INITIAL WINE TASTING – LOOK and SMELL
This is probably an appropriate time to discuss “wine tasting” – not throwing back wine shooters, and not listening to some overblown idea of what a wine tastes like – but a tasting that can begin a lifetime of learning.
I begin all of our wine seminars at Elizabeth’s with an admonition and promise – that wine tasting is one of the great courses you can take because “you are the professor and you grade the papers.” Your palate controls and no one should tell you whether you like or should like a wine. The best advice is to ignore all ratings or write-ups about a wine, simply approach wine tasting as a food tasting – After all wine is food.
There are three essential and different steps to tasting wines. Wine tasting is your evaluation of a wine’s appearance, smell and taste.
LOOK AT THE WINE
The first step is to observe the wine’s overall appearance – your first clue to the wine you are about to taste. Most of the following observations can be accomplished in a few seconds. Don’t spend a lot of time observing the wine.
Color intensity: This can give a good indication of a wines quality – particularly when comparing similar wines of the same varietal. e.g.: a Pinot Noir with a Pinot Noir. If one of the compared wines has a deeper color the wine was probably made from higher quality grapes and will have more flavor and body. Also, if a red wine has a paler color it can be an indication that the grapes may have been picked before fully ripened or come from an over-planted vineyard.
To determine a wine’s true color hold the stem, tilt the glass at an angle and view the wine against a white background thereby viewing the wine on its side.
Generally, the paler a wine is the less intensity the wine will show.
A pale wine with slight green tints usually indicates a wine from a cool climate and a wine that probably has some noticeable acidity.
A straw color may indicate a relatively young dry wine.
Yellow gold or “buttercup-yellow” shade can indicate a wine with more powerful, complex or medium aged flavors (3 to 5 years).
A deeper gold color will usually indicate a wine with six or more years of bottle age. A late harvest or a dessert wine such as Chateau d’Yquem can gain an even deeper golden color with long term bottle aging.
Brownish tints to the wine usually indicate excessive aging that may have become oxidized. (A wine exposed to small amounts of oxygen over a long aging which causes deterioration and exhibits a sherry smell – is not good.)
The color of red wine can give significant hints to us about the wine we are about to drink.
Purple: usually indicates a young wine.
Ruby (crimson): Young dry wines with minimal aging.
Red – indicates a wine with several years of bottle age such as a 2 to 5 year old Bordeaux or Cabernet Sauvignon, or a 1 to 3 year old Pinot Noir
Brick-red color occurs when a hint of brown begins to show in a wine and when the red color begins to fade. This color is evident in older Bordeaux and Burgundies.
The brownish color becomes more noticeable as these wines age more towards their maturity.
A quick note: sometimes while observing a wine’s clarity you will observe little crystal deposits in the wine (tartrate crystals). These crystal deposits do not affect the wines taste. If they are in the bottom of the bottle a slow pouring into the glass will help reduce their appearance in the glass.
Another note: What are legs and are they important? Legs, sometimes referred to as tears, assist in identifying a wine tasted blind. When wine is swirled in the glass the rivulets that are formed on the side of the glass give us an indication of the wine’s alcohol level, or a wines richness. When tasting from a bottle just look at the alcohol percentage on the bottle don’t bother with legs.
But, you say we are here to taste.
True, but our next step is the most important and must be taken before actual tasting.
First you should avoid the use of perfume or scented after-shave lotion if you are going to be tasting wines or dining in a fine dining wine restaurant. Not only for you but in consideration of others who will be tasting near you.
You will create your own technique for getting the nose of a wine. Try placing your nose in the glass and taking a gentle sniff. Then swirl the wine in the glass and take another more deeply inhaled sniff. Repeated attempts at smelling the same wine aren’t helpful as your nose will develop fatigue. If you don’t get any discernable nose after the first two sniffs try placing your hand over the top of the wine glass and after lightly swirling take your hand away and immediately sniff from the glass.
The ability to discern different smells of fruit, spices and oak is essential for wine and food pairing.
Our ability to smell is far greater than our ability to taste. Smelling is important because it is the easiest way to reveal a problem wine. One such smell is moldy, wet cardboard or newspapers – an indication of a wine that is corked. White table wines that smell stale and sherry-like with a smell of overripe apples indicates the wine has become oxidized (air exposure) or maderized (baked) which can be an indication of improper warm storage. The term maderized indicates a table wine with Madeira like character – great for a Madeira wine – terrible for a table wine.
Now we can begin to taste.
Our tongue can taste salt, sour, sweet and bitter (considerably less than the thousands of smells we can remember and identify.)
Remember the admonition – if you like a wine it is a good wine for your palate – if you don’t like a wine it is not a good wine for you.
We will fully discuss actual tasting in the next blog
© Leonard G. Logan, Jr.