ISO Tasting glass tilted at 30 degrees, filled to 50 ml with 2007 Chateau Montelena Cabernet Sauvignon.
Red or white? Do you like it or not? What’s the price? For many wine drinkers, these are the only things that matter. If value and quality are also important to you, both can be measured by simply tasting a wine.
A wine’s quality can be assessed through tasting if the senses are engaged and the tasting is approached systematically. A combination of the balance, length of finish, intensity and concentration of flavours as well as the wine’s complexity can be measured and used to determine a wine’s quality.
Quality assessments can be made, in part, by the appearance of the wine. The best way to observe a wine is in an ISO glass, as illustrated, and tipping this glass at a 30 degree angle, and look down on the wine. In a still wine, look to see if the wine is clear or hazy. Most wines will be clear. A dull wine with suspended particles may be faulty. Then, consider the colour, or hue. Most red wines will be ruby in colour but may tend toward bluish hues to be called purple or toward orange hues to be considered garnet. The colours vary depending on the grape variety, production method, and age of the wine. Then the intensity of the colour is measured. This scale ranges from pale – a red wine that you can read through or a white that is nearly water-white, on to medium, and then to deep. In a deeply coloured red wine, you will not be able to see much at through the wine; it is nearly opaque. White wines gain colour as they age frome a yellow-green through to deep gold or amber. Red wines lose colour as they age ranging from deep purple or ruby (garnet for some varieties such as Nebbiolo) through to pale garnet. Other observations can be made with regard to the viscosity of the legs and tears running down the inside of the glass which are indicators of levels of alcohol and/or sweetness in the wine. The slower and thicker the legs – the higher the wine is in alcohol and/or sugar.
Next, the sense of smell is engaged. Aromas in a wine can be the greatest indicator of varietal, use of oak, age, and the condition of the wine. Aromas in wine are generated from chemical compounds that also exist in other foods and vegetation. For example, when we are smelling black currant in a wine, we are actually smelling some of the exact flavour compounds in our wine that make up the smell of the berries. A youthful wine will have aromas of fruit ranging from apple and citrus fruits, to apricot or peach (stone fruits), tropical fruits too, and for red wines: berries, cherries and plums. Spices and vegetal aromas can be found, like black pepper in a Shiraz, or asparagus in a Sauvignon Blanc! Buttery smells are common in wines that have been mellowed (or maloed). Toasty and vanillin smells are common in wines that have spent time in oak barrels. Off-aromas such as those of rotten eggs, blocked drains, mouse droppings, and mouldy cardboard are indicators that the wine is faulty and should be returned or sent back. The aromas that can be found in wines are infinite. A wine taster’s ability to use them to communicate what they find in the glass for themselves and to others is the skill-testing objective.
On the palate, the same olfactory senses are used when wine is tasted as when it is smelled. Plus, the tongue, gums, and inside of the cheeks play an important role in tasting wines. The tip of our tongue identifies sweetness, the sides, acidity, and bitterness at the very back. Gums and cheeks sense the level of tannin (extracted from red grape skins and seeds) based on the level of drying experienced. The aromas smelled are now called flavours. The mouth warms the wine causing some compounds to become more pronounced on the palate, and others that were identified “on the nose”, less so. Also, alcohol levels (identified through the level of warmth felt in the throat) balance, length, and finish can be measured.
Based on the appearance, nose, and palate picture, the wine can now, in combination with theoretical knowledge, be assessed for quality. Is it a well-made, harmonious, and a typical wine? Are its constituents in balance (i.e. fruit-flavours and acidity), or is it “angular”? How long did the delicious and pleasing flavours stay in the mouth; less than 15 seconds (short), longer than 45 seconds (long), or somewhere in between? Were the flavours intense and pronounced, or weak and barely there? How many flavours were identified: 5 or fewer making it a simple wine, or ten or more in a complex one? Assessed together, a quality statement can be generated.
And then, how should the wine best be enjoyed? The temperature of the wine when it is served, the glass in which it’s poured and the food that we taste in combination are all factors in our enjoyment. Some factors to consider when pairing wine with food are the body of the wine and the density of the food = lighter wines (white and red) with lighter fare, and more full-bodied, chewier wine with chewier food. The way the food is prepared can affect your choice in wine. If it is fresh or poached, a lighter wine won’t over-power it. If it is baked in a heavy sauce, then a more full flavoured and full-bodied wine will pair nicely. Alcohol makes hot foods hotter. Tannin and oil don’t mix! Salt and fat love bubbles – yes, popcorn and Champagne are a fun and festive way to start a gathering. The best way to know for sure which foods and wine you like together is to experiment.
For greater detail and more insight into the world of wines, and knowing what to expect when looking at a label on a bottle of wine, contact me to arrange for a tutored tasting, as part of a formal class, with a corporate group, for a fundraiser, or for a fun evening with friends and family!
Wine & Spirit Education Trust Certified Educator