How to taste the gamut of wine
I am sure you have heard wine snobs waxing on about the subtle nuances of a wine. They swirl their glasses and smell things like honey, lavender, and fig. Then you give the old glass a spin, stick your nose deep inside, focus all of your attention on the wine and take a big whiff. But to no avail, it smells like wine, not the succulent flavors that the other guy recognized. He then takes a mouthful, slurps and gargles, and looks up into the sky as if pondering the meaning of life, commenting on things like the wine’s finish, elegance, and complexity. You give it a taste, and once again it tastes like wine. Is it because he has a more accurate and acute palate? Is his schnoz better than yours? Most likely his palate is the same as yours. The only difference is that he has learned to classify the things that he smells and tastes. "Super tasters," or people with highly sensitive taste buds, usually don’t like much wine. The bitter, acidic, and potentially tannic nature of a wine is often too harsh for super tasters. Examining a wine is easy if you know how to do it.
The first step in examining a wine is to look at it. This is a step that most people miss, but it can tell you quite a bit about your wine. Its color can tell you the wine’s age. If it is a red wine, it will develop a brown tint with age. A white wine will take a golden hue, as it gets older. If you spin the wine in the glass, take a look at the way the wine drips down the sides of the glass. These are called the "legs" of a wine. If they drip slowly, it means the wine has high alcohol content.
Examining the smell, or nose of a wine is the second step in tasting. When smelling a wine you must take into consideration that your olfactory bulb, the organ that is responsible for smelling, is very sensitive. The smell of alcohol can easily prevent you from recognizing the eccentricities of a wine. The trick is to swirl the wine in the glass, releasing the wine’s bouquet, and stick your nose deep in the glass, taking little sniffs. Basically, sniff like a dog. This will prevent your olfactory bulb from being overwhelmed by the alcohol. Next, you will try to define what you smell. Try to break it down into broad categories. Do you smell fruit? Do you smell something earthy? Do you smell something spicy? Once you have determined the broader category, try to narrow it down. If it is fruit, do you smell berries or is it tropical fruit? If it is berries, do you smell blackberries or raspberries?
The last step is the best. This is when you get to drink. Your tongue is actually capable of very little. It can only recognize tactile sensation. So it can sense salt, tannin, sweetness, acidity, and bitterness. Things like vanilla, currant, and toast are recognized by your olfactory bulb. Take a nice big mouthful of your wine and let it sit in your mouth for a few seconds. Take note of how it feels on your tongue. Is it tannic? Is it soft? Is it acidic? Is it bitter? Then examine its flavors. If you inhale while wine is in your mouth, making a slurping sound, you will aerate the wine and allow it to access your olfactory bulb. What flavors stand out? How are they similar or different from what you smell?
The best way to develop your wine tasting abilities is to take notes. Keep a wine journal and write down what you see, smell, and taste. The more you learn about wine and how to taste it, the more you will enjoy it. Not to mention, now you can be that snobby guy picking almond, leather, and anise out of your wines. I bid you good drinking and a good weekend.
Zev Rovine is the sommelier and resident cheese monger at the Spotted Frog Bookstore Cafe and Wine Bar where he teaches weekly wine classes. His wine education comes from the American Sommelier Association in NYC and he tries his very best not to spill the Pinot on the bestseller section. If you have any wine queeries or comments he is easily contacted via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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