk is light bodied. Cabernet Sauvignon is an example of a full bodied wine whereas Riesling exemplifies a light bodied wine.
BOUQUET: A complex group of aromas. Bouquet develops in older wines. Think of a bouquet of flowers containing different types of flowers, each with their own aromas.
BRETTANOMYCES: A type of yeast which in small quantities give greater complexity. The yeast contributes aroma of barnyard, manure, earthiness which in unwanted quantities flaw the wine. Picking up “brett” from a wine may hint that it is an Old World wine.
CORKED: Term used to describe a bottle of wine that is tainted by a bad cork. The aroma of the wine will smell of mildew and wet cardboard. It is commonly believed to affect anywhere from 5% to as much as 10% of ALL wine bottles. It’s not the restaurant’s fault. These wines were affected as soon as the cork was inserted into the bottle. Prior to bottling, real cork is chlorinated to kill any harmful natural occurring microbes in the cork. If any remaining cleaning agents come into contact with any microbes that have not been killed, after the final rinse, than a chemical compound called TCH is created. TCH causes the off odours in the bottle. Different people have different thresholds for detecting TCH.
DRINESS: The absence of perceptual sweetness in a wine.
FINISH: The length of time the flavours of a wine linger in the mouth after swallowing. Good wines have long finishes which should show some hint of complexity.
LEES: The sediment of yeast, grape skins, etc. left from fermentation. Some wines, e.g. chardonnays may be left to sit on the lees for a period of time determined by the winemaker, in order to give the wine certain characteristics imparted by the lees, namely a mouth feel of creaminess. Some labels indicate the grape varietal followed by the term ‘sur lie’, which means the wine rested on the lees after fermentation.
TANNIN: Belongs to a group of compounds called Phenols. It comes from two sources; grapes (stems, seeds, skins) and oak barrels used in fermentation or ageing. Tannins act as natural preservatives, and lessens in degree as the wine ages in the bottle, thereby bringing the fruit character of the wine to the fore. Tannins are not a part of taste. Tannins are sensed in the mouth as astringency. Think of sucking on a teabag.
VINICULTURE: The process of making wine out of the harvested grapes.
VITICULTURE: The process of growing the grapes, as in agriculture.