To taste 500 wines a year might sound daunting but if you’ve been reading the last couple blogs, you’re familiar with just how easy it is. Every Friday and Saturday, we offer free wine tastings at the shop as well as host two larger events in our basement every year. If you swing by the shop with some degree of regularity and take advantage of the majority of these tastings, you’d hit 500 wines easily every year. The spirit of the blog over the last few weeks covers how to methodically approach wine to build a vocabulary or a foundation to help remember the wines you taste and more importantly, how to express why you like the wines that you like. We started off with sight, then smell and now this week, we’ll wrap up the series with taste.
Taste is classically broken down into three parts – the attack, the mid-palate, and the finish. I personally struggle with these terms because they imply chronology. For example: the attack is often used to describe both the initial impression of the wine as well as the structure. This doesn’t jive with me as the structure best reveals itself after a little time in the mouth and often is highlighted during the finish. Acid is best measured by the degree of salivation in the mouth as the body tries to correct the lowered pH from the wine, therefore this takes a little while to occurn and the sensory perception happens well past the initial introduction of the wine. Tannins also take a few seconds to fully manifest as the compounds leech protien and fat out of your cheeks and tongue. Additionally, both of these components work in concert over the course of the finish. While I appreciate hearing people define their experience with a wine along these terms, I typically break my personal experience into around five-or-so different categories: temperature, weight, flavor, structure, and finish.
Of course the first impressions of a wine are it’s weight and temperature. While the weight of the wine can be attributed sugar, concentration, or alcohol and thus lead you down a path of pondering everything between and beyond vintage, viticulture, and vinification, the temperature can also yield some interesting observations. If served too cold, it is not only a punishment on sensitive teeth but also a bit of a waste as the lower temps can decimate the complexity of certain wines. Aromas can be lost as well as the ability to perceive both acidity and alcohol. It’s actually a pleasure when a rep brings a room-temperature white wine for us to sample because we’re able to see it warts-and-all. On the flip-side, a wine served too warm can seem too alcoholic and impact the perception of tannins. I’d actually like to do a shout-out to The Red Cow and The Red Rabbit alongside so many other restaurants that are finally serving their wines at proper temperatures. Just today I was reading a food critic’s review of a wine bar and was amazed but also very pleased that they were docking them for not serving their wines at proper temps. I would encourage you, if you keep your wines at room temperature, to play around with throwing a bottle of red in the fridge for 5-10 minutes before serving. The impact is dramatic.
The weight and texture of a wine is quickly evident while tasting. Is it generous or thin, viscous or watery? Full-bodied or light? If a wine is particularly light or thin, I like to reflect on it’s aromatics. Was it highly aromatic? Did it smell of black fruit? This would be interesting as weightier red wines typically have dark fruit aromas and lighter wines have more red-toned fruit aromas but anything is possible. While tasting, it’s important to reflect on what you discovered while smelling
The best definition of flavor I’ve ever heard is that it’s taste plus aroma. You can’t smell salt, sweet, bitter, spice, or umami but if you’re smelling bright red fruit in the glass, take a sip and find the wine to be highly acidic, your concept of the flavor will be more complete than if you merely relied on only the wine’s taste or aromas. On the palate, the wine can evolve and change. Flavors can become more complex and over a few sips, different aspects of the wine can become more focused in different parts of the mouth. All of this takes time. If I taste a great wine at an typically rushed industry event and then bring the wine into the shop, I’ll often enjoy the wine over an evening or two as fine wine duly merits contemplation and time.
We talked a bit about the structure of a wine above but just to reiterate, the structure of the wine can reveal an amazing amount of information. Just like the weight of a wine, it can show varietal characteristics, vintage variations, viticultural techniques (especially harvesting decisions) and vinification decisions. Without getting too nerdy about how to slice and dice the impact of structure via the creation of the wine, I’d like to propose the concept of structure in a different way – the structure components as the building blocks of balance. I tend to think of balance as the equilibrium created between the hard and soft aspects of the wine. The hard aspects being acid, tannins, and to a lesser extent, any impressions of minerality, reduction, or smoke, where as the soft components are residual sugar, alcohol – because ethanol seems heavy, round, and sweetish, and fruit flavors because they can mislead us to think the wine is sweeter than it actually is. A wine doesn’t need to have all of these components in equal quotients to acquire balance as a wine can be lean toward tartness or sweetness and still be world-class. The goal is to determine how the wine arrives at its expression of structure. Sauturnes or late harvest Rieslings are great examples of balance at an extreme end of the structure spectrum,sweetness, but it’s the acid that props up the softness of the sugar and without this key characteristic, the wine would seem flabby. On the flipside of this, to make it palatable, we put sugar in our lemon juice when we make lemonade. I have a sort of imaginary scale for measuring the various components of structure. Is the acidity low, average, or searing? Is there a touch of minerality in the wine which makes the acid seem nervy or electric? Are the tannins persistent and if so, are they rough, or sweet? Is it a white wine with perceivable tannins? Which part of my mouth do the tannins affect? Is the sugar perceptible and if so, is the wine cold enough? For good reason, the structure of a wine informs a major part of food pairing decisions and a level of agreeability for some people. A touch of sweetness can go a long way for some people while, you might want something light and acidic for a pool party or something perhaps a bit chewier and higher-octaine for say, watching the elections.
The finish of a wine is perhaps one of the most magical parts of the experience. It is the lingering, morphing flavors which persist after swallowing. It can be either measured by a few seconds or seem to go on for minutes. Often times the finish is used as a major marker for quality in a wine – the longer the better – but with all things in wine, it’s important not to get too boxed in with pragmatics.
That wraps up our series on tasting. If you haven’t already, I’d encourage you to develop a personal method for approaching wine, each and every time you pick up a glass. It’s a way to challenge yourself, develop your senses and build a foundation onto which you can build your tasting library. Again, as we did last week, mention this blog and receive 10% off your non-sale wine purchase for the next week. I’d also love to hear what you think, if you enjoyed reading this series, thought I left something key out, or just think that my approach is jack-whack, I’d love to hear from you.
Thanks for reading and I hope to see you around the shop soon,