THERE are, claim the (chiefly patronising) PC-police, no right or wrong answers when it comes to wine-tasting. Codswallop. Make an ignorant comment about wine in the company of the vinously advantaged and the sneers spread quicker than a splash of red on a white tablecloth.
Then there’s that adage: “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing”. Hogwash. A little knowledge goes a long way to not only impress wine toffs of the world, but also to advance your own pleasure and appreciation of wine.
Indeed, it is worth dumping any delusions you have that the scrutiny, swirling, sniffing and swishing that goes on during wine-tasting is complicated and pretentious. The technique is founded on good old common sense. It is simply a process that compels you to slow down, get mindful and pay more attention to how wine influences your senses.
Before you begin tasting, have a plan, albeit a simple and flexible one. Particularly where you have the opportunity of tasting countless wines – for example, at a wine show or during tours of the winelands – deciding on a theme or a few themes before you grab a glass helps to narrow and systematize the process.
Familiar formal themes include horizontal tastings, which means sampling a number of different wines from the same vintage; vertical tastings, when you compare different vintages of the same varietal; and comparative tastings of various different examples of the same sort or style of wine.
But, wine-tasting is meant to fun and the theme can be anything (or anyone) you fancy: “At a recent wine show, my friends and I decided that our tasting theme for the evening would be Wines Created By Good Looking Winemakers,” says SA’s only resident Master of Wine, Cathy van Zyl.
But, if the looks or lack thereof of the people behind the labels do not interest you, you might do something like compare wines from bush vines with those from trellised vines. Bush vines, say winemakers, require less moisture than trellised vines and produce smaller berries with thicker skins, which results in wines with more concentrated flavours. Why not test the theory?
While wine fundi Michael Fridjhon agrees that themed tastings are a good idea, he recommends keeping them short to allow for flexibility: “Where you have a large variety of wines available to taste, it can be difficult to stick to one theme – particularly where winemakers and marketers are on hand to persuade you to try as many of their wines as possible before you move on.”
He suggests setting themes of no more than ten wines per category. It is wise too, he says, to rest and refresh your palate by, for example, tasting a Sauvignon Blanc halfway through a tasting of reds.
“The most important thing is to stay away from sugar until the end of the tasting,” he advises. A sweet wine can make dry wines seem acidic and unpleasant if they are tasted afterwards.
The general rule for the order of tasting is dry before sweet and light wines before full-bodied wines. White wines are usually best tasted before reds, except where – as pointed out by Fridjhon – the whites are sweet.
There is some debate about whether young wines should be tasted before old ones. Some believe it is best to save the oldest, most complex wines until last. Others say you will more fully appreciate the complexity and length of mature wines before intensely fruity young wines besiege your palate. You decide.
The appropriate number of different wines to be tried at a single tasting is also up to you. In her book, The Oxford Companion To Wine, Jancis Robinson writes it is difficult to enjoy more than a dozen wines at a time. But Fridjhon believes it is possible to taste up to 30 different wines over two or three hour – but, for obvious reasons, only if you spit rather than swallow.
Once you have decided what you are going to taste, how much and in what order, the sampling can begin. The first thing to consider is the wine’s appearance, which can tell you great deal about the wine, its age and quality.
Tilt the glass at a 45º angle away from you, and look at it against a white background. The colour at the rim of the glass is a telling indication of the hue and age of wine, while looking straight down into the glass clearly indicates the intensity of colour. Colour not only gives you the first indication about the varietal in your glass, but it also provides information about the condition and age of a wine. These clues are useful when it comes to aging and storing wine.
This is the kind of thing, says van Zyl, that you can learn more about by talking to winemakers and other wine experts: “The more you learn about wine, the more you want to know,” she says. “Observe, read, ask questions and – most of all – talk about wine. This way, the bug will bite, you will develop your wine-tasting skills and consequently, your appreciation of wine.”
Once you have inspected the wine, swirl it in the bowl of the glass, give a quick sniff and concentrate on the first fleeting impression. Then give the glass another spin, and take a number of short quick sniffs. This is an important part of wine-tasting because the sense of smell makes up about 75% of taste perception. Messages conveyed to the brain by the nose are not necessarily more powerful than those put across by the mouth, but they are subtler.
Fleeting impressions and subtle messages are, says Fridjhon, why it is essential to make notes during tastings. Do not rely on your memory to record your impressions, particularly when working your way through many wines.
So, you have examined the wine and smelt it. Finally you can draw a small quantity, accompanied by a little air, into your mouth. Circulate it to get a feel of what it is like. Spit out the wine and breathe out sharply. Consider the impressions on your palate.
Acidity is the vital spark that you are looking for. Wine that lacks acidity is flat and dull. Wine that is over-acidic is tart. Then there is the body: this time you are contemplating the weight of wine in the mouth, and not the shape of the winemaker. Wine can have a thin, delicate, medium or full body.
Tannins, which cause a tactile sensation on the palate, are derived from pips, grape skins and stems, and/or from the wood in which the wine was stored. They are a complex group of chemical compounds and, if you want to engage a winemaker on an interesting subject, ask him or her to explain the sensory impact of tannins on the palate.
Flavour can be simple, straightforward or complex. Balance is about whether all the components are in harmony. Finish refers to aftertaste. Generally, the longer the aftertaste, the better the quality.
There you have it: wine-tasting 101. Because, take it from me, while PC-speak says there are no right or wrong answers when it comes to wine-tasting, a little knowledge on the subject can prevent you appearing a right plonker.
(This article was first published in The Weekender in 2009.)