“All wine tastes the same to me.”
I didn’t know what to say- how is that even possible? But then I caught myself; like anything, tasting, and I mean really exploring the flavours of wine, is something you need to apply yourself to. How often have I gobbled down chunks of toast coated in peanut butter and not applied my thoughts to the taste and texture of the bread?
I took this customer back to basics, got him to slow down, to look at the wine, smell it, think about it, revisit the same glass after a few minutes had passed and slowly a twinkle began to develop in his eyes. He was getting it.
Sometimes my mind jumps ahead. I think perhaps I have done this with my ‘Wine Talk’ on Champagne and Chips. I have just returned from three days in Sydney with some wine-loving friends. Regular, ‘normal’ lovers of wine, not the nerdy lot I usually hang out with in Melbourne-town. I spent a lot of time talking passionately about wine, hands waving and terminology trickling off my tongue before doubling back to explain what the heck I was on about. I am aware I should probably do this here too, get back to the basics of wine because I want us to be on the same page 🙂
So let’s start back at the beginning and go through what this wine-tasting stuff is all about.
Why do we look at the colour of the wine?
The first thing a lot of people do when they pick up a glass is hold it to the light, but what are they looking for?
Is the wine clear or cloudy? This can be an immediate hint that a wine is faulty, or increasingly as unfiltered “natural” wines become trendy, a cloudy wine might be a deliberate wine-making choice.
We are looking at typicity of the wine. Does the wine look like what you would expect? If you already know what the wine is, this may again be an assessment of whether the wine is faulty or not. If you ordered a Cabernet Sauvignon and it is a pale see-through red wine then this might be an indication of a bad year with dilute flavours (or again, confusingly, a deliberate choice by the winemaker to do something different). In a blind tasting, a deep, dark purple, opaque wine is far more likely to be a Cabernet Sauvignon than a Pinot Noir- you start to get hints.
Colour can give us clues as to how old the wine is. If you tip the glass and look at the rim a clear rim can indicate a younger wine (this is easier to see in reds), If the colour goes right to the edge of the rim it is probably a more mature wine. If your wine is only two years old and is already browning then it may not be suitable to age. After you swirl the glass ‘tears’ or ‘legs’ form. More pigment in the legs may indicate an older wine (or just a heavily pigmented one). Why we worry so much about these legs is beyond me- wine higher in sugar or alcohol (and usual glycerol formed during fermentation) will form more prominent and persistent legs, but what does this tell us about the wine? Not a lot. It’s pretty though 😉
Colour can also tell us if the wine is oxidised or faulty. Brown colours in a red generally indicate age or oxygen used during wine-making such as in a tawny port. Brown in white wines usually just suggests they have suffered from oxidation and are off.
Why do we smell the wine?
A huge part of your ability to taste is related to your sense of smell. Without smell there to back it up the tongue is really good at distinguishing sweet, salt, bitter, sour and umami but not a lot else. One of the most beautiful things about wine are the aromas and the way they change and develop as the wine ‘opens up’ in the glass.
When you first pour a wine give it a little sniff, you probably don’t smell much. Now swirl it in the glass and sniff again, do you get more aromas this time? Come back to the glass in ten minutes and sniff again, have the aromas changed? Most likely they have. This is why you see wine nerds swirling their glass and sniffing repeatedly; so much or the pleasure of wine can be found in the aromas.
How do you get the flavours into the wine?
Often people assume we add other fruits to the wine to get it to taste and smell like, for example, blackcurrants or raspberries. This is the magical thing. Wine is just grapes and yeast and a few other miniscule amounts of bits and bobs to stop it spoiling. When you smell cherries in your glass it is because during fermentation the similar aroma molecules that are in cherries are created in the wine. The flavours in the wine are from your brain interpreting those aromas.
If you sip wine and swallow it immediately you might be like the guy above who thought all wine tastes the same. In order to taste all these complex flavours you need to allow the aromas to reach your olfactory nerves. That is why wine-nerds swish wine around their mouth for a few seconds or gently suck some air in while they have wine in their mouth. This allows the aromas to be released so you can taste more flavours in the wine. Even if you just hold the wine in your mouth for a few seconds you will have a greater experience of the flavours.
How do you work out what the flavours are?
I just want to say, this is not necessary to enjoy a wine. Please never feel insecure if you can’t rattle off a list of flavour and aroma characteristics. Unless you want to work in the wine industry the most important thing you need to know is how to describe the styles of wine you like. Words like: fruity, dry, light/medium/full body, crisp, sweet, rich etc can help a wine waiter or bar tender give you a wine you will enjoy.
However, if you want to be able to describe a wine the first thing you need to do is start thinking about flavours and aromas. When I was learning I stopped and thought about everything I smelt or ate, I narrowed down what it was about each flavour that made it what it was. Before you can taste nectarine in wine you need to create a memory of what a nectarine tastes like. Of course you know what a nectarine tastes like but have you ever really thought about the flavour while you were eating one? Sniff the herbs you use while you are cooking, inhale from the bag of nuts (cashew, almond and hazelnut are common descriptors in wine), think about the flavours in the fruit you are eating- this will create a number of sense-memory triggers.
It also really helps to have someone experienced taste with you and name the flavours. This makes all the difference. Hook up with a wine appreciation class or talk to people in cellar doors.
Was this helpful? If you have any wine questions I would love to help answer them, just email me on champagneandchips @ outlook.com or write them in the comments below.