WINE TASTING BASICS PART II – KNOW THY WINE

Picking up where we left off last time– you’re on a date and have averted embarrassment, confirmed that the selected wine is sound and perhaps even impressed your companion with a theatrical display of swirling and sipping. But how do you know if you are treating your sweetheart to a magical bottle that transforms itself with every sip or if you just paid $60 for bottle that is on sale for $9.99 at your corner gas station?

wine tasting set-up

In a lot of ways, wine tasting is a very personal experience and ultimately your opinion is the only one that matters. That being said, there are widely accepted guidelines for what constitutes a good bottle of wine and understanding these guidelines can make your imbibing that much more rewarding.

There are four basic ways of analyzing a wine: by its visual appearance, the aromas it gives off, the way it tastes in your mouth, and the sensations it causes in your mouth. Really, you can break this down further into three simple components:

Appearance
Nose
Palate

Last time we covered the visual and olfactory sides of tasting but didn’t delve that deeply into what happens on the palate. There are 4 primary tastes that we encounter when tasting wine and one of them is almost entirely exclusive to fino sherry (saltiness).  The other three are sweetness, sourness (or acidity) and bitterness (astringency).  The sensations that wine can cause include mouthfeel (smooth, coarse, oily, sticky, etc), weight (body), temperature and the drying sensation caused by tannin.

None of these necessarily make one wine better than another, rather the collective taste mixed of the with the visual and aromatic components of the wine tell us whether this is a Jackson Pollock or just an over-excited toddler hurling paint at a canvas.  Again, wine tasting isn’t an exact science, but here are some factors that help inform you of a wine’s quality:

BALANCE: Do the aromatic, taste and sensation pieces meld together seamlessly?  Are the wine’s fruit-flavors in balance with its tannin and acidity?  Is this Riesling’s sugar well balanced with its acidity or does it taste flabby?  Does the oak character in the wine blend into the other flavor components or does it awkwardly stand out?

INTENSITY: Can you easily smell the wine or does it seem tight and closed?  Is it excessively obvious or is it wonderfully and mysteriously subtle?

COMPLEXITY: Does this Chianti taste like you just chomped on a big sour cherry and nothing else or does it have awesome layers of leather, violets, clay and oak as well?

DURATION: How long does the taste of the wine linger after you swallow? One minute? Three? Five? What do you taste?

VARIETAL CHARACTER: Does this wine taste like what you expect from this varietal(s) or a wine from this region?  If not, is this lack of varietal character to its detriment or advantage?

X FACTOR: Also known as the “Wow” factor, the excitement factor or distinctiveness.  This is what makes a good wine great or pushes you over the edge from like to love.

Here’s my challenge to you!  If you have two hours and $50 to spend on wine (if not, try halving the wine list), go out and find following wines and then taste them side by side. For an extra challenge, have a friend pour them for you and write down which is which.  If you both would like to taste, line up 4 glasses for each person and number them 1 to 4. One person pours the wines, the other person switches the glasses. Both record what they did and neither should know which is which until they compare notes.

2008 Nobilo Regional Collection Sauvignon Blanc (New Zealand) $10.99
2006 A to Z Riesling (Oregon) $12.00
2007 Angeline Pinot Noir (California) $13.99
2007 Columbia Crest H3 Cabernet Sauvignon (Washington State) $13.99

Taste through these wines organizing your thoughts by accessing the appearance, nose and palate. Then rate wines based upon the metrics above. Which wine do you think is of the highest quality?  Which do you like the most?  Finally, if you are tasting “blind,” reveal the wines’ true identities. Any surprises?

I find tasting wines next to each other a lot of fun and a great way to highlight differences. I hope you do too!  Below are my impressions of wines [see: Anders’ Wine Rating Scale]. Until next time… Sante!

nobilo 2008 Nobilo Regional Collection Sauvignon Blanc (New Zealand) $10.99
Notice the rampant acidity- when you hold the wine on your tongue and then start to move it around in your mouth it makes your cheeks squeeze in.  I really like this wine.  New Zealand sauvignon blanc is always an easy wine to pick out of a multi-varietal blind tasting because they are typically quite fruity. This Nobilo delivers on this promise of fruit with juicy flavors of grapefruit, lime and passionfruit. I also got a little bit of cream on the nose and healthy bit of minerality on the finish. Made me think of licking wet rocks in my mouth as a kid. A classic example of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc and stellar for the price.  I think it would be delicious with French bread and chevre.

Anders’ RatingTop Notch

2006 A to Z Riesling $12.00 a to z
Exotic spice, candy note, bosque pear, golden raisin and musk on the nose.  Distinct honey and citrus flavors on the palate- slightly sweet (off dry) with a voracious acidity.  I chose this one to demonstrate sugar in a wine but its generous acidity actual reduces the perception of the sugar quite well. Think about the sweetness when it hits the tip of your tongue. Really quite different from the Rieslings I am used to.  This probably will not appeal to everyone but I found it quite fun. Slightly fuller bodied than the Sauv Blanc, quite complex.

My Rating: Class for the Coin

angeline 2007 Angeline Pinot Noir $13.99
It has an unctuous mouthfeel, tastes slightly bitter and displays sweet aromatics of cooked fruit and vegetables (beets especially) eucalyptus and herbs. I think it is made from overripe and overpressed grapes.  It is not as acidic as Pinots can be and shows its alcohol on the nose. Not bad for a Pinot at this price point, but what does that say?

My Rating: Maybe Next Year

2007 Columbia Crest H3 Cabernet Sauvignon $13.99 h3
Amazingly soft for a 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon.  Herbal aromatic notes, maybe a little thyme.  Some dairy notes on the nose as well. Shows its oak, but the wood doesn’t drown out the fruit. Lush berry flavors on the palate hang on through a finish that is impressively lengthy. Well balanced and a steal for $14 greenbacks. It is a wine that I think is easy to like and would appeal to a large group of drinkers.

My Rating: Class for the Coin

Share/Save/Bookmark

5 responses to “WINE TASTING BASICS PART II – KNOW THY WINE

  1. Pingback: Twitter Trackbacks for WINE TASTING BASICS PART II – KNOW THY WINE « Blue Jean Gourmet [bluejeangourmet.wordpress.com] on Topsy.com

  2. I just returned from the Okanagan Food and Wine Writers Workshop. And I finally ‘got it’ when we had essentially this type of lesson in person. Made the weekend so much more enjoyable to really taste the wines beyond whether I liked it or not. And to understand other people’s descriptions.

    • Hi Cheryl,
      That sounds like a fantastic workshop! I hope you got to try some of the local wines while you were up there. They have produced some really interesting bottlings of riesling, pinot gris, chardonnay and pinot noir (especially as ice wine). I’m glad you found the lessons so rewarding. I think that wine writer Matt Kramer summed up the importance of understanding the difference between what constitutes a good wine and our personal proclivities with the statement: “the goal would be to drink a wine and be able to say this is a good wine, but I can’t stand it!” -Anders

  3. Hi Anders,
    Thank you so much for such wonderful information. You explained everything in simple terms, so even I could understand it. Drinking a glass of wine is never going to be “Just drinking a glass of wine for me”. I am going to use your suggestions to buy & drink the wine.

    Hope to meet you some day.

    Thank you again,
    Nishta’s mom

    • Hi Veena,
      Thank you very much for kind appraisal of my blog, I am glad that you are finding it helpful. I also hope to meet you some day! I think a bluejeangourmet reunion (or simply “union” in this case) would be a fun thing to organize.
      -Anders

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s