Advanced Wine Tasting Techniques
The French have two words for “tasting”: gouter, to taste; or déguster, which means to taste with the goal of identifying the characteristics of a product o judge its quality. In the world of wine, we favor the term déguster.
La dégustation of wine is not the preoccupation of snobs, but of those who have an inquisitive spirit, and who wish to gain a more in-depth understanding of this extraordinary beverage that has been coveted for so many centuries.
In the Introduction to Wine Tasting, we looked at the basic steps involved in the dégustation of a wine. In this article, we’ll get a more complete understanding of the process of wine tasting. You will be able to develop a more extensive vocabulary for your tasting experiences, and define more exactly the different elements in wine that contribute to quality. I hope give you a little view into the sensibility that the French bring to wine tasting, to enable you to see how they feel and speak about the wines of their country.
The Role of the Senses in Advanced Wine Tasting
a. Sight and Smell: In our Introduction to Wine Tasting, we presented three distinct steps for tasting a wine: the look, the smell and the taste. Each step utilized one sense at a time (sight, smell and taste respectively). In reality, the senses do not work in nearly such a distinct manner. For example, the look of the wine can greatly influence your sense of smell, and thus your appreciation of the aromas of a wine. We associate certain aromas with white wine, and others with red wine. Studies have shown that subjects who tasted wine in black glasses had difficulty discerning the aromas of the wine. In another study, subjects were served a white wine and asked to describe its aromas. The responses were white flowers, apple, pear, and peach. Then the exact same wine was served, but with red food coloring added. The subjects, thinking this was now a red wine, described the aromas as strawberry, raspberry and coffee. They also found the wine to be slightly tannic!
b. Smell and Taste: In the mouth, these two senses are inextricably linked. The combination of the tastes and smells of wine is referred to as “flavor”. In fact, about 80% of what we call “flavor” is determined by smells (aromas). When your nose is blocked (like when you have a cold), the food you eat seems flavorless. You can see why we spend so much time waxing poetic about the aromas of a wine – without them, the wine would have little flavor. We gauge the persistence of a wine by the time it takes for the AROMAS to dissipate after the wine is no longer in the mouth, NOT the tastes. The importance of retro-olfaction once you have the wine in your mouth should not be underestimated! Your enjoyment of a wine is determined by the pleasantness, complexity, intensity, and persistence of aromas. The rest of your enjoyment comes from the balance, body and the density or concentration of the wine.
Some aromas can fool your palate, making it think that it’s tasting something sweet or sour. Wines that have very fruity aromas can seem sweet: take two dry wines, one that has very fruity aromas, and one that is less aromatic, and taste them side by side – the fruitier wine will seem sweeter, even if both wines have exactly the same residual sugar content.
c. Taste and Touch in the Mouth: The taste receptors (or buds) of the tongue discern four tastes: salty, sweet, bitter, sour, and a newly-identified taste, umami, that is still not totally understood. Saltiness is rarely experienced in wine. Sweetness is sensed by the taste buds at the tip of the tongue. Bitterness is sensed at the very back of the tongue near the opening of the throat, and sourness at the sides of the middle of the tongue. Bitterness is usually discerned in the aftertaste of a wine, since it is only when the wine reaches the bitterness buds at the very back of the tongue near the throat. In the center of the tongue are receptors for all four tastes, but fewer of each, so you have less taste in that area of the tongue. The four “tastes”, tannicity, acidity, alcohol and “gras” or “moelleux” (roundness in the mouth) do not strictly correspond to these four real tastes that the tongue is capable of discerning. In the sense in which we refer to them in wine tasting, they are mostly tactile or chemical sensations.
Let’s examine them one at a time:
• Tannins in red wine are experienced as a tactile sensation, felt at the center of the tongue as astringency. Tannins also have a taste of bitterness, usually discernable in wine when they are unskillfully extracted or unripe at the time of harvest, or when the tannicity of the wine is excessive.
•Alcohol as a tactile sensation is felt as heat or burning in the mouth or throat. Alcohol also has a slightly sweet taste (both ethyl alcohol and glycerol, both present in wine), but that taste is not easily discernable in most wines;
• Fatness/richness of a wine (in French, the moelleux) is also experienced by the sense of touch within the mouth. This sensation, one of filling and coating the mouth, is due mostly to the alcohol content of the wine, but the glycerol content and the sugar content also contribute to it. Although the alcohol, glycerol and sugar all taste sweet, we concentrate on the tactile sensation when analyzing and describing the body (see below) of a wine. The fatness or richness of a wine are partly responsible for the smoothness or silkiness of a wine in the mouth;
• Acidity is experienced much like tannicity is. We will have a tactile sensation as a result of the acidity of a wine, a sensation of puckering that causes salivation. Only when the acidity is excessive or particularly unbalanced in regards to the other components will we be compelled to describe the wine as “sour”, which is nearly always a sign of poor quality.
Acidity: flat, fresh, lively, nervous
Alcohol: light, present, generous, very generous, hot, burning
Fatness/richness: firm, round, ample
Judging a wine once it’s in the mouth is a complex exercise. Remember that the main goal of the gustative examination of a wine is to judge the balance of the wine. We gauge the strength of the tastes of sweetness, bitterness and sourness (the tastes) in the wine. Also we gauge the strength of the tactile sensations brought about by the contact of the tannins, acidity, alcohols and moelleux in the wine with the tongue and palate. When we judge the balance of a wine, we are judging, at the same time, the juxtaposition of the tastes in the wine and the sensations of astringency, tartness, richness and heat created by the wine.
Balance of tastes: sweetness balances acidity, and vice versa. For this reason, we put sugar into lemon juice to make it more palatable. Many people put a lemon slice in their Coca Cola to make it less sweet and more pleasant to drink. Sweetness also balances bitterness. A cube of sugar makes coffee and tea less bitter.
Balance of sensations: fatness or richness balances astringency. In North America, we put milk in tea and coffee, because the fats in the milk make the astringency of the coffee and tea less noticeable. Astringency tends to accentuate tartness, and vice versa. Heat (alcohol) balances tartness (acidity), which is felt as freshness, and vice versa. A wine with a strong “moelleux” (for example, a dessert wine) needs an equally strong acidity to keep the wine from seeming heavy.
The serving temperature contributes to balancing or unbalancing the flavors in wine. We serve white wines at fairly cool temperatures . The cold accentuates the acidity, a quality we enjoy in white wines. Cold also downplays the sweetness of off-dry white wines or white dessert wines. A white wine that is too warm will seem flat and lifeless for lack of acidity, and a sweet white wine that is served warm will seem heavy and overly sweet. Serving a red wine at a cold temperature will have the same effect of accentuating the acidity, but in red wines, the cold and the acidity also accentuate the tannins and make them seem harsh. That’s fine for light-bodied wines with little tannins, but for more structured wines, service at a warmer temperature will make the tannins more supple. However, a red wine served too warm, for instance at room temperature, will lack freshness (not enough acidity), seem overly alcoholic, and seem less tannic, giving an overall impression of flabbiness and lack of structure. It takes a skilled taster to be able to tell the difference between a wine that is truly unbalanced in and of itself, and one that is balanced but has been served at the wrong temperature!
Balance of white vs. red wine: The play of tastes and sensations determines the overall balance of the wine. The sensation of smoothness in a wine often is a result of a good balance of tastes and sensations, where no one taste or sensation sticks out. However, an absolute balance is not always desirable in wine. In white wines, we value the freshness that acidity brings to the wine. So the desirable balance of a white wine will lean a bit toward acidity. What differentiates red wine from white is its tannins. Many red wines have a good deal of astringency as a result of their tannins. Tannins give structure, texture and complexity to red wines, and help them age well. So the desirable balance of red wine will lean toward astringency. For these reasons, the finish, or last impression left in the mouth, of a white wine tends to be freshness (acidity), and the finish of a red wine tends to be astringency (tannins).
Balance of wines based on region or climate: Wines from Northern French climates and regions have a higher acidity than wines from Southern climates or regions. The balance of these wines will therefore lean a bit toward acidity. The Southern wine regions with their hot and sunny climates, tend to produce grapes that are higher in sugar content and lower in acidity. The higher the sugar content, the more alcohol that will be produced during the vinification process.
The balance of Southern wines will be a bit more alcoholic than Northern wines. It is up to the experienced wine taster to tell the difference between a Chateauneuf-du-Pape red that is balanced, even though the wine seems somewhat alcoholic (which is normal for these wines), and a Chateauneuf-du-Pape red that is so alcoholic that it dominates the other tastes and sensations of the wine, and is therefore unbalanced. The same holds true for a nervous Muscadet that is well balanced for a Muscadet, and another that is so acid that it seems sour and difficult to drink.
Lack of balance in a wine can account for distortions in our perception of the components of the wine. For example, we can perceive that a wine is more alcoholic than another, even if the second wine actually has the same or higher alcohol content. The impression of alcohol in the first wine is greater because it is unbalanced (perhaps due to lack of concentration – see below – or too little acidity).
An important component of balance – concentration: Concentration plays an important role in the overall balance of a wine. Wine is 80-90% water. The remaining 10-20% of the wine contains all the aromatic and taste components that make wine enjoyable to drink (the dry matter or extract of the fruit). The closer the water content gets to 90%, the less “good stuff” (what the French call “matière”, or matter) there is in the wine. A high proportion of water usually results from poor viticultural practices that emphasize quantity rather than quality. High yields = watery wine, lower yields = more concentrated wine. In a wine that is diluted, any small imbalance of tastes or sensations will be accentuated: a Chablis, for example, will seem more acid than usual, and a Chateauneuf-du-Pape even more alcoholic.
Concentration is one of the factors that give a wine a long persistence on the palate. To age well, wine must have a good concentration of dry matter. Persistence is therefore one of the best measures of how long a wine can be aged. Concentration is also one of the factors that contribute to the perception of body in a wine.
e. Body: The perception of body in a wine is the result of a combination of factors:
• Viscosity or unctuousness: mostly a function of the sugar content of a wine, it makes the wine more dense, less fluid, and therefore gives a sense of greater volume or body;
• Fatness/richness: the moelleux of a wine, as explained above;
• Concentration (as mentioned above)
• Tannins: the tannins in red wine give a certain body to these wines. Generally, the more tannic a wine, the fuller bodied it will be.
Many people will describe a wine with a high alcohol content as being “full-bodied”. The alcohol content is part of the moelleux, and is therefore only one of the elements that create body in a wine. But a high alcohol content will give an immediate impression of body to a wine. Sugar and glycerol content also contribute to the richness or roundness of a wine. The current fashion for “full-bodied” wines has led some New World winemakers to place too much emphasis on the alcohol content of their wines, letting grapes become overripe and then leaving higher than traditional amounts of residual sugar in their wines. Unfortunately, a high alcohol content and sweetness without concentration, acidity and/or tannins to balance it will produce a sensation of heat and heaviness that will be unpleasant and unappetizing.
It is important to understand that being full-bodied is not necessarily a sign of quality in a wine. What many people would refer to as “light bodied” wines, such as the wines of the Touraine in the Loire Valley, or the reds of Burgundy, can be very high-quality wines, they are just different in style than the fuller-bodied wines of Bordeaux or the south of France. In France, we enjoy wines for what they are, and many lighter-bodied styles of wine go better with many dishes than more full-bodied wines, which would be too heavy and overpower many dishes.
f. Other tactile sensations in wine: We speak of the sensation of silkiness, softness, velvetiness or smoothness of wines in the mouth. Dessert wines that have a high viscosity offer a certain kind of smoothness, but dry wines can also be velvety and soft in the mouth. One of the prime causes of this pleasant sensation is an excellent balance of tastes and sensations in the mouth. Another is a good moelleux. Tannins in red wine give a texture to red wines that goes well with the meatiness and course texture of red meats. Finally, the quality of the tannins in red wine, if they are fine and elegant, can contribute to silkiness on the palate that is pleasant and desirable.
g. Quality of Tannins: In the vinification of red wines, the winemaker strives to extract tannins that are fine and elegant. We often speak of “good” tannins and “bad” tannins in France. Good tannins are a result of mature grapes and good vinification practices; they give red wines structure, balance and body, and help them age well. Bad tannins have a bitter or vegetal (“green”) taste, are aggressive, hard, rough and dry, a result of grapes picked before full maturity and/or badly vinified or aged too long in oak. Try chewing on a fruit stem or pits, and you’ll see what these tannins taste like. Tannins that are uicy, fine and elegant and not dry or hard will remain that way throughout the life of the wine, becoming more and more blended with the other elements of the wine. Tannins that are harsh and dry with a large grain will never become fine and elegant, no matter how many years you age the wine.
Tannins (quantity): none, present, astringent, tannic, very tannic
Tannins (quality): Grain/texture: coarse, rough, fine, very fine
Overall: aggressive, rustic, harsh, dry, plump, fine, elegant
h. Evolution of sensations and tastes in the mouth over time
In the gustative analysis of a wine, we talk about the attack, the middle of the mouth, and the finish of the wine. These correspond to the evolution of the wine over time in the mouth, as it first hits your tongue (the attack), to when it crosses the main part of the tongue and palate (the middle of the mouth), to the final impression of the wine when it is expelled or swallowed (the finish). When discussing these three stages, we refer again to the sensations or tastes of the acidity, roundness, alcohol and tannins (if present) in the mouth. Thus a wine can have an attack that is fresh (acidity) or sweet (sugar, often the case if there is any noticeable amount of residual sugar, since it is on the tip of the tongue that there is the greatest concentration of taste buds sensitive to sweetness), etc. In the stage of the middle of the mouth, we often notice the overall mouth-feel of the wine, the body and concentration of the wine, as well as the balance of the tastes. At the finish, we notice the last tactile or taste impression that the wine leaves on our palate after we’ve swallowed it or spit it out. It can be a final impression of freshness (acidity), astringency (tannins), or heat (alcohol) – sometimes it’s a combination of two of these. Some people refer to a “clean” finish, which means that no one element stands out at the end, and that the mouth is left feeling fresh and clean.
Coming somewhat after the “finish” of the wine is the aftertaste. In the aftertaste, we are not referring to sensations but rather tastes, and the one usually encountered (if there is an aftertaste at all) is bitterness. Bitterness is felt at the very back of the tongue and the throat (where the greatest concentration of taste buds that sense bitterness are located). You can also encounter unpleasant flavors (aromas) in the mouth in the aftertaste, like barnyard or mustiness. These aftertastes are always a defect in a wine, a sign of poor quality.
II. More about aromas
In wine tastings, there is often too much emphasis placed on identifying particular aromas in a wine. One’s perceptions of aromas are very individual. Each person has his own threshold for sensing the molecules that are responsible for the aromas in wine; for example, some people are very sensitive to oaky or woody notes, while others will hardly detect them at all. What one person identifies as lemon, another will identify as grapefruit. The naming of aromas being such a subjective and individual thing, it becomes less important to name particular aromas than to be able to name families of aromas (see these listed below).
In addition, what is most important in gauging the quality of a wine is not the particular aromas, but the complexity, intensity and quality of the aromas.
Complexity: the greater the number of families of aromas that are represented in a wine, the greater the complexity of the wine. A wine that is purely fruity will be said to have simple aromas. A wine that has fruity and spicy notes can be said to have rich aromas, a step up from simple. Finally, a wine that has fruity, spicy, animal and forest floor aromas could be called complex. The greater the complexity of aromas, the greater the quality of the wine.
Intensity: how intense are the aromas of the wine you’re tasting? If you can smell the aromas before the glass even gets to your nose, the wine is very aromatic. If you need to put your nose into the glass to smell the aromas, but the aromas come through very well once your nose is there, the wine is aromatic. If you have to swirl a little before the aromas come out, the wine is somewhat aromatic. If after swirling your wine quite a bit the aromas still are hardly perceptible, the wine can be said to be not aromatic, or closed. Wines can go through a period (often in their youth) when they do not reveal themselves, and seem to have little to no bouquet or aromas. This is particularly true of wines meant to be aged, which undergo a vinification process designed to favorise the development of aromas with aging. Aerating a young wine (for example, by decanting it) can help it open up; in other cases, it’s just a matter of waiting to see how it develops. In wines that are not worthy of aging, it may just be a wine that has little aromatic interest, and therefore a wine of inferior quality.
Remember that you will always smell the wine better once it is in your mouth than when it is in your glass (as we discussed in the Intro to Wine Tasting) by retro-olfaction. Also, as the wine heats up in your mouth (an environment whose temperature is, of course, over 98° F), it releases its aromas more easily.
Vocabulary: very aromatic, aromatic, somewhat aromatic, not aromatic or closed.
Quality of aromas: this is perhaps the most subtle assessment to make. In France, we speak of elegant aromas, or aromas that have great finesse or purity, and rustic or ordinary aromas that are not very pleasant or subtle, or simply banal. Elegant aromas are delightful and fresh, intense without being vulgar, and stay pure and true (in other words, aromas of fruit or flowers that are like smelling the real fruit or flowers themselves). Rustic aromas are strong and brash, sometimes even unpleasant. Think of the difference between smelling a fine perfume like Chanel No. 5 and then smelling a cheap “Eau de Toillette” from the drugstore. Elegance, finesse and purity of aromas are signs of quality in a wine.
Types of Aromas: aromas are produced by molecules present in wine. These molecules are present at different stages in the life of a wine, and we can identify in the nose of the wine the stage at which the molecule was produced.
Primary (or Varietal) Aromas: these are the aromas of the grape itself before it has undergone any transformation. Grapes like Muscat and Viognier retains their fresh and fruity primary aromas once they have been (skillfully) made into wine. Fresh fruit aromas, typical of young wines, are also primary aromas, and tend to evolve with time into other more complex aromas in a fine wine.
Secondary (or Fermentary) Aromas: other aromas are created during the vinification process, when aromatic esters are created by the fermentation process. These secondary aromas, which make up the primary aromatic profile of young wines, include yeast, brioche, toasty or grilled odors (typical in Chardonnay, for example, even if it has never been aged in oak, and not to be confused with the tertiary aromas of oak), milk,
Tertiary Aromas (or aromas of aging): other aromatic molecules are produced as wines age as a result of micro-oxygenation and esterification. As a wine ages, its aromas pass from those of fresh fruit to those of very ripe fruit, cooked fruit or fruit jam, fruit soaked in alcohol, or dried fruits and nuts; vegetal or animal aromas can develop (barnyard, forest floor); and if the wine was aged in oak barrels, the oak can impart aromas such as new oak, light toasty or grilled odors, caramel or brioche, leather, blond tobacco, or stronger empyreumatic smells of tar, burnt wood, coffee, chocolate, depending on the degree of burn inside the barrel.
• Fruits (lemon, raspberry)
• Flowers (acacia, violet)
• Spices (pepper, cloves)
• Animal (barnyard, leather, gamey)
• Empyreumatic/Roasted (burnt, coffee, grilled toast)
• Vegetal (green pepper, fern)
• Pastry (brioche, almond paste)
• Milk (yoghurt, cheese, milk)
• Forrest floor (dead leaves, mushroom)
• Petrochemical (tar, gasoline)
• Mineral (flint, stone, chalk)
Advanced wine tasting NOTE: some aromas can be classified in several families, such as mushroom (forest floor or vegetal); or vanilla (pastry or spices); or tar, (empyreumatic and petrochemical), etc.
Persistence or length on the palate: as we discussed previously, we count the number of seconds (“caudalies”) that the AROMAS of a wine persist on the palate after the wine is expelled (spit out or swallowed). A long persistence of aromas of a wine on the palate is an indication of quality in a wine, and is one of the factors that helps us differentiate a “little” wine from a “great” wine. A long persistence usually indicates a wine that has excellent cellaring potential. For all these reasons, measuring the persistence of a wine on the palate is an important element in the final evaluation of a wine at the end of your dégustation.