For some of us normal people, there’s always a question in the back of our mind why we can’t taste the stuff the pro’s taste when they write about wines. Is there something wrong with us or our tastebuds?
The answer is a resounding no! Wine professionals invest a lot of time, effort and money in becoming professionals and honing their ability to smell and taste wine – and write about it. Many study and become accredited as Certified Sommeliers, and some like John Szabo become Master Sommeliers. Others may also supplement their training with specific certifications from education institutions in regions such as Bordeaux or Burgundy.
Does it really matter if we can’t do a blind tasting and pick the top wine? Again, a resounding no! What we can do is read what the experts have to say, try to learn a little bit, and enthusiastically embrace the tasting experience. Here’s what I would consider to be the minimum that any wine drinker should do:
Visual: Visual evaluation is about looking at the wine in your glass, usually against a white background if possible. Is the wine clear or cloudy? Note the colour – often the colour gives you hints about what’s in the glass (lots more to come on that).
On the nose (the smell): Does the smell want you to take a drink, or does it feel like it burned out a few nose hairs? You might need to swirl it around a little more to let some of the alcohol mix with oxygen, which often brings more character out and evaporates a bit of the nasty alcohol. The pro’s dig much deeper and try to attach various scents to what they are smelling (lots more to come on that too). But to start with, it’s enough to decide whether it’s compelling or not.
Taste #1: First, don’t just gulp it down. Take a mouthful and swirl the wine around a bit. Then swallow. Then think about what you taste in your mouth. This is the point where the pro’s will define what they’re tasting by one or more of literally hundreds of descriptors – from cedar to blackberry (red wines), from mineral and chalk to apple (white wines). But for normal people, the real question is “Do you like it?”
Finish: The finish is what happens in your mouth after you swallow the wine. Does the taste linger, leaving you with a great memory? Does the taste change at all? Is there a bitter aftertaste, or is it mellow? For instance, with some oaked Chardonnays, that’s the point when I might notice a taste of vanilla or butterscotch.
Taste #2: The second thing about tasting is to determine whether the wine can be sipped by itself, or whether it needs food. Some wine is so robust, it’s almost overpowering when you take a drink of it. So perhaps you try a cracker or small piece of cheese, then have another sip. If the wine tastes way better, or seems less overpowering, then the food is providing a great complement. Most wines have a friendly food: some wines can be sipped with a complementary snack, but many wines really only do their best work with food. If you’re visiting a winery and trying their wines, ask the staff to suggest foods that will work best with the wine. Otherwise, you can see what the pro’s have to say – most will suggest food pairings when they review a wine.
Price: For the most part, the more expensive the wine, the better the wine. There are a lot of variables that will affect the price of a wine, from how good the growing season was, to how much of the wine is available. Bottom line – you need to feel like it was a good value for the price. For some of us, that also means defining our sweet spot for cost – $20 to $25, $40 to $50 and so on.
Resources: I hope you stick with me as we work our way through learning about wine tasting and drinking, and enjoying wine adventures. Please sign up for notifications about my wine posts, and like my Facebook page – lots of more information is on its way! But here are a few resources for you:
WineAlign – From their web site: “WineAlign was designed by wine consumers, – not wine sellers – who want logical, practical and objective wine buying advice. The service aggregates ratings from a growing portfolio of top Canadian wine critics who taste thousands of wines a year and have an objective frame of reference for rating quality and the journalistic ability to effectively communicate the style, character and background of the wine. But your opinion, and those of your friends, matter as well, so WineAlign allows you to build your personal review and rating system.”
Wine of the Weekend – previews wines about to be released at the LCBO (in Ontario), that are under $25. If you sign up, you’ll get a wine review in your inbox every Friday.
Vines Magazine – dedicated to Canadian wine drinkers.