Time for a bit of a rant about the wine industry…
In general, I think that the industry is moving in the right direction. After years of wine appreciation being confined to an elite pack of connoisseurs who liked to keep membership in their club at low numbers (“us”, who know wine versus “them”, everyone else who doesn’t), in the past fifteen years the industry has grown so much that it has been impossible to retain that elitism. Wine is now for the people, and the industry has evolved to reflect that. The traditionalists can still immerse themselves as deeply as they care to in the fabulous wines, mostly European, that they have followed and adored for years. But a new generation of both wine makers and wine lovers has evolved as well, making the variety of wines available so vast that there is literally something for everyone. Snobbery has been dashed against the rocks, and the fear factor has greatly diminished as well.
But still, one thing has still not changed: the absolute reluctance to admit to, let alone discuss, one of the most important reasons why people love wine. What is that, you ask? The fact that wine is an alcoholic beverage! We drink wine because it makes us relax. Taken further, it makes us goofy. It can even make us so uninhibited that we awaken the next morning and cringe as we flash back to remember certain images from the night before. But my goodness, isn’t that part of the appeal? Do you think wine would be so popular if it was just sour, acidic grape juice? Last time I checked the grocery store, the shelf space dedicated to non-alcoholic wines remained miniscule…
Thus I say this: let’s all admit we love wine for its entire offering of beauty to us. It’s a magical elixir of unending variety and complexity, a beverage that can enhance meals to become more than double the sum of its parts. We can spend our lifetimes exploring the world of wine without ever knowing all there is to know. But honestly, the best thing of all is that it makes us tipsy! Let’s please get over ourselves and start making that part of the conversation, too! Alcohol hits us all in different ways, and sometimes its effect on a single person can vary greatly, too, depending on what’s going on for that person in any particular day: energy levels, hormones, what one has or hasn’t eaten previously, etc. But when enjoyed responsibly, the fact that wine buzzes us is also worthy of celebration. As I proceed in this blog, this is definitely going to be part of the conversation as well.
OK, end of rant.
Ready, set, drink!
So at last, at last, here we are, ready to drink.
After examining a wine by sight, and determining its aromas, it’s finally time to see whether those aromas are echoed in the flavour of the wine (its “palate”), and whether there are new nuances to pick up on as well.
But there are other things to experience, as well. Tasting the wine will also let us determine whether the wine is sweet or “dry” (not sweet). Is there good acidity, or does the fruit take over everything so that it seems like we’re tasting Welch’s grape juice? In those cases, we say the wine is “flabby”.
Also, tasting is the only way to identify how tannic the wine is. Tannins come from prolonged contact with grape skins, pits and stalks. It’s the stuff in tea that makes your teeth feel furry: the astringency factor. Most white wines do not have perceptible tannins, but in reds it can really vary. Old style Bordeaux are created with high high tannin levels, and the fun is then to see how the tannins meld with the wine and soften over time. Many New World wine styles are designed to drink immediately, so the tannins are more balanced right when the wine is released. Assessing the tannin level in a wine can help you decide what level you find most enjoyable, so that you can seek out wines that you know should match your preference.
Feeling hot hot hot
And finally, as prefaced above, we also assess the alcohol level in the wine when we taste it. Most wines fall in the range of 11-13% alcohol, and when we taste such wines, there is no real indication of alcohol levels; things just are as they should be. But when alcohol is in the lower range, as in a sparking Prosecco, Moscato d’Asti, or Vinho Verde, we can find that refreshing as we enjoy these beverages on hot summer days. On the other end of the scale, “hot” (high alcohol) reds, such as some Zinfandels or Cabs, can be very potent and need a good hearty meal to balance our enjoyment of them.
With all that in mind, it’s time to finally take a sip out of that glass that you’ve now been holding for far too long! Tasting techniques vary, but the general approach is to take a small sip in your mouth and swirl it around, allowing it to make contact with as many places on your tongue and the inside of your mouth as possible. Just as swirling the wine around the glass to expose it to air lets us smell the wine better, so too does taking air into the mouth with the wine allow us to taste it better. Thus we hear those silly slurping noises that wine people make then they are tasting wine: they are taking air into the mouth to mix with the wine at the same time. But this is where things can get messy. It’s critical that you only have a bit of wine in your mouth, and you’ll have to be careful not to let the wine leak out of the hole that you’re drawing the air in from. If you haven’t attempted this before, do yourself a favour and practice with water over your kitchen sink first. Don’t waste good wine on your first attempts!
If the air sucking technique doesn’t work for you, or frankly, if you are at a nice dinner with other people who aren’t as in to wine as you are and you don’t want to pucker up and make slurpy sounds, there is another approach I use to similar effect. Immediately after you swallow the sip of wine, draw in a big breath of air through your mouth, using all of your mouth. Draw in the air from your throat, as it were. Again, the goal is to expose to air all the residual wine still clinging to your mouth, to give up all the flavors possible. It’s remarkable how much of a difference this can make.
OK, so now you’ve tasted the wine. Presumably you are in heaven, unless something has gone terribly wrong. Do you get the same flavours as you were able to smell? Often there will be slight differences between the bouquet and the palate of a wine – perhaps the oak was huge on the nose but well balanced in the flavor. What smelled like plum may taste more like blackberry. Or whatever. Assess the palate against the bouquet and determine if there are any flavours that you didn’t pick up on before. And now is the time for your overall impressions, as well: as described above, we ask ourselves whether the acidity and tannins are balanced and in harmony with the wine overall. We make note if the alcohol is muted or highly noticeable. And finally, we also assess the texture of the wine. This is where the sense of touch comes in.
Can you feel it?
The texture of a wine, or its “body”, is another factor that can vary from wine to wine and affect our enjoyment level. Is the wine light, medium, or full bodied? In your mouth, you can assess the “weight” of a wine. Some wines are light like water, and others can be very full, closer to the texture of cough syrup. Residual sugars in sweeter wines, or high alcohol can make a wine heavier textured, but other factors affect it, too – fermentation and other wine making techniques. Make note of the body of your wine. Over time you will come to have preferences in this area as well, and after you know what to expect from different grapes and wine styles, you will be able to find wines that best suit you, or your particular mood at a given time.
This is the end
And finally, we come to the end of our assessment with one last thing to notice: the “length” of the wine. What this means is how long the flavours of the wine remain noticeable on your palate after you have swallowed it. Most wines will fade within a few seconds – this is normal. But some very special wines can linger and linger… we take note when this happens, as it is probably indicative of a very high quality product in our glass… one that keeps on, keeping on. Bliss.
This post wraps up the “Wine Appreciation” series and next I will move on to actually start documenting my studies of various wine regions. Please stay tuned!