Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The Complex Drinking Tour - The Steps to Tasting Wine - Part II

In last week’s post, The Complex Drinking Tour - The Steps to Tasting Wine - Part I,  I addressed the initial steps of the tasting process.  Now the waiting is over and we can finally get to the really good parts of the process - let's taste!!! When we left off, we were just giving our wine a nice swirl after a pre-swirl sniff.
Let's Taste!
Sniff #2 - Post Swirl. After a nice swirl - give the wine another sniff. Again you want to see if anything smells off - possibly the wet cardboard smell of a corked bottle, but you also want to smell what "good" aromas the wine has to offer. 

One of the most difficult things in my study of wines has been the process of identifying aromas in wines, when tasting a glass of wine blind (not knowing anything but what you see in the glass). Identifying aromas can help you identify the grape variety and other information about the wine such as the wine region where it was made.  

I found myself recognizing that an aroma was familiar, but it was tough for me to identify what it was. To add to the complexity, wines have a mingling of different types of aromas (primary and secondary aromas) as I’ll go into in a bit.  I now find myself taking the time to smell different fruits, mushrooms, vegetables, etc so that I can better remember how a boysenberry smells different than a blackberry and a raspberry without the benefit of looking at what I’m smelling. (This is why my wife no longer goes with me to the grocery store or farmers market.) You may not have the desire to identify specifically what you are smelling in the wine, and its perfectly OK to just get a sense it is a pleasant aroma, and just classify as it as fruity vs another aroma.

Some of the Stuff Lurking in your Wine's Aromas

If you are interested in attempting to identify the aromas in your wines, there are a couple of different types of aromas that you will want to try and detect.  You wine will contain some amount of both of these categories of aromas:
  • Primary Aromas. These aromas come from the grape variety or varieties used to make the wine.  These types of aromas are typically fruit, vegetables, herbs and flowers.  Primary aromas are also referred to as the wine's "nose". Some examples:
    • Chardonnay Primary Aromas: Apple, Lemon, Melon, Peach, Pear, Pineapple.
    • Cabernet Sauvignon Primary Aromas: Blackberry, Raspberry, Cherry, Plum, Green Olive, Mint.
  • Secondary Aromas. These aromas are introduced into the wine by the winemaking and barrel aging process. These aromas come from both chemical reactions in the wines as it ferments, plus aromas imparted by aging the wine in oak barrels. Secondary aromas are also referred to as the wine's "bouquet". Some examples:
    • Chardonnay Secondary Aromas: Butter, Yeast, Bread Dough, Oak.
    • Cabernet Sauvignon Secondary Aromas: Pencil Shavings, Cigar Box, Vanilla, Smoke.
I usually try to start by identifying the primary, more fruit and vegetable aromas first (the "nose"). Next I attempt to push those aside in my mind and focus on the aromas besides the fruits and veggies - the secondary aromas (the "bouquet").

Just do the best you can with identifying aromas, and don’t get too hung up on it - you will improve with practice.  I was terrible at it for a long time, but slowly began to improve.  I also find that if I don't stay in practice, it does become tougher - so do your homework!!! When you read wine reviews that have super specific aroma identifications (like dried black currants or pencil shavings from a number 2 pencil with yellow paint) don’t be intimidated - some people's noses are better than others, but even the best noses are not that good and they are just making educated guesses sometimes!  The pros know what types of aromas should be in a certain type of wine - so they may be cheating a bit and coming up with fancy names just to impress us.
"I detect a hint of Damson and a flutter of Chokeberry"...REALLY???
Sip. You’ve used only your senses of sight and smell to this point, and now FINALLY it’s time to take a taste! Take a generous sip of wine, but not a huge mouthful as you’re going to need some room to maneuver the wine around in your mouth. Hold on - no swallowing yet!

First you want to make sure that the wine gets to all the areas of your taste receptors, and you want to introduce some aeration to help the wine release aromas. Remember - your mouth can only detect five tastes: sweet, salty, bitter, tart, and umami (savory flavor like soy sauce), but when you introduce smell you then are able to experience thousands of possible flavors
Areas of Taste Specialty in the Tongue (Your Results May Very)
Slightly open your lips and draw some air in and picture trying to draw/slurp the wine across your tongue.  Yes - this is the pursing of the lips and swishing sounds you may have mocked in other wine geeks, but you’re about to join the geek club!!! Really though, if you want  to get the most out of tasting your wine - this part of the process is a must.  With practice you can get to a point where you can do the aeration and slurping thing without offending those around you at dinner or a party (unless you're not worried about that!). You can even practice with water (nothing carbonated though!) to get used to the process before tackling it with wine.  Once your wine has taken a good tour around the inside of your mouth -  you can either swallow it, or spit the wine into a spit bucket (I reserve this only for wine classes or a day very full of wine tasting at wineries - the choice is yours). 

Now that you’ve tasted it, it’s time to see what the wine has going on.  Here are some things to look for during your initial taste, which will be used in your judgement of the wine in the following “Savor” section:
  • Flavors. How do the flavors in the wine stack up against the aromas you detected? Flavors can come in a range of fruity and earthy types, and you may or may not detect flavors that line up exactly with the aromas you detected.  Lucky for us, those wines that have barnyard, cat pee, fresh cut grass, pencil shavings, petroleum, latex etc. aromas, don’t necessarily taste like any of those things! 
  • Acidity.  How acidic is the wine? Acidity gives wine it’s sharpness, and is experienced as a mouthwatering feel when you taste the wine. Think of the mouth sensation of tasting a fresh lemon - not all acids are that strong, but the a similar mouthwatering impact is what you are experiencing from the acid in the wine.
  • Tannins. How tannic is the wine?  Tannins are the mouth drying/puckering substances that are detected by those taste buds sensitive to bitterness. Tannins are often felt more than tasted, but are an important part of the balance of the wine and the ability of the wine to age. Tannins are introduced by grape seeds (pips), stems, and by barrel aging, so mostly occur in red wines. However, there may be a trace of tannins in a barrel aged white like a chardonnay.  Tannins can range from silky to harsh, with the harsher variety likely signaling a wine needing more bottle aging to mellow.
  • Sweetness. Sweetness in wine comes from residual sugar left over after the fermentation process converts sugars to alcohol. Wines that are very fruity can seem sweet, but it is not from residual sugar, but just the fruit flavor of the wine.  True sweetness in wine will mostly be perceived as a taste on the tip of the tongue, while a fruity flavor will come mostly from the aromas of the wine.  All wine will have some amount of residual sugar, but the amount will determine how the wine will taste, and the level of sweetness: dry, off-dry, or sweet.
Savor. The “Savor” component of wine tasting consists of contemplating and judging the quality of the wine after you’ve either swallowed it or (if you must!) dispatched it to the spit bucket. The good news is that you get to define quality based on what you like!:
  • Body. The body of the wine refers to how light or heavy a feeling it leaves in your mouth.  Think of the difference between tasting skim milk, whole milk, and cream.  The wine will not be physically thicker like cream is compared to skim milk, but alcohol, tannins, and sugar in the wine team up to leave somewhere between a light-bodied and a full-bodied sensation in your mouth. Light reds would include Pinot Noir (the skim milk), while a Cabernet Sauvignon would be medium bodies (the whole milk), and a Port would be full bodied (the cream).
When is Wine Like Milk?
  • Balance.  The balance of the wine is all about how the components of taste and flavor interact together.  A certain harmony amongst the alcohol, tannins, sugar, and acidity helps to make for a pleasurable tasting wine.  The definition of “balance” will vary, as a Sauvignon Blanc is a wine that will be high in acidity, while a Gewurtztraminer can be quite low in acid by nature. The question of balance is how the elements play together for the tasting.
We Seek Balance!
Finish.  The finish of the wine is how long the aftertaste of the wine remains, and what are the characteristics of the after taste? Did the wine’s flavor dissipate quickly, or did it last for quite a few seconds after you swallowed? With some wines, you literally have a finish thatyou may detect on different parts of your tongue - for instance you may experience an aftertaste on the tip and back of your tongue, but the middle of the tongue may be void of taste.  A long finish that remains in balance (e.g. the fruit flavor doesn’t disappear leaving only mouth puckering tannins) is a good thing. Lack of a long finish does not mean a bad wine - especially in acidic white wines where the acid helps to clean your palate.
Ultimately the goal of the “Savor” step is for your to determine if this is a wine you like and want to drink again, or if it's one that you wouldn’t gift to your worst enemy. Does it taste good to just tip back a glass and enjoy, or would it be a good wine to have with a meal? 
Not so Good - Maybe More Bottle Aging?
With time and practice, you will start to more easily identify those wines that may need some additional aging (e.g. a red wine with harsh tannins), a wine that would benefit by pairing with food, and those that just seem to fall flat or seem out of balance and neither time nor food are going to help.  You will also find that your tastes will evolve as you get to try different types of wine, and you will detect patterns of things you like, and things you tend not to like.  Do me a favor and please always keep trying new things - you never know when a new favorite may cross your wine glass!

Repeat. No big explanation needed here - just swirl, sniff, sip, and savor to your heart’s content (responsibly of course!).  Take time to appreciate each wine you drink, you never know when you will find a gem that could become one of your go-to favorites.

A two part blog series is a lot of information about how to drink a beverage, but it gives you a look into the complexity of wines aromas, tastes, and flavors. I wanted to share with you each step of the entire process, but ultimately just remember to enjoy your wine, because that really is the main purpose of wine anyway!!!  When you do attend a more formal wine tasting or a tasting at a winery - take the time to go through the steps - you will not regret it!

Keep Calm, Wine On, and Enjoy!!!

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