Now we’re going to get into the fun stuff! It’s time to talk about what to do when getting down to enjoying actual wines.
The first time I took a wine class, I was shocked by how much of a difference it makes when you apply good “tasting technique” to a new wine. These posts, which I’ll expand on and compile into a guide, introduce tasting technique, as I have made sense of it, so that you can begin to experience every enjoyment possible that a wine has to offer to you. Only through experimentation will you learn what you like in wine. And your taste will likely evolve over time. Assessing a wine thoroughly will allow you to make a proper judgment of it, and build your ability to find wines that you’re going to love.
All five senses are involved in enjoying wine. This post explores the sense of SIGHT in wine appreciation.
Initial approach: the bottle
If the wine is still in the bottle when you first encounter it, there are some things you should be paying attention to as you dig in. Aside from the facts on the labels, which presumably played a role in you choosing that wine, you can get information about the wine from the process of opening it. If your bottle is not a Stelvin (screw cap) closure, then it has some sort of cork in it, and the cork is usually covered with a foil cap. As you take off that foil cap (with as much finesse as possible, please – this is not my forté and something I’ll write more about when I detail my angst over proper sommelier service), take a look at the inside of the foil. If there is any liquid – or worse, mould – on the inside of the foil, this means that the wine has leaked through the cork. If wine was getting out, oxygen was getting in. This could mean a premature decline of the wine in the bottle, although in some cases a wine can still be fine even though there has been leakage. Just be on your guard as you go through the remaining assessment steps.
Another possible cause of cork leakage is when a bottle has been exposed to high heat, “cooking” the wine. As the wine expands in the heat, it can leak out around the cork and even force the cork to protrude from the bottle. If you encounter a bottle where the cork isn’t flush with the top of the bottle, don’t buy it. If the wine has been cooked (exposed to high heat), it’s no good to anyone. This is a particular pet peeve of mine: shippers and retailers who remain oblivious to the damage that can quickly be done to a beautiful wine when it encounters heat. More on that later.
Colour Me Tipsy
Now it’s time to pour some wine into your glass to see what awaits you. The colour of a wine can reveal a few clues about what’s been going on. For red wines, there is a full range of “reds”, from bright fuchsia purple, through pinks and garnets, all the way to deep brick, almost brown hues. For whites, the colour can range from nearly clear and transparent, all the way through to thick, rich gold.
When I am first assessing a wine, there are a few telltale colour clues that I have learned to be fairly reliable. Bright fuchsia purple can often be a sign that Beaujolais Nouveau has found its way into your glass. Soft pink-hued reds (as opposed to purple-hued) can often indicate Pinot Noir. A red wine presenting with orangey brick or brown colours can often represent a wine that has some age. On the white spectrum, wines that are nearly water clear, with a hint of green, are often Vinho Verde (especially when accompanied by a soft effervescence as well) or Sauvignon Blanc. And a deep gold colour may mean an aged white, or one where oak has been part of the vinification process.
To get the full, true colour of the wine in your glass, tip it away from you over a white background, if possible. Bright natural light is best – though not always accessible. In addition to describing the colour of the wine, also note its “depth”: is the colour light or intense? Soft or opaque? A good test for this is looking straight into the glass from the top. If you cannot see the stem of the glass through the wine, that is a deep, opaque intensity.
After you have taken a look at the colour of wine in your glass, try to notice other particulars. Is the wine clear (can you see through it)? If a wine is cloudy, this can indicate a fault in the wine – at worst, a bacterial bloom that should definitely not be there. However, all wines are cloudy after fermentation. Most wine makers use a variety of methods – fining, filtering, racking – to rid the wines of the natural particles and residues that are left behind even after sediments have been allowed to settle in the bottom of the tank. Recently, there has been an anti-filtering movement in which winemakers deliberately bottle the wines without fining or filtering, in the belief that key flavours are lost when the particles are removed. Personally, I have not sampled enough unfiltered wines to be able to comment on this intelligently. HOMEWORK NEEDED!! See http://www.midweek.com/content/columns/vino_sense_article/what_to_make_of_cloudy_wines/ for a good discussion.
There is a difference between cloudy wines and those that have sediment. Sediment is grain-like, large particles that can be found on the bottom of a bottle – the “dregs” after you have poured off the liquid. This is most often a sign of age in red wines. Sediment forms when colour particles adhere to tannins and tartrates in the wine, becoming heavier than the liquid and therefore falling to the bottom of the bottle. This is how young purple wines become orange or brown with age – the colour literally falls out of the wine. If you have the chance to try some fabulous older Bordeaux, or even a rich New World wine with ten or so years on it, you will frequently see the sediments in the bottle. You should make an effort to pour the wine off the sediment by either decanting it first, or pouring the last glass very slowly to leave most of the dregs in the neck of the bottle.
A final way to assess a wine visually is to swirl it in its glass. If the wine runs down the inside of the glass in particularly thick, viscous dribbles (called “legs” or “tears”), this can be indicative of either high sugar in the wine, or high alcohol. Another clue to what can be in store for you!
Now that you’ve really taken a look at what awaits you, the next step is to assess how the wine smells – in the next post.