Wine requires two assessments: Subjective and Objective. Just because we like a wine, doesn’t mean it’s a great wine. One way to illustrate this point is with art. You may not want to hang a reproduction of a Claude Monet painting in your home, but you agree that Monet is a great artist. So, getting to the point where you have both a subjective and objective opinion is one of the most rewarding stages in developing knowledge and comfort in wine; thus, allowing you to separate your liking of something from its quality.
So, the point is this: You can love a wine but understand that it’s not a great wine. For example, I have weekly wines and weekend wines. Weekly wines are inexpensive wines ($15-25) we enjoy with our simple evening meals; however, weekend wines are the special ones ($50 or more) we may take to a favorite gourmet restaurant that has a corkage fee.
Most of us know what we like, but having an objective opinion means increasing our knowledge base. So, let’s get started!
The Five Ss:
All together, they’ll enable you to maximize your enjoyment of your next glass of wine.
A wine’s color can tell you a lot: Taste, intensity, condition, and most likely, its aromas and flavors. The best way to examine the color is to tilt the glass over a white surface, such as a white table cloth or napkin. Doing this will give you its true color. Wine in the center of the glass sometimes appears the same as and sometimes different from wine at the edge or rim. Thick-skinned grapes, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, make for a deeper wine, while thin-skinned varieties, such as Pinot Noir, look much paler in the glass. Generally speaking, the deeper the color, the higher the tannins. Young wines tend to have a brighter color, but all wines change color as they age—white wines gain color, and red wines lose it. For both, over time, wine tends toward brownish orange hues. A brownish color also indicates oxidation.
Swirling may look showy, but it has an important purpose. Some of the aroma compounds in wine are more or less stable than others. The volatile or less stable ones release into the air more easily. In either case, the compounds must travel through the air and into your nose for you to notice them. Swirling achieves this aim. If you don’t want to swirl the glass by the stem, you can also place the glass on a table for stability and move its foot in a circular motion. When you swirl wine and then stop, the wine leaves small clear teardrop-like streams of liquid on the sides of the glass. These are legs, and they have nothing to do with quality. The higher the alcohol, the more viscosity it has, which results in thicker legs.
There are different ways to smell a wine, depending on its style. For an intense or heavy one, the Chest, Chin, Nose approach works well. For a lighter or delicate wine, skip chest and chin and go right to nose.
First, hold the wine at chest level. You can smell aromatic grape varieties, such as Muscat, at this level. The compounds you detect here have the most volatility, so these aromas will differ from those at your chin and nose. Often, these aromas are the fruitiest.
Now, hold the glass to your chin and smell again. You’ll sense a lot more intense fruit here, but you may also be able to pick up other kinds of aromas—floral, herbal, or nutty notes.
Finally, stick your nose in the glass. Yes–In. The. Glass….all the way in, and take a big whiff. Pull the glass away, then do it again two more times. Try different nostrils, especially since one may be more perceptive than the other. Also, occasionally white wines may be served too cold. This can make detecting aromas challenging; however, once the wine begins to warm up a bit, layers of aromas may become apparent.
You need enough wine in your mouth for your taste buds to perceive all the flavors. Take in about a tablespoonful, and roll it around your tongue. This action aerates the wine, warms it up, and releases aromatic compounds. Note the weight and texture of the wine in your mouth. If that sounds difficult, think about the differences among skim milk, whole milk, and heavy cream. Some wines are light and delicate, while others feel heavy and dense. Slurp some air over the top of the wine in your mouth for further aeration. It may look and sound funny, but professional wine tasters do it this way because it releases the maximum aromas and flavors.
This is the time to reflect on what you’ve just tasted. Think about the wine and whether you like it, remembering the difference between preference and quality. Sometimes they’re the same, sometimes not. Savoring allows you to decipher between the two. Three parameters can help you determine a wine’s quality level.
COMPLEXITY is like an ice cream sundae. You start with vanilla ice cream. Now add hot fudge. Layer it with toasted nuts. Finish it with whipped cream and a cherry. The same principle applies for wine. When a wine has many layers, we call it complex. If all you taste is fruit and nothing else, it’s a simple or one-dimensional wine. More layers or complexity indicates that a wine has higher quality. Keep in mind, though, that the layers should complement one another.
BALANCE happens in wine when all components—acidity, alcohol, fruit, tannin, and weight—interact in harmony, like a symphony. If the horns overpower the violins or you can’t hear the percussionists at all, it sounds disconnected. When an orchestra plays in balance, no single instrument stands out. The same holds true for wine. Sometimes, one element may stand out. For example, wines from hot climates can have very high alcohol levels. That’s okay if the other components balance it accordingly, but if all you taste is hot, bitter alcohol, then the wine has lost its balance.
LENGTH in wine is the time that the taste remains in your mouth, and that amount varies from person to person. If a wine lasts a long time—around a minute or more—it has long length, which indicates higher quality. Also, it should taste pleasant, not flawed. But, wine flaws is a topic for next time!
Here’s the thing: A proper assessment of wine takes time, so don’t be discouraged. This happens best when we drink unfamiliar wines, taste them in a focused way, and keep an open mind by “listening” to what the wine is “saying.” Cheers! 🙂
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