Thursday, March 17, 2022

Wine Tasting

It's not actually that often that I miss the wine world, maybe only days like today when I've been buying quantities of it and really miss the discounts. I do miss the people, but that's a separate issue... I also promised a colleague some how-to-taste wine notes which has had me thinking back too, and in case they're useful to anyone else I'm sharing them here.

Tasting and drinking wine are not the same things, and whilst it isn't practical, or even desirable to give your full critical attention to every bottle you open you will get more out of the whole thing if you have a grasp of the basics. The first thing to understand about the process is how central your sense of smell is to what you taste. There's a really easy and kind of fun way to demonstrate this with the help of a spoon of sugar and a pinch of cinnamon - mix the two together, pinch your nose so you can't smell anything, and put a little of the sugar on your tongue and think about what you can taste. After a moment un-pinch your nose, breathe in through your mouth, out through your nose, and see the difference...

It's also worth swishing cold tea around your mouth to see where tannin hits and sucking on a lemon to understand where you detect acidity and sourness if you really want to be thorough - and now you have a good idea of how your mouth and nose are working it's time to begin.

Glassware - a reasonably thin glass gives a better experience, but the most important thing is that its tulip shaped (with the top tapering inwards), this collects the aromas and makes them easier for you to smell. Should you want to swirl your wine around it also makes it harder to spill. Once the wine is poured - and keep samples small - have a good look at it. A piece of white paper is useful at this point. It should be nice and clean-looking - and clear. A wine full of sediment will taste bitter. If you have that bit of paper the colour of the rim (where wine meets glass at the top) will tell you a bit about the age of your wine. Red wines lose their colour over time, so if it's a purple or ruby kind of colour you have something young - brick red and it's ageing. White wines will also take on a more honeyed colour with age. 

The next thing to look for are the 'legs'. These are the trails of wine that slip back down the inside of the glass after you give it a swirl. The thicker and slower moving they are the higher the alcohol content. 

When you've had a good look at your wine it's time to sniff it. Unless it's very cold, or very young, the swirling business isn't really necessary. What that does is help oxygenate the wine and bring out the aromas, the warmer the wine the more you will smell. Very cold wine will be 'dumb', room temperature is fine for red, white wine should be a little warmer than fridge temperature, but not much. Talking about all the things you can smell might seem pretentious but it's genuinely a handy way of describing, and remembering, what you're tasting so be specific - what kind of fruit? Red, black, stone, apple? Strawberry, raspberry, blackberry? These things will help you identify the grapes used. Toast and vanilla will tell you that the wine has been oak-aged, and so on. 

Now is also the time to think about a couple of common faults - corked wine (wine tainted by TCA, not wine with cork in it) will have a distinctive damp/mouldy cardboard smell. Don't drink it, it won't harm you but it tastes like it smells. Rare now, but if you get a strong smell of sulphur leave the wine to one side until it fades. Sulpher isn't a bad thing in wine, it's been used since Roman times to stabilise and preserve - for an idea of what it's doing have a look at ordinary apricot coloured dried apricots (full of sulphur) and the dark brown organic ones. Some sulphur is also a naturally occurring part of the winemaking process. If your wine doesn't smell of anything much let it warm up a little and maybe gently swirl it around, 

Once you've had a good sniff it's finally time to taste the wine - take a sip, swish it thoroughly around your mouth, note if it has tannins (that grippy, cold tea, effect on the sides of your tongue - the younger the (red) wine the stronger the tannins, they soften out as wine ages or warms up. With white wine are you getting lovely fresh acidity (think about the difference between this and bitterness - they're not the same) or is it flabby and dull? Are all the elements well balanced or do you just feel like you're sucking a lemon again? Practice breathing in through your mouth and out through your nose without dribbling (it happens), note if the aromas you identified when nosing the wine translate into the same flavours in the mouth, or if they've changed - what can you taste - again, be specific.

If you're tasting a lot of wine now is a good time to spit it out (into something sensible, and preferably closed, spittoons are kind of disgusting to deal with). You can always go back to the wines you really liked. Plain crackers and water are a good palate cleanser between wines, sniffing coffee beans will help recalibrate your nose - and failing these the skin on the back of your hand.

The finish! This is how long you can detect the flavours and aromas whilst you breathe in and out after drinking. The longer the better!

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