Taste wine like a proThey tilt their glass to compare the splash of wine in the bowl against a white background. They swirl with precision, finally sticking their nose into the glass as they don an ultra serious expression. They sip, allow the wine to linger, and then languish in a pensive look. Observe a group of oenophiles and you’ll notice they share details about the wine with their peers scrupulously, but with passion.
Believe it or not, these folks are not too far from the causal wine drinker. The steep learning curve from social drinker, whose requests are as vague as “it doesn’t matter, as long as it’s red,” to the wine savvy intellectual, can be ascended by learning a few simple concepts and vocabulary words.
The aspects of wine that generate the most evaluation are those that titillate our olfactory and taste buds. Wine with a beautiful aroma is said to have a great nose or bouquet. Grapes with great noses include riesling, gewürztraminer, viognier, muscat, pinot noir, and cabernet franc.
New oak barrels are obvious on the nose too. French oak smells of clove, cinnamon, and vanilla, while American oak smells of vanilla, dill, and coconut. New barrels and oak adjuncts impart more oak tones. Oak adjuncts are French oak pellets or staves added to wine in a stainless steel tank. This is a new world recipe. French oak barrels are called barriques. Barrels are often toasted, which can impart marshmallow, caramel, and charred aromas and flavors. Aromas of any kind may carry over to the palate as flavors. Old barrels are not aromatic and are very subtle on the palate, offering a round, spicy hint on the back of the tongue. The older the barrel the less oak flavor it imparts.
We perceive flavor as soon as a wine is sipped. This is called the fore-palate or front of the palate. The wine can evolve and offer a completely different set of flavors on the mid-palate, which is the interval the wine is allowed to linger in the mouth. It is also the impression the wine leaves on the middle of the tongue.
Once a wine is swallowed, it can offer more interesting flavors. The wine might have a lingering finish. Some long finishes evolve in the mouth for many seconds. A long finish is a prized component for many oenophiles.
Wines that are less complex can lack one or more of these opportunities to express flavor or taste homogenous from start to finish. Complexity is often experienced as layers of evolving flavor from fore-palate, to mid-palate, to finish.
All wine has structure, but not all wine is balanced. Structure is the combination of all wine components. Balance is different for each of us, but infers that no one component is overwhelming. Sometimes a component is noticeably weak or missing. Structural components consists of tannins, acidity, body, fruitiness, terroir, residual sugar and alcohol.
Tannins or tannic acid are the astringents you feel in your mouth that cause a rough sensation, like eating walnuts. They come from grape stems, skins, and seeds. Tannins can also come from oak barrels and oak adjuncts. Tannins are found in red wine because the juice rests on the skins to obtain color and flavor (maceration). Since the juice to make white wine is usually removed from the grape skins and solids immediately, its tannins often come from being aged in new oak barrels. Tannins allow wine to age. Some flavors change favorably after a decade or so, as in the case of Barolo or Amarone. The astringency in tannins allow the wine to be preserved during this time.
Acidity makes your mouth water. Any chef will tell you acidity is an important part of any recipe. The mouthwatering action of acidity incites your appetite, which is why most Italian wines have a strong acidic profile. Italians believe food and wine were meant to be consumed together. A wine lacking in acidity seems flabby in the mouth. Imagine a salad without the splash of vinegar, it would seem dull and round. Grapes that ripen too fast lose their acidity.
Body and alcohol can be one and the same. However, you won’t hear of a wine described as having too much body. It will be said to have an undesirable alcoholic flavor, or be called hot. Pinot noirs are notorious for taking on this flavor. Wine can have a high alcohol level and not taste hot if the alcohol is in balance. Alcohol gives wine body. Wines with low alcohol can seem thin. Many growing regions in Europe restrict wines with low alcohol levels from being sold on the global market.
Fruitiness and terroir are flavor profiles that are a matter of personal taste. A fruit-forward wine shows jammy fruit flavor on the fore-palate. Many people call these wines fruit bombs. It is important to remember that just because a wine tastes fruity, does not mean it is sweet. New world growing regions enjoy plenty of sun, but often struggle with too much ripeness. There is an inverse relationship between acidity and fruitiness. When grapes ripen quickly, acidity drops drastically. A long slow growing season, offering long hang-time, preserves acidity while allowing the fruit to ripen fully.
Terroir (teh-WAHR) is the opposite of fruitiness. It is a subtle, elegant flavor, often described as spring rain, baked earth, flint, sea salt, chalk, dust, or minerals. Fruit-forward wines lack terroir. Old world styled wines show terroir with prominent tannins and acidity. Some winemakers go to great efforts to preserve the subtleties of terroir. One of the signs that someone is practiced at tasting wine is when they can appreciate the elegance of terroir.
Residual sugar is the grape sugar left over after fermentation is completed, abbreviated RS. Dessert wines usually contain RS because the yeast cannot consume all the sugar contained in the very ripe late harvest grapes. Grapes from cooler regions, like Germany, sometimes do not ripen enough to be flavorful after fermentation is complete. They have too much acidity, so winemakers will stop the fermentation before all the grape sugar is consumed by the yeast, allowing some grape juice to remain. This gives the wine a fruity flavor and lower alcohol.
Any of the structural components, tannins, acidity, body, alcohol, fruit, residual sugar or terroir can be perceived on the fore-palate, mid-palate, or finish. Some wines lack one or more of these things by design, others lack them because they are flawed. This lesson in vocabulary can start you on a journey to become more wine savvy or just allow you to pontificate when drinking wine with friends. Don’t be afraid to try out your tasting skills. You’ll be surprised at how easy it becomes with a little bit of practice.
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