The art of tasting
The art of tasting ……
In our modern society we are surrounded by modern millennial ideals of positive affirmations, manifestations, vision boards and mindfulness. And whether you live by these practises or not, it seeps into your psyche and finds its way into your daily life somehow. Recently it struck me that most of the wine tasting I do for my job, is actually drinking wine in a mindful manner. You take the time to slow down, find a quite spot, swirl your wine and allow yourself to slip deep into thought about the various aromas and flavours of the wine before making your assessment. All carried out in a peaceful, serene, reflective manner. Of course, tasting wine is not really about practising our mindfulness. It is the systematic gauge in which wine is judged the globe over, to harmonise and homogenise an extremely subjective speciality. But actually, the two worlds collide well, mindfulness and assessment. Without one we can’t have the other. Enjoying the wine is a whole other exciting matter that we have down to a fine art. It’s the tasting and assessment that take some time to master. Here are some tips to set you on your way.
There are a number of different factors to consider before taking the time out of your day to sit down and taste a wine in a meditative manner like this. If you’re like myself with small noisy children around, a foghorn can be used to clear the room of distractions. Some professional tasters use noise cancelling headphones to avoid the chatter of the wine producers in their ears, much like my excited children in the background. Tiredness is also a huge deterrent for tasting wine, as your brain lags behind your taste buds. Also ‘hunger is the best sauce’ when it comes to tasting. Hunger allows the olfactory pathway to perform much better and more precise. Furthermore, eating before a tasting session can confuse the taste buds with remnants of spices or sugar remaining in the mouth and nasal passage for some time after. Finally choose a good quality, delicately lipped glass (Riedel are some of the best). The generous base of the glass must allow the aromas to swirl. The top of the glass should narrow, as this funnels the aromatics directly to your eagerly anticipating nasal cavities.
Ok, enough prep done. Let’s get started. The sequence of tasting is appearance, nose, palate, assessment. Nine times out of ten when we are just drinking and enjoying our wines, we rarely take in to account the appearance of the wine. However, how many of us would be very quick to note if the wine was hazy, or had large particles in it, or was beginning to brown around the edges. In general, the appearance is the least important aspect of the tasting, yet it can still help to indicate if the wine has begun its ageing process, or indeed if the new age producer has left the wine unfiltered. If the wine is beginning to age considerably, a white will turn a golden colour and the reds will develop tawny, orange tones. Commercially wines were always filtered before bottling, but now with the rise of organic and bio-dynamic producers, filtering the wines is considered stripping them of even more flavour so the hazy yeast like appearance remains.
Now on to the nose. At this stage, most of my wine students are ready to tip the liquid down their necks, but I remind them the importance of this stage. A good swirl in the glass immediately awakens the volatile compounds, otherwise known as the exciting parts of the wine. The aromas and the alcohol. The aromas are stuck in liquid form initially, and it is the action of adding air to the wine that frees these aromas up the glass, and into your nose. Therefore, an excessive amount of swirling generally goes on in any professional wine tasting. Sometimes you wonder will there be any wine left. But the science behind it justifies their embellishments. Our tongue is an incredible organ. It has taste buds all over the tip, that are filled with 10-50 sensory cells each. However, we can still only taste sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and the newly discovered umami. Our sense of smell is actually responsible for 80% of our tastes. Therefore, all the other flavours we perceive to taste have actually come from our nasal passage. The back of your throat is connected to your nose, and as our wine warms up, the aromas are released and travel up to the back of your throat. Genius. Ever tried tasting anything with a stuffy nose or a cold? Bland and dull would be the adjectives that come to mind.
Finally, the palate. The key to deciphering quality on the palate is adding air to your sip. The very notion of a ‘reverse whistle’ as described by Jancis Robinson MW, allows you to take in even more air into your mouth to further awaken the aromas. As the wine rolls around the palate, we are looking to judge the acidity levels, the variety of the flavours, the weight of the wine and the length, amongst many other features. Truly we could dissect the wine so brutally it becomes a liquid of broken parts, and to the untrained palate makes no sense. Therefore, it is best to stick to four indicators. Acidity is found at the sides of your tongue. And if it is overly aggressive the idea of chewing a lemon will be more preferable! It should mellow out with the joy of the ripe, sweet mid palate. To judge the weight of the wine allow it to caress your tongue, and see if it resembles a watery texture, or has it got a fuller, creamier mouthfeel. This should indicate its richness and full-bodied character. There are three wines I have chosen below that display layers of flavours. A true sign of quality. Of course, the winemaker wants you to taste the characters of grapes, but also the skilled addition of oak ageing, or lees ageing or blends of grapes, and whatever extra flavours these may bring. Finally, the length. This is probably the best indicator of quality. The longer a grape hangs on a vine, the longer it has to collect extra nutrients and flavours. Perfectly ripe grapes with longer hangtime, allow for less manipulation in the winery and ultimately increased natural, longer lasting flavours.