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You can certainly review many books written on the subject of wine (and there are plenty!), but the best way to truly enhance your understanding is to taste the wines themselves. While reading covers the more academic side of wine, tasting is more enjoyable and practical. In truth, a little of each will do you the most good.
With that in mind, it is our goal to help you learn how to maximize your wine tasting experience. You may wish to read this section and follow the suggested steps with a glass of wine in hand (tough duty!).
In considering how to pursue your tasting education, we'd like to make a couple of suggestions we've found valuable in our own continuing education. First, we highly recommend you conduct "blind tastings" by using paper bags to cover the bottles you are tasting in order to remove any outside influences which can come from knowing the winery label, vintage, appellation, etc. Second, we encourage you to form a wine tasting group. The more palates there are, the more perspectives on a particular wine you'll have and the better you can increase your awareness of a wine's complexities.
We will begin by breaking down wine tasting into five basic steps:Look, Swirl, Smell, Taste and Savor. These are standard steps for wine tasting, but throughout this section we have sprinkled personal thoughts, suggestions and practices of those of us at Ambrosia. As you taste the wines, remember this most important and basic tenet: Have fun!
The best way to get an idea of the color of a wine is to use a white background such as a napkin or a table cloth, and hold the glass of wine in front of it. Our wine tastings at Ambrosia are conducted on a large, all white tasting table. The range of colors you may see depends, of course, on whether you're tasting a red or white wine. Here are some of the typical colors you may see:
Color can tell you a lot about a wine. For instance, as white wines age in the bottle, their color goes generally from lighter to darker. Aged Chardonnay may take on deep golden hue, though they generally start out with a lighter straw color. On the other hand, as red wines age they tend to go from a darker color to a lighter one. Cabernet Sauvignon, generally starts out with a vivid, deep purple color in its youth, may develop a tawny, even brownish color as it ages.
It is important to understand that color change in wine is a natural occurrence that takes place with age. Because a wine's color has evolved over time from light straw to a golden hue, does not mean the wine has gone bad. Color is just one bit of information that introduces you to a wine, and further helps you to enjoy and understand it.
In addition to color, you may notice other visual aspects of the wine. A wine that shows "legs" - rivulets of wine that seem to run down the sides of the glass after you swirl it - indicates a high level of viscosity. This results from a higher level of alcohol and thus glycerine in the wine. Sediment is another visual aspect. When sediment accumulates at the bottom or side of a bottle, or in your glass, it is not something to be concerned about. This kind of accumulation is usually due to the wine undergoing only a very light filtration or no filtration at all prior to bottling. Total clarity may imply heavier filtration which can have the effect of removing some of the wines character as well as it precipitates.
Always begin tasting by asking, "What does the wine look like?" This will be your first lesson as to just how different people's perceptions can be. Some will see a wine that is pale yellow-green, while you might be convinced it's golden in color. Imagine what happens when we actually taste the wine.
Why do we swirl the glass of wine? So that oxygen can get into it. Swirling releases the esters, ethers and aldehydes - some of the components that make up a wine's aromas. When these components combine with oxygen they yield the bouquet of the wine. We will discuss bouquet later. In other words, swirling aerates the wine and helps the bouquet emerge.
There really isn't a right or wrong way to swirl wine, with the exception of covering other members of your tasting group with the errant contents of your glass (that's the wrong way!). We must warn you though, you will start swirling everything from your morning coffee to your afternoon soft drink. Just be sure to have an explanation for this behavior handy!
Now that you've swirled the wine and released the bouquet and various aromas, what does the wine smell like? This is one of the most important steps in the tasting process and yet most people simply do not spend enough time understanding and experiencing a wine's set of smells. Without the smell, the palate is left stranded because the nose gives your taste buds specific attachments to the more general categories of taste. More on this subject later. Back to the wine -- what type of nose does it have? The "nose" is a word used to describe the bouquet and aroma of the wine. To evaluate the nose, let's first talk about the difference between aroma and bouquet.
Aroma: This refers to the pleasant or desirable odors characteristic of the unfermented grape. Generally, varietal aromas are basic to sensory examination. Quite often they smell like other fruits that we are familiar with. Distinct aromas reveal sufficient characteristics to differentiate this wine from other wines, but they are not intense enough to produce varietal identification. By the way, "vinous" is a term used to describe a wine that does not appear to have any distinct or discernible aromas.
Bouquet: This refers to odors produced by the interaction of aroma substances with the container, with small amounts of oxygen, and with one another. These odors that develop in wine after fermentation are called tank aging bouquet and bottle bouquet. Tank aging bouquet encompasses most of the odors that come from oak, if it is used, and the compounds formed by aroma substances interacting with air entering through the walls of the cask. When a wine is bottled it contains an abundance of compounds in high states of oxidation. The gradual reduction of these reactions gives rise to new substances whose odor is designated as bottle bouquet.
A good example of the differences between aroma and bouquet are those descriptors found in the "fruity" category versus those found in the "woody" category. Another is that aromas are more often simple scents found in nature, such as mint or pine, while bouquet is often the result of the processing of the wine, such as oak or butter.
Another interesting point is that you're more likely to recognize some of the defects of a wine through your sense of smell. Below is a list of some of the negative smells in wine:
Sulfur dioxide is used in many ways for winemaking. It kills bacteria in wine, prevents unwanted fermentation and acts as a preservative. However, a good wine should never retain the smell of sulfur dioxide. This smell creates a burning and itching sensation in your nose, not smells we would generally like to associate with a glass of wine; especially if it happens to be one we are drinking.
To most people, tasting wine means taking a sip and swallowing it immediately. This is a common misconception. Tasting is something you do with your taste buds. You have taste buds all over your mouth. They're on both sides of the tongue, underneath, on the tip, and they extend to the back of your throat. When you sip and swallow immediately, you bypass a lot of these important taste buds. By tasting properly and allowing the wine to reach all of your taste buds, your nose is also able to help your brain pull together specific pictures which accurately reflect the different aspects of a wine's taste.
To clarify, let's review some of the tastes of wine, keeping in mind the most important sensations of taste and where they occur on your tongue and in your mouth.
As you familiarize yourself with the various tastes of wine, we recommend taking notes on the wines categorized by the sections contained in this booklet, look, smell, etc. Also, we recommend having a cracker or two (unsalted), or another bland substitute, in order to cleanse your palate between tastes. The taste of one wine can influence that of another.
Keep in mind too, that your palate can be influenced by seemingly unrelated things such as what you ate for lunch, or what you smell cooking nearby, etc.
Everything we've discussed so far -- the look, the swirling, the nose and the taste -- happens within a few minutes or so. It is now time for the final step. (And the most fun!)
After you've had a chance to taste the wine, sit back for a few moments and savor it. Sometimes it's easy to get too caught up in the clinical aspects of wine tasting and forget that this is supposed to be above all fun! Equally as important is what you take away from your tasting. In order to learn the most from your experience, it is necessary to interpret your impressions of the wine. A good place to start is to ask yourself some important questions. This will help to focus your impressions. Like anything else, ambiguity in wine tasting can be frustrating.
Here are some questions you should ask:
1. Does the wine have a light, medium, or full body?
2. Is the wine's acidity noticeable? How about the tannin?
3. Is the wine balanced and well integrated or is it too strong or astringent?
4. Is the finish long and lingering, or does it fade abruptly?
5. Most importantly, did you like the wine and would you drink it again?
This last question is really the most important point. The first thing you should consider after you've tasted a wine is whether or not you like it. Is it your style? The style of wine you like will evolve and become more personal with every wine you taste. You may never be able to (or want to be able to ) tell the difference between a Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and one from Bordeaux, but you will probably know right away whether or not you like a particular wine. And remember, the most important definition of a good wine is one that you like - not your friends or a particular wine critic.