Advanced Wine Tasting Techniques
In the Introduction to Wine Tasting, we looked at the basic steps involved in the dégustation of a wine.
- 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 to 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.
Advanced wine tasting techniques offers more complete understanding of the process of wine tasting. In this post we cover the following:
- The Role of Senses in Wine Tasting
- The Idea of Balance in Wine
The Role of the Senses in Advanced Wine Tasting
- 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!
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 juicy, 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
In this Advanced Wine Tasting post, we covered two important but somewhat complex ideas: the role of senses and the idea of balance in wine.
In our follow up post, we will cover aromas and the three phases of experiences when tasting wine.