If you really want to understand wine, please start thinking when you take a sip.
A first impression comes from the tip of your tongue and you get a sense of the fruit. If the wine is say, a big Napa Cabernet, this will be an overwhelming sensation. The fruit is powerful and in winespeak referred to as “fruit forward.”
As the wine moves to the middle of your mouth, your palate will start to discern flavor combinations. If it’s a great wine, it will fill your mouth and you’ll feel it expanding from the roof back to your soft palate. Your initial taste sensations will evolve and secondary flavors will appear. If you’re lucky, there will even be a layer of tertiary taste and you might possibly even be able to “smell” with your mouth. Because our mouth and our nose are connected and our olfactory senses are so strong, if you pay close attention you’ll notice smells coming from inside. I know this sounds odd, but if you’re drinking a mouth-filling wine, you’ll eventually recognize the sensation.
Lastly, as the wine reaches the back of your throat, it will leave a final impression which enthusiasts call the “finish.” Depending on the individual wine, you may notice different flavors from those you’ve experienced in your mid-palate. Sometimes very pleasant wines turn bitter or die on the finish; great wines linger. In fact, the length of the finish is a good way to differentiate between the quality of wine if you’re tasting blind. On those rare occasions when I have the opportunity to taste superior vintages of top-quality Bordeaux, the finish lingers for minutes on end. Sublime.
So, now that you understand those areas in your mouth where the wine registers, let’s look at specific characteristics to watch out for. A serious taster will take a sip and then draw in a bit of air through the side of the lips to help oxygenate the wine and release flavor. Some tasters literally chew the wine to be sure that it coats the entire mouth. If you’re at a formal tasting where you’ll be sampling more than 20 wines, you’ll need to spit if you wish to retain your analytical faculties or if you just want to walk home unaided. Don’t worry, you’ll still be able to identify the finish.
The trick for the winemaker is to create a balance of fruit, tannin and acidity. You’ll also want to be aware of the wine’s level of sweetness and its body. Let’s begin with these one at a time so you’ll understand what to look for. First, fruit.
Wines are capable of displaying a wide range of flavors. With white wines, I’m usually looking for citrus, herbs or orchard fruits. Depending on the style of the winemaker, a Sauvignon blanc, for example, can display flavors on a continuum from grapefruit to herbal, grassy notes. Once you see which style of wine you’re tasting, you can try to identify the specific flavors that you recognize. There are no right or wrong answers. Each of us has a slightly different palate, but if you’re thinking and tasting consciously you will eventually grow in your ability to discern nuances.
With the reds, it’s good to start by looking for light or dark berry fruits. Are we in strawberry/raspberry territory? Or perhaps dark cherry or blackberry? Again, as with the whites, there’s a wide range of possibilities. The goal, however, is to describe what you taste — whatever that may be. You are forbidden from calling a wine “nice” when you can be descriptive. Practice, and next month we’ll continue with the other components.