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Wine 103: The magic of a taste test

In the Sojourning Somm’s last post, we discussed how to identify a good wine.  Before tackling aromas and flavors, the topic of this post, the Somm suggested three general attributes of good wine:  the wine should be sound; unflawed.  It also should exhibit a sense of connection to the place it was made.  Finally, the wine should be made with intent to be a good value for its price, not the brainchild of some marketer who cares more about catchy packaging than the wine itself.

Now we can move on to the magic of a taste test!  Thank goodness, wine is not an abstract study.  It is meant to be enjoyed.  The ways we enjoy wine are to drink it, to pair it with food, and to share it with friends.  So how should we evaluate wine by tasting, to ensure we are sharing good wine with our friends?

Think first about your own wine experience.  Have you ever visited a winery or gone out to dinner, and enjoyed a really great bottle of wine — only to purchase a bottle of the same wine, drink it at home, and feel it was a disappointment?  Most of us have had that experience.

One reason is because scenic locations and social occasions produce pleasant sensations that have little to do with the wine, but we associate the scenery and the camaraderie we enjoyed with the wine we drank.

A more frequent reason our experience with wine is inconsistent is because we don’t taste systematically.  Science demands repeatability of experimental results before drawing conclusions.  Finding good wine requires the same thing.  So it is helpful if we learn to taste in a more systematic way than to simply assert, “I like it” or “I don’t like it.”

Here are three memory-joggers to help you taste systematically:  SST, FEW, and AAT.  These are “mnemonics” — combinations of letters that will be explained in a moment, to lead you through the magic of a systematic taste test:

  • SST: Sight, Smell, Taste — This is the order in which we assess every wine we taste.  An amazing amount can be learned without tasting.  That’s why we start with sight.  If SST is hard to remember, think “super sonic transport”—i.e., you’ll be carried to new heights of wine enjoyment.
  • FEW: Fruit, Earth, Wood — Wine’s aromas (and flavors) break down into these three broad categories.  If you have a hard time remembering these three categories, then say to yourself, “I am looking for just a ‘FEW’ important characteristics.”
  • AAT: Acid, Alcohol, Tannin — Unlike fruit, earth, and wood, acid, alcohol, and tannin have no aromas.  You must taste the wine.  If you have difficulty remembering these last three attributes of wine, then create an imaginary picture in your mind of an artist in a painting smock, with a paintbrush in one hand and a glass of wine in the other.  Think:  “All Artists Taste.”  The outlandish picture may help you remember AAT:  “All artists taste acid, alcohol, and tannin.”

By the way, some witty wags refer to this tasting method as “see, sniff, and slurp,” not sight, smell, and taste. Choose the way that is easiest for you.

Sight

The wine’s appearance tells us about its soundness, its age, the climate where the grapes were grown, and the wine’s flavor intensity.  Wine tasting is like assembling a puzzle.  You won’t see the whole picture until you are finished.  Sight won’t tell you all you need to know, but looking at the wine helps assemble a “border” or “boundary” around the wine, into which you will fit other pieces later.

Wine chemistry is good enough that few badly flawed wines make it to market— e.g., sullen, cloudy-looking wines, rather than the brilliantly clear wines we most often see.  Still, bad chemistry during winemaking can cause hazy-looking wine.

Pour wine in a good wine glass and hold the glass at a 45-degree angle.  Look through the wine to evaluate its clarity.  Is it bright and clear?  Are no particles present that might affect your enjoyment?  Good!  Read on.

What about color?  White wines get darker with age and red wines get lighter.  Red and white wines also usually show slight brownish tinges as they age. This is not a flaw.  People change as they mature.  So do wines.  Americans drink most of their wine young, but if you were offered a 20-30 year old French red wine, it would be closer to the color of a brick, than deep red or even purple.

Finally, before we smell the wine, look at the depth and intensity of the color.  Grapes grown in warmer climates produce more deeply colored wines.  Darker colors generally mean more flavor intensity, too.  Taste a lightly-colored Pinot Noir grown in the cool Los Carneros region of California, next to a deeply-colored Zinfandel from Lodi, Calif.  You’ll immediately sense the difference.

Winemakers can fool us with “extraction,” a technique for making more intensely colored (and flavored) wines.  But if grapes from a cool region versus grapes from a warm area are allowed to do their thing without interference, this generalization about climate and color/flavor intensity will hold true.

Smell

Now . . . oops.  Naughty, naughty!  No tasting the wine before we smell it. Why?  Because as much as 70 percent of the “taste” in wine comes from the aromas.  Unfermented grapes only smell like grapes.  But after grapes are made into wine, additional aromas develop as a result of fermentation — the process of converting grape sugar into alcohol — as well as how the wine is stored.

Note that a bottle of wine made from Sauvignon Blanc (a white grape), which is described as having grapefruit aromas and flavors, does not contain any real grapefruit.  Those aromas and flavors are produced when Sauvignon Blanc is made into wine.

Similarly a bottle of Pinot Noir (a red grape) described as exhibiting hints of strawberry does note contain strawberry juice.  A Malbec (another popular red grape) with aromas of black cherry, plum, and chocolate, has not had any of those substances added.  Once again, those grapes produce additional fruit aromas and flavors when made into wine.

That is how the fruit descriptors used in wine tasting notes originated.  The writer is doing his or her best to describe the wine according to secondary aromas of a particular grape type (a “varietal,” as we called grape types in Wine 101).

Learning to discern these aromas is difficult, so don’t be discouraged if you don’t immediately recognize secondary aromas like grapefruit, or strawberry, or ripe plum. Read the tasting notes, if available, when you buy a new wine.

See if you sense any of the aromas and flavors the notes describe. Or taste with a knowledgeable friend and turn describing the wine into a game you play.  Wine should produce pleasure, not stress, even as we are learning about it.

Enough about the “F” of FEW. What about the “E” and “W”?  Earth aromas range from “wet stone,” typical of many New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs, all the way to “barnyard” — an aroma some French Burgundies have that is much like, well, an aroma on the wind that passed over a distant barnyard. American wines tend to be fruit-forward, because that’s what the U.S. market likes.

Elsewhere in the world, more prominent mineral and earth aromas are valued because they connect the wines to a particular place (remember our discussion of terroir in Wine 102?).  Many Italian red wines smell faintly of rich soil.  Certain white wines from France smell of stone or flint.  Good German Reisling is even described as smelling of “petrol” and, believe it or not, that’s considered a desirable characteristic.

Only one point remains before we taste the wine — aren’t you glad?  That point is the “W” of FEW:  wood.  Most red wines are aged in oak barrels.  So are a few white wines.  In the same way fermentation produces fruit aromas not present in grapes, wood produces other aromas not present before the wine was stored in wood.

Oak barrels produce baking spice aromas (clove and cinnamon), along with hints of vanilla, tobacco, or chocolate, and even woody scents, like cedar closet and cigar box.

To try to describe one wine as distinct from another, tasters’ vocabularies can go far afield, including seemingly bizarre descriptors like “pencil shavings,” an aroma like sawn wood and graphite.  The point:  anything you smell or taste that is not fruit or earth is almost certainly the result of storage in wooden barrels.

Couple at wine tasting

Taking the taste test

Who would have guessed that systematic wine tasting could be so challenging?  Actually, the method discussed here is brief compared to the 40-plus attributes that a candidate must recognize to become a Master Sommelier.  If you have seen the movie, Somm, you know what I’m talking about.

But, we’ll limiting taste to just three characteristics: AAT—acid, alcohol, and tannin.  Yes, when tasting, you will confirm the FEW characteristics your nose identified.  Occasionally you will find flavors not corresponding to the aromas.  Fine.  Add them to your description of the wine.

However, the reason for stressing acid, alcohol, and tannin when you taste the wine is because these attributed cannot be smelled.  They must be sensed in the mouth and throat.

Acid

We aren’t talking about battery acid, which might be first thing that comes to mind for an RVer.  Instead, wine can contain sharp-tasting acids like citrus fruits (malic acid) or milder acids like dairy products (lactic acid).  That doesn’t mean the wine will taste like lemons or milk.

Acid is part taste, part texture, which is why it must be evaluated on the tongue.  Do the sides of your tongue tingle?  That’s acidity.  Do they tingle just slightly or very noticeably?  That’s the level of acid.  Low would produce a slight tingle; high a very noticeable tingle.

Also, a “buttery Chardonnay” does not taste like butter.  The description refers to the smooth texture or “mouthfeel” of malic acid.  Acid is an important attribute when pairing food with wine, so we’ll return to acidity next time.

Alcohol

Wine is created by yeast converting grape sugar to alcohol.  The more sugar in the grapes, the more alcohol in the finished wine.  You “taste” alcohol in the back of your throat.  Does your throat feel just a little warm (or maybe not warm at all)?  Low alcohol.  Is your throat noticeably but not unpleasantly warm?  Moderate alcohol.  Is your throat really warm?  High alcohol.

Wine having 12.5 percent alcohol is classified as moderate.  Lower than that (all the way down to the 8 percent range for some sweet German Reislings) is considered low alcohol.  Above 14 percent and certainly above 15-16 percent is high alcohol.

This is not the time or place to enter the tug-of-war between advocates of high- versus moderate-alcohol wines.  High-alcohol advocates aren’t really seeking extra “kick,” but believe maximum grape ripeness produces maximum flavor.  Maximum ripeness also produces maximum grape sugar, and therefore, alcohol.  Champions of moderate-alcohol wines argue overly ripe fruit produces wines that are out of balance.

Fruit flavors and alcohol overpower the wine’s other attributes and make the wine difficult to pair with food.  It’s worth nothing, of course, that one can enjoy more moderate- than high-alcohol wine, without paying the same price the next day for over consumption.  Like acidity, we’ll return to alcohol when we talk about pairing food with wine.

Tannin

Finally, tannin is a substance found in grape skins, seeds, and stems.  It is more noticeably present in red wines than whites.  Tannin is also found in tea, dry walnuts, and other foods.  It produces a “drying,” astringent sensation in the mouth— like sucking on a tea bag or putting a cotton ball in your mouth.

The true definition of a “dry” wine is the absence of unfermented grape sugar, i.e., a wine that is not sweet.  But it’s understandable that the feeling created by tannin is sometimes mislabeled “dry.”  Excessively annic wines are unpleasant and harsh. Wines with too little tannin don’t age well and must be consumed young.  What is “young” for a wine?  Ah, that’s yet another subject for a future post.

OK, ready, set, taste!  It’s as simple as SST, FEW, and AAT.  When the Sojourning Somm comes back next time, we’ll wrap up a few tasting topics — like why do wine tasters swirl their wine and why do we look for those infamous “legs” on the inside of the glass?  After that, we’ll go on to some principles for successfully pairing food with wine.

Until then, taste enthusiastically, but systematically.  Your wine knowledge will grow as a result.  Cheers!

About Richard Peck

Richard Peck is a certified sommelier in The Court of Master Sommeliers, as well as a certified wine educator in The Society of Wine Educators. He and his wife, Susan, are full-time RVers based in Sonoma County, Calif. They are currently doing a survey of Texas Hill Country wineries and planning a series of articles about everything you wanted to know about wine, but were afraid to ask. To pose a question, email Richard at rich@sojourningsomm.com. To follow their adventures, visit http://www.sojourningsomm.com.

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