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The Elements of Tasting Wine

Posted by miles on 2005-05-02 09:31:50 (9777 views)

[The Pedestrian Wine Drinker]
Taste. It seems like such a simple thing. But as we discussed last time, though it is perhaps the simplest sense, it's not simple. What we generally refer to as "taste" is a combination of several intertwined and intermingling factors. Sometimes the combination is really quite simple—just add smoke flavoring and salt in the right proportions to texturized vegetable protein, and voila! --fake bacon bits for your salad. Other flavors, luckily (or unluckily, if you love food a little TOO much), can be a complex and wonderful combination so multifaceted, the conscious mind gives up on distinguishing them and just squeals with delight. Such is the case with wine.

But it really doesn't help much to record a squeal as your tasting note. Instead, a number of different elements combine in wine that you can consider and take note of while you're trying to express in words the essense of what's in your mouth.

One of the most obvious elements in tasting wine is fruit. This makes perfect sense, because wine is made from fruit. (At least, you hope it is.) So most wines naturally have some element of fruit flavor in them. Different types of wine are expected to have different levels and types of fruit flavors. A Beaujolais is expected to have very noticeable fruitiness, generally of light, bright fruits like cherry, while a Cabernet will have more subtle fruit flavors, and the fruits will be more likely to be dark, rich ones like blackberry or black currant. A few types of wine no longer have much fruit flavor left after processing, but in general, a wine should have some element of fruit. Oddly, though, most wines don't taste like grapes, and calling a wine "grapey" is not as a rule flattering.

Another common element in wine is acidity. You should be familiar with acidity; it's a common element in many foods--vinegar, most fruits, tomatoes, all are lit up by varying quantities of acidity. Even milk contains lactic acid. Acid gives wine its zing, a certain tartness that refreshes and enlivens the other flavors. You can taste the difference by trying a glass of water plain, and then with a squeeze of lemon. See how the lemon doesn't change the taste of the water much, but it makes it somehow more refreshing? That's the acidity at work. And like all good things, acidity needs to be controlled. A squeeze of lemon can make your water or tea more refreshing, or cut through the fishy oiliness of your fried fish, or make your broccoli more palatable, but you probably don't want to eat the lemon by itself. A dash of vinegar and salt turns tomatoe puree into ketchup, but consider drinking vinegar straight and your mouth purses up at the thought. Similarly, wine needs some acidity, or it becomes dull and flat; it just doesn't have that zing. But too much acidity can overwhelm the other flavors and create an unpleasant drinking experience.

Another common element in tasting wine is tannin. Tannin is literally the stuff that is used to tan leather; that kind of tannin originally comes from oak, and can enter your wine when it is stored in oak barrels. Wine also gets tannins naturally from the stems and skins of the grapes themselves, so you can still get a very tannic wine without using oak at all.

You've probably tasted tannins before, whether you know it or not. Tannins are also found in black tea. To get a perfect taste of tannin, just pretend you're making iced tea. Only instead of steeping your tea bags for 3 to 5 minutes, let them steep for 30 minutes. Tasting the result should give you a perfect idea of what straight tannin tastes like. It makes the insides of your mouth feel dry, taut, and bitter.

So why is this nasty stuff in your wine? For one thing, it's hard to avoid with most red wines. Red wines get their color from contact with the skins of the grapes, which is also where the tannins live. White wines, which are separated from the color-bearing skins early on, tend to have very light tannins, if they have them at all. If you get the red, you will also have to take some tannins along. But tannins aren't all bad. Some people like small amounts of tannin--after all, we still drink tea. More importantly, wines that improve with age almost always have high levels of tannin (that's why they are usually red wines). Tannins are often described as giving a wine the "structure" to age well. Although how this works is not well understood, you can think of tannin as providing a hard skeleton that protects and supports the other flavors over time. (It probably has some amount of preservative effect, to begin with. It can help to prevent oxidation.) Wines without much tannin, such as Beaujolais, may age well for a few years, but will seldom remain good past ten. A good Bordeaux, on the other hand, may last for decades and be far better at the end of its life than it was at the beginning. During that time, the tannins mellow out, and allow the other flavors that have developed to emerge, now wonderfully blended and evolved. Tannins allow wines to achieve the pinnacle of what wine is capable of.

If you get a wine that is too heavy with tannin, you can let it breathe for a few hours or even overnight to soften the tannins. If you have other bottles of the same wine, put them away and wait a few years before trying them again. You may find something wonderful once they've had a chance to mature.

So when you have a wine with elements of fruit, acidity, and tannins, what's your ultimate goal? Balance. You want a wine where the acidity enlivens the fruit without overwhelming it, where the tannins provide structure without overwhelming the other flavors, where you generally taste a mix of complementary flavors, instead of one type of flavor bullying all the others. Acidity can help to counterbalance tannin, and a bit of tannin can tame highish acid levels. And both acidity and tannins can help counterbalance a wine that might otherwise be so fruity, you'd want to spread it on toast instead of drink it. The key to wine, as to so many areas, is balance.

Other Flavors
We've talked a bit about the fruity flavors of wine. They come from the natural process of fermentation, when fruit juice changes into something new and different that no longer tastes like fruit juice--at least, not the fruit it came from. And yet, because taste is such a complex and interesting thing, we often detect flavors or smells in wine that have nothing to do with fruit. As the wine develops, it may evoke other fruits, or it may evoke other familiar tastes and smells totally unrelated to grapes. Over the years, people have come up with different ways to describe these flavors--some of them appetizing, some of them not. You may not mind hearing that a great wine tastes like chocolate, honey, or flowers, but why do people describe wine as tasting like leather, gasoline, a barnyard, or cat pee? More important, why do they continue to drink such wines, and even give them high scores? Who wants to drink a wine that tastes like cat pee? (Who wants to know what cat pee tastes like in the first place?)

The important thing to remember is that these flavors are often secondary. They are hints hiding alongside more appetizing flavors. Sometimes the combination is still pleasant. A wine may have flavors of lemon, pineapple, toast, and a hint of gasoline (or petrol, as the Europeans call it) and still taste good, even great, overall. A wine may have a faint whiff of the barnyard amongst its red fruits and leather cedar, and produce an effect of rural bounty. And remember, we explain tastes and smells by analogy. Hopefully, when we say that a wine has a whiff of cat pee, we mean that it tastes the way cat pee smells, acidic and biting and maybe a little ammoniac, not that we've sampled the litter box. Wines don't contain pepper or chocolate or wet dog, and the ones that have those as primary flavors, rather than as subtle hints in a complex of stronger flavors, don't get very good scores. You want to learn to recognize some of these odd-sounding flavors as the tiny nuances that make one Cabernet different from the next.

Sweetness, Alcohol, and Body
A few other elements make up taste. These three elements are related, though. They are sweetness, alcohol, and body. When grape juice ferments, it does so because certain yeasts feed on the sugars in the juice and produce alcohol as a by-product. The more sugar in the original grapes, the more the wine can be either sweeter or higher in alcohol, depending on when the fermentation stops. If the fermentation of very sweet grape juice is halted before the sugar is gone, sweet wine results. If the fermentation continues until all of the sugar is gone, you have a dry wine, and if the original sugar level was high, you have a very high-alcohol dry wine.

While many of us enjoy the effects of alcohol in our wine, high levels of alcohol are not necessarily a good thing. Some wines are meant to be lower in alcohol, some higher (such as fortified wines, which have had stronger spirits added to the wine to halt fermentation). When the alcohol levels are high, the taste of the alcohol can drown out other, more subtle flavors that give a wine personality. When alcohol has this effect, it is often referred to as "heat," as in, "this wine is hot," because a high alcohol level may create a burning sensation. Many wines today have alcohol levels near 14%, which is higher than most wine in the past. This trend means that you might want to look out for too-strong alcohol flavors that put the wine off balance.

Related to alcohol level is a wine's body. This is generally what we might call the "thickness" of a wine, creating the mouth feel. The more alcohol a wine has, the more thick and syrupy it will feel. High alcohol levels will also create strong "legs" when you swirl your wine. A lighter, low-alchohol wine will feel lighter in your mouth, closer to the texture of water.

Another way to talk about the taste of a wine is to consider its finish. Finish is basically just another word for aftertaste, but without the negative connotations that usually carries. When you take a mouthful of wine and swish it around your mouth (you are swishing, aren't you?), you swallow it. But often, flavor remains for a while after you swallow, and may even change as it lingers. As long as that after-flavor is pleasant, we call it the wine's finish. A long, lingering finish is a sign of a very good wine indeed; it helps to reveal the complexities in a great bottle.

A final element to consider is a wine's potential. Now, this is not something you can taste directly. In fact, it takes long experience to be able to judge it properly, and it's an art even then. Potential attempts to describe what the wine you are tasting might be like with further aging, five, ten, twenty or more years down the line. The question you're trying to answer is, first, does this wine have the elements it would need to mature? Does it have good balance? Does it have the right amount of tannins to provide structure? Does it have sufficient levels of fruit to survive the wait? Has it changed already since it was first bottled, and in what way? You can see how judging a wine's potential can be difficult, especially since you may have to wait quite a while to see if you are right. One way to practice judging a wine's potential would be to make your call, then see if any of the major wine critics agree with your assessment. You could all be wrong together, but at least you'll be in good company if that's the case. Potential is important in scoring a wine because a wine that is too young may not taste very good now, but it may have the potential to become one of the greats. If you are able to spot one of these up-and-comers ahead of time, while they are still relatively cheap, you can snatch them up and store them until they come into their glory--and there you'll be, with a cellarful of wine no one else can afford anymore. Now that's a goal you and your wine can work toward together!


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