Wine and food appreciation are really not much different. Both rely on the evaluative senses of sight, smell, and taste. So why does recognizing good, well-made wine seem so illusive and mysterious when recognizing good food is relatively easy for most people?
It's practice and palate training. Plain and simple. Understanding food is easier because we've all been eating since birth so our palate training started on day one!
Not so for wine. Most people don't begin tasting wine until their preferences for taste are well established. Starting out, first time wine-drinkers appreciate sweeter wines because such wines are easier to decipher. It takes time to acquire a taste for complex dry wines with bitter and acidic character.
For the novice there are some very basic starting points on the journey to tasting and understanding wine. Like food, it only takes your eyes, your nose and your mouth to fully asses it. Here's how to start.
First, observe the wine in the glass. Whether white or red, if a wine looks dull or cloudy it likely indicates that the wine could have some problems. In general, a clean wine will be bright and fresh looking, capturing glints of light in the liquid. Aged wines will generally look paler and less vibrant (though clear) and unfiltered wines may be more densely coloured and opaque (though not appear cloudy).
As tasters become more experienced, the colour, hue and the intensity of the wine's colour on the rim of the wine in the glass (and at the core) will also give hints at the grape varietal and age of the wine. Keep in mind though, sight alone can't reveal the quality of the wine in the glass. Other senses are required!
Smell or the "Nose"
Swirl the wine around in the glass and take in a deep sniff of the wine. What do you smell? Is it fruity or floral? Is it a simple aroma or are there more complex layers of smells? Does it smell faulty or off, like vinegar, nail varnish, or wet cardboard? These aromatic observations tell you a lot!
Broadly speaking, wine smells like grapes. No surprise. But certain grape varietals naturally bring other, more complex aromas (and flavours) to a wine. The "nose" characteristics refer to aromas that emerge from the grape varietal, the ripeness of the grapes used to make the wine, and even the winemaking technique and ageing. These factors influence aromas and make wines that vary in complexity and intensity on the "nose".
Taste or the "Palate"
Taste the wine. Fill your mouth and let the wine coat it entirely, including your teeth and gums. Only now can you feel a wine's texture and weight in your mouth, and you can perceive the flavours linked to sweetness and sourness, or the bitter tastes that are linked to the tannins in a wine (usually only red wines). When the wine is in your mouth your nose also helps assess the wine. Recall that food is tasteless when you have a cold, so the nose helps you detect flavours once the wine is on the palate.
Now, think about whether the wine hits your palate sharply or smoothly, and then focus on the primary and secondary flavours that you taste. Is the wine fruity? If so, what fruit flavours do you detect? Is it lemony, or smoky or buttery or does it have an earthy quality to the taste? If so, which one? Do the tannins in the wine dry your mouth out or taste bitter?
Once you swallow the mouthful then focus on how the wine "finishes" and whether it has a long or short aftertaste, whether it has a bitter aftertaste, or whether it finishes with a refreshing, acidic quality or a fruity flavour. Wines are all different so there are many possibilities.
And lastly, did you like it? That's really the most important part!
It is useful to know that the condition and quality of the base ingredient, grapes and the skill of the winemaker, makes a difference in the quality of the wine. Really ripe, succulent grapes give a more complex range of aromas and flavours whereas not-so-ripe, green grapes don't. So fruit "intensity" and complexity on the nose and palate can vary depending on the base ingredient, or the grape ripeness.
Much like a chef who takes fresh, good quality ingredients to achieve an impressive result on the plate, a winemaker can take good quality grapes and produce a stunning wine. No doubt, winemaker skill and technique are a key ingredient in any outstanding outcome!
So the next time you read a tasting note for a wine and it speaks of "ripe apple or pear" flavours, or a "honeyed nose" and you think, "how can a grape produce such aromas and flavours?", you'll know it's because the fruit was likely ripe starting out and the winemaker achieved a complexity of flavours through vinification (winemaking) techniques and ageing.
Give your eyes, nose and mouth a challenge...pick out a wine that sounds appealing from The Local Nose weekly recommendations, read the expert tasting notes, taste it and see whose description you agree with.
Go on...it's fun!
Contributed by Ed Soon and Sarah Mayo