So, to continue on with my review of the wine training courses I’ve taken, we will now move on to topics from night number two.
We touched on three rather basic, but immensely imperative, ideas in the wine world; the evaluation of wine quality, food and wine matching and the classic white grape. Now, these are HUGE topics, so I’m going to break it down into two subsequent posts, in addition to this four-post set.
Evaluating wine quality – “It’s all about harmony”
Colour – Is the colour bright like an Australian syrah or almost non-existent like a Canadian Riesling? A good way to evaluate this is to hold the glass on an angle and look down on it against a white background. Good light is always recommended, but this isn’t really a consideration when you’re at most restaurants. A good scale to use is the one developed by WSET and Winefan.
I’m not going to include a picture because I’m fairly certain its copy written and I don’t want to step on toes. That being said, it basically goes as follows; pale to deep in lemon/green, lemon, gold, amber, pink, salmon, orange, purple, ruby, garnet and tawny. It’s a long bloody list, but when you take the second level of the WSET courses, you actually get a schanzzy cardboard diagram of the colours. Keep in mind that some of this list can be viewed as a fault in a wine, whereas sometimes it is the wine makers intended colour. Having an idea of what the varietal you’re drinking looks like, or what the wine in general is like (a lot of fortified wines will fall in the tawny section), will help in the colour identification. I find that one of the main questions I ask myself is how bad it’s going to stain my lips when I drink it.
Nose – Immediate. This is the swirl! Everyone loves the swirl, but its not just to look like you’re a wine snob. What it does is it concentrates the aromas of the wine in the center of the glass so it’s stronger and easier to grab. I like to sniff the wine before I swirl it to see what it puts out on its own. For me it goes something like this: "Sniff, Swirl, Sniff, Sniff". Redundant – I know. But for me it works best. Because everything gets concentrated, I find the second sniff lets me get past the major aromas and pick out the finer ones. Like getting past the punch of floral and being able to identify the difference between roses and violets.
Length – How long does it last in your mouth?
Short – Less than 1 minute
Medium – 1-2 minutes
Long – Greater than 2 minutes
Acidity vs. Sweetness – Dry, off dry, medium and sweet. Acidity balances out the sweetness in a wine. Now, I believe a huge part of this is the winemakers discretion. Yes, you’re confined to the limitations of the juice, but ultimately it’s in the time that the grape is harvested and blended that makes this combination work in whatever favor you want.
Tannins and Oak – Tannins is only a factor to red or blush wine, but you can oak any wine and I think they are both, respectively, are absolutely brilliant. It gives an entirely new dimension to a wine. It’s like moving from Loony Tunes to Pixar. It’s all still animation, but it just brings it to a whole new world. Then again, you can always have too much of a good thing.
Intensity Of Flavor – will it sit in your mouth like a wallflower at a grade 9 dance, shy and talkative? Or will it hit on you like the drunk and horny footballer at prom? Does it toy and seduce you or does it lay all the cards out in the first hand like an amateur poker player? I find that the more a wine tries to seduce me, the more it toys with me and makes me chase it, the more I like it. But that isn’t necessarily the kind of wine that I want to pair with every meal. Sometimes if a wine has a profile, something I can rely on, I find it easier to pair with food. Or sometimes it’s best to go with something that won’t offend or compete with the food if I’m eating something new or complex. Also, I wouldn’t want to waste an intense zinfandel on a beef potpie.
Alcohol – Now, this seems to be a finicky subject for some wines. I would say that anytime the alcohol balance is off in a wine, it’s typically too strong or “hot”. But then again, that’s also the wine that gets you drunk faster so it’s a personal preference in that regard.
Complexity (the Holy Grail) - How the wine evolves, changes and develops with time. This is what everyone is looking for in a wine, regardless of whether it’s a twelve dollar chardonnay or a thousand dollar cabernet. It’s what gives a wine its merit and reputation. Most wine makers will have different tiers of wine; this is easily identified by price point, to reflect the different complexities in their wine. The most expensive wine being the most complete and, in my opinion, elitist. I think a lot of makers use these as signature wines, to demonstrate to the world what their pinnacle is, versus a staple or flagship wine, which is still “their” wine, but will appeal to more consumers. Of course, that leaves the entry-level wine, the wine that is the runoff or the juice that didn’t make the cut for the other two tiers. Makers can have more grouping and styles beyond my simplistic three tier break down, but you get the idea.
So there you have it, this is my basic understanding of how to evaluate wine. It is, by no means, a complete list of what to look at or how to do it. What works for one man might not work for another. But it gives you a starting point.
The field of flavors, aromas and structure you can find in a wine is huge, and is only really limited by your own personal knowledge. How can you know the differences between white pepper, black pepper and peppercorn if you’ve never tasted it?
Your homework for today? Eat, drink and break it down. Try something new; expand your pallet and flavor repertoire. Analyze what your tasting with the guide I've laid out for you. Go to a flower shop and smell the differences between roses and violets and taste a nectarine, and tell me how it’s different than a grapefruit.