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Evaluating Wine

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Evaluating Wine – a tasting primer

By Mary Baker (aka Rebel Rose)

Wine is meant to be enjoyed, but for many, approaching a glass of wine is still an intimidating experience. By using the following ten simple steps, you will be able to determine your own flavor preferences, learn how to judge the overall quality of a wine, and feel confident about voicing your opinion.

During this course I’ll be asking you taste and evaluate certain types of wines. The availability of wines in various markets makes it difficult if not impossible to choose specific wines that would be available to everyone, but we’ve tried to assemble a list with some widely available, affordable suggestions (click here and scroll down). You might have a preference for whites or reds, Austrian or American, and you should begin with wines that are familiar to you -- keeping in mind the varietal guidelines that the suggested list implies -- although I hope you will explore other varieties and regions during your exploration of wine. I encourage you to submit your own choices for future exercises.

Figuring out what you like is the point of this class. But when you exercise your newfound confidence and knowledge with your friends, remember that everyone will have different flavor preferences—some like white wines, some lean toward reds. Some people prefer bright, fruity wines, while others prefer tannic, or slightly spicy wines. Variety is part of the mystique of wine.

Wine-tasting protocol

Wine tasting is often more educational, not to mention fun, when enjoyed as a group. Ask each guest to bring a bottle of wine and six wine glasses. Provide fresh bread cubes or baguettes and filtered water for your guests. If you plan on serving appetizers or cheese, ask your guests to evaluate the wines first, then try them again later with food.

For assignments 1 and 2, use the following procedure.

Trace six circles on the placemats and place a glass on each circle. Pour a 3- to 4-ounce sample of each wine. Mark the circles with the name of the wine. Study each wine carefully, using the following criteria. (If you want to use our evaluation form, click here to download it). Then go back and re-taste the wines again to see if your perceptions have changed. Compare notes, and have fun!

1. Color of the wine

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First, examine the color of the wine. Hold the glass against a white background and tilt it sideways—a white wine should be pale straw to deep gold, and a red wine can be anywhere from brick red to deep, plummy purple. Older wines may have a brownish tinge around the edge, which is perfectly normal in an aging wine, but it may also indicate that the wine has peaked in flavor. A tinge of brown will prepare you for the flavors of an aging wine, which can range from dusky cinnamon to a rich caramel effect. In a white wine, any tinge of brown is a clear warning that the wine may be too old; the lighter, more tropical flavors of a white wine don't normally hold up well to the caramelized flavors that develop with age.

2. Swirling

Next, swirl the wine gently. This has two purposes. The first is to prove to everyone in the room that you are a wine geek (try not to splash wine on the person next to you). The second purpose is to gently aerate the wine. When you smell the wine after swirling, your nasal receptors will pick up more bouncing esters and molecules than if you sniff a resting wine. It is not necessary to give wine the washing-machine treatment. Swirling your wine for ten minutes will only exhaust the wine and make the wine room attendants dizzy.

3. Nice legs

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After swirling, lift your glass up above eye level and watch the wine drip down the glass. (There is no real purpose to this exercise other than demonstrating that you know how to do it.) You'll see a thin film of wine cling to the glass, then gently release in long drips, called "legs." Wines with a higher alcohol content have a stronger surface tension and will cling to the glass more, having thicker "legs." Swirled water, for instance, has no legs, compared to swirled brandy, which has drips like cake frosting. Alcohol content is relative to taste. At thirteen percent alcohol, a delicate white wine like sauvignon blanc may not have the necessary flavor to survive the hot mouthfeel of a strong alcohol content, but a heavier chardonnay or red wine may balance the alcohol perfectly.

4. Aroma

Now it's time to smell the wine. Take your time and use your imagination. If it were not wine, but perfume in your glass, how would you describe it?

A well-crafted wine should give hints of the fruit flavors to come, ranging from melons, peaches, and pineapple in white wines, to plum, cherry and cassis in red wine. Oak is often more evident in a wine's aroma than in its taste, and depending on the type of barrels used, you may also find esters of cedar, vanilla or cinnamon from oak aging.

Although aromas of mint and herb are often attractive, wines should never have unusually "green" aromas like asparagus, fermented grass, or pureed baby food.

5. Fruits and vegetables

Next, taste the wine. Savor the wine and roll it around in your mouth before swallowing. Most people have habitual methods of chewing and swallowing that probably do not include all the tasting receptors. Make sure the wine hits the middle, sides and back of your tongue, as well as the top of your palate.

What is your initial impression? Is the wine tart? Soft? Caramelized? Spicy? Take another sip, and close your eyes. If it were not wine, but food in your mouth, what would you be tasting? Just as a Bing cherry is very different from the vanilla-like Queen Anne cherry, every wine varietal is different and distinctive. White wines are often described as tasting like pear, apple, or pineapple. Red wines are compared to cherries, plums and berries. Cool growing seasons and some vineyards impart slightly vegetal characteristics that may remind you of herbs or asparagus.

(Taster's Tip: If you like, you can also aerate wine by swizzling it behind your teeth for a moment. This is most appropriate for young, tannic reds as it aids in evaluating the fruit and longevity of the wine. It is, however, considered gross to do this in a restaurant, and it is very pretentious to do it with every wine, particularly whites.)

6. Toast and butter

After the fruit and vegetable comparison, look for toast and butter characteristics. Various yeasts and wine making techniques can, if the winemaker so chooses, give wine a lingering bread-like smell, or the sweet-sour lactic aroma of buttermilk.

Toasty, yeasty wines are often the result of allowing spent yeasts to remain in the barrel with the wine for a period of time, called aging sur lies. Buttery and creamy aromas are the result of a process called malolactic fermentation, a secondary, post-alcohol conversion in which a specialized yeast changes the tart, green-apple malic acids of the grape into creamier lactic acids.

These characteristics apply mainly to white wines, as all reds are put through ML as a matter of course, and the deeper flavor and astringent tannins in red wines make sur lies aging more difficult to detect.

(Taster's Tip: Sometimes barrels do not completely finish malolactic conversion, or winemakers will put part of their barrels through malolactic fermentation, and then blend those barrels with non-malo lots, resulting in a wine with partial malolactic. You can ask about the percentage of ML in a wine, and with practice you will be able to guess accurately.)

7. Tannin

White wines have little or no tannin, which is a woody component extracted naturally from the skins and seeds of the red grapes. If you remember Boris Karloff craving his tanna leaves in The Mummy then you may have figured out that tannins are a natural preservative which facilitates the aging of red wines. (You should drink most white wines within four years of their vintage date—they lack the preservative tannins and will darken and caramelize with age.)

Although white wines are often completely dry, red wines taste even drier because the fresh tannins in a young red wine are very astringent. As these wines age, their tannins decompose in the bottle, creating an earthy effect and, one hopes, a more complex wine. The subject of aging reds before consumption is a controversy which has lasted for ages, but there is one simple guideline. If you like young wines, drink them young; if you like older wines, age them.

8. Oak

Now study the wine for oak. Can you smell it? Can you taste it?

Not all wines should be oaky—the delicate fruit flavors of light white wines can be overwhelmed by too much oak, and even red wine can sometimes smell more like furniture than fruit. The effect should be subtle—wines should not taste of pine, cedar, toothpicks or planks.

9. Good body

What is your overall impression of the wine's textural feel? Does the wine have body, and structure? Were its components multiplexed and interesting? Did the wine titillate all the surfaces of your mouth, and seduce your sinuses? Or did it seem to stick to just one portion of your tongue?

Body generally refers to a wine's ability to satisfy a multitude of sense in your mouth. Structure implies that the wine has layers of experience—flavors that echo the initial aromas and lead into a lingering finish. Some tasters prefer a thick, viscous, high-alcohol wine, while others enjoy a wine that seems to expand on the palate, throwing out a joyous array of flavors, aromas and teasing texturals.

10. The finish line

Does the wine have a nice finish, a lingering sensation of flavor? Wines designed to be pleasant, fruity gulpers should leave a clean, brisk finish; more expensive wines designed for longevity should leave hints of interesting, mysterious and pleasantly spicy flavors, much like an expensive and well-designed perfume.

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Assignment #1

Varietal comparison: white wine

Equipment for one: A glass of wine!

Equipment for six: 36 wine glasses and 6 bottles of white wine, all different varietals

white paper placemats

notepads and pencils or pens (or use the wine evaluation form provided)

bread

filtered water

In the wine business, we refer to each variety of grape as a varietal. Just as a vanilla-colored Queen Anne cherry differs from a blood-red Bing, wine grapes vary in color and flavor. Each type of grape has a distinctive flavor, and depending on where and how it's grown, certain characteristics of the grape will become more pronounced.

A winemaker's choice of yeast and winemaking techniques will also affect flavor, adding aspects of spice, pastry, or butter, and the amount of time a wine spends in oak will impart additional aroma and flavor to the fruit.

There are thousands of winegrape varieties throughout the world, but here are a few of the more common white wine varietals.

Taste six white varietals and try to identify each varietal's core flavors.

Guide to White Wine Varietals

Malvasia Bianca

A light crisp wine with floral aromas and a core flavor of grapefruit. Good chilled and served with salads or spicy seafood.

Sauvignon Blanc

A light wine with grassy aromas like fresh-mown hay or clover, and flavors of tart apple, kiwi, or citrus. Very good with summer time appetizers, green salads, pasta salads, and minimalist seafood.

Pinot Blanc

Similar to a chardonnay, pinot blanc has a deep blond color and creamy mouthfeel with a definite pear flavor.

Chardonnay

A pleasant workhorse of a wine, chardonnay has fruity aromas and a core flavor of apples. It's made in a range of styles from minimal oak and bright fruit, to heavy oak or butter styles. It goes with a wide range of food, from hors d'oeuvres and salads to light meats and spicy pasta dishes.

Viognier

A tropical powerhouse, viognier is intensely fruity, and sometimes has a grassy finish. It generally has a high alcohol content, which in turn gives the wine a heavier mouthfeel that also appeals to red wine drinkers. The combination of high alcohol and fruit salad flavors sometimes makes the wine seem slightly sweet, even when it is technically dry. Served chilled, it can stand up to very spicy dishes.

Other white wines to try include pinot gris, roussanne, marsanne, and semillon.

Click here for the class Q&A.

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Assignment #2

Varietal comparison: red wine

Equipment for one: A glass of wine!

Equipment for six: 36 wine glasses and 6 bottles of red wine, all different varietals

white paper placemats

notepads and pencils or pens

bread

filtered water

Taste six red varietals and try to identify each varietal's core flavors.

Guide to Red Wine Varietals

Pinot Noir

Although lighter in tannins than other red wines, pinot noir is packed with flavor. Its core flavor of pie cherry is accompanied by flavors and aromas of mushroom, hay, cinnamon, pastry and oak. Its gentler mouthfeel and intriguing flavors make it a versatile food wine, good with a wide range of dishes.

Sangiovese

A native of Italy, it can be slightly heavier than pinot noir, but also has a core flavor of pie cherry or wild berry, with layers of earthy tones and a hint of spice. It ranges in style from light red and slightly tart to heavy spice-and-earth wines. Some producers blend in cabernet to give it mainstream appeal, but I love its brick red color and dancing gypsy flavors.

Merlot

A popular red wine with food, merlots range from light fruity styles to heavy, mountain-grown fruit with intense color that make deep, plummy wines. Softer and fruitier than cabernet and syrah, merlot is a great red wine for sipping and good with a variety of foods.

Zinfandel

The wild child of America, zinfandel is not widely produced in Europe. Its history is shrouded in confusion, but there is nothing confusing about its flavor. It has a standout core of raspberry and black pepper. Styles range from old vine zinfandels with a brick red color and heavy peppercorn, to purple powerhouses with jammy plum flavors and very high alcohol. Generally served with red meats, grilled vegetables and pungent cheeses.

Cabernet Sauvignon

Cabernets and syrahs are heavier reds that age gracefully. Cabernet has a luscious mouthfeel with a core flavor of black cherry or plum, and hints of licorice, herbs or violets. The best cabernets are not over-oaked, so you can taste the layers of flavor and enjoy its intriguing bouquet. Its rich, delicious flavors are great for sipping and relaxing, and also excellent with red meats, rich sauces and potatoes.

Syrah/shiraz

Machismo flavors of blueberry, beef, smoke and licorice characterize this robust red wine—great with hearty cuts of meat, grilled lamb, and blue-veined cheeses. Australian producers call it shiraz.

Other popular red wines include cabernet franc, petite syrah, mourvedre, grenache and barbera.

Click here for the class Q&A.

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Separating art and technique from nature

A wine made with minimal intervention by the winemaker will feature what I call "vineyard presence." In lieu of tasting grapes in the vineyard, it helps to understand that wine grapes are very small and concentrated, with thick, chewy skins and fat, toasty seeds called pips. The flavor of a wine grape is closely associated with its skin. Wine grapes are distinctly different from the large, juicy and water-retentive 'table grapes' sold in markets. Ideally, they are small, round, and intensely flavorful, with a low juice-to-skin ratio.

Part of a grape's flavor profile may include woody or spicy components from the skins that are not normally associated with fruit—some white wines have a white pepper nuance, and zinfandel often has a black pepper character. Other flavors intrinsic to certain varieties include minerals, mushroom, leather, and olive.

Once you have learned to recognize varietal character in general, you're ready to study the effects contributed by winemaking decisions and intervention.

Quality, ripeness, and acidity

A certain degree of crisp fruitiness is almost always desirable in a wine, whether white or red. In a white wine, look for the sensation of biting into a fresh, firm and juicy fruit. In reds, look for the sweet-tart sensation of summer berries and plums.

A wine should convey the same full flavor sensations as summer preserves and jams made from perfectly ripened fruit.

If the wine seems very tart compared to the depth of flavor, it may have been a cool or rainy vintage that prevented the fruit from ripening properly. If a wine tastes raisiny or pruney, the fruit was probably picked too late in the season. Each varietal should have an individualistic flavor. If it does not, the fruit may have come from an over-cropped vineyard. Overcropping dilutes the quality and flavor of the grapes and can result in bland wine. Or, it may be a blended from different vineyards for the express purpose of creating a bland, yet pleasant wine.

Decisions on when to pick are ultimately made or approved by the winemaker, so the quality of the fruit in the glass is the first and primary style decision.

Dry or sweet

A wine can be completely dry, technically, yet still taste sweet. Higher alcohol levels impart a thicker mouthfeel that you may interpret as 'syrupy' and associate with sweetness. Also, some wines are so robustly fruity that they taste like fruit salad or compotes, and tasters associate the memory of those aromas and flavors with sweetness. Viognier is commonly considered 'sweet' by tasters, and although some certainly are, even a dry viognier can be so powerfully fruity that it will convey a palate memory of sweetness.

Many large productions of chardonnay in particular do retain some residual sugar. Residual sugar is not added to the wine—it is the result of leaving some of the natural grape sugars in the wine as opposed to converting all the sugar to alcohol. A little RS in a wine can smooth out the flavors and enrich the body. RS is often left in high alcohol reds to balance the wine and prevent a 'hot' mouthfeel.

Residual sugar in a wine is not necessarily a bad thing. Learning to separate perceptions of 'fruit' and 'sweetness' takes practice, and with many wines it can be difficult even for professionals.

Fat mouthfeel

A fat mouthfeel refers to a certain viscous, almost oily property in the wine. It's a pleasant experience, also described as luscious or voluptuous. A fat mouthfeel will highlight the deeper flavors of red wines, like roast beef, licorice and smoke, and create a deep, sensuous experience in white wines, reminiscent of butter and olive oil.

While high alcohol or RS can contribute to a fat mouthfeel, it can also be the result of a higher pH. Levels of pH in wine generally range from 3.5 to 3.7, but many wines can hop as high as 4.2.

Young wines with a fat mouthfeel are delicious and often multi-layered, but are generally designed for early drinking. For wines to cellar, look for bright acids and crisp fruit. Without that bright fruit, wines get flabby quickly. And sometimes, fat wines are better for fireside sipping than serving with food.

Malolactic conversion

Malolactic conversion (ML) is created by adding malolactic bacteria to a wine after it has completed its primary sugar-to-alcohol fermentation. The ML bacteria convert the sharp malic acids of the grape into creamier, softer, lactic acids. Nearly all reds go through complete ML because they generally taste very bitter without it. For white wines, it becomes a stylistic decision.

ML is more evident in the aroma than in the flavor of a white wine. It's a common misconception that ML contributes to a buttery flavor or mouthfeel. That thick, oily butter texture in a white is more likely due to alcohol or sugar. Lactic acids create a butter aroma. To practice identifying it, warm a stick of salted butter to room temperature and study its delicate aroma.

Oak, vanilla and smoke

Not all wines are fermented or stored in oak barrels. Many light, crisp white varietals can be damaged or overwhelmed by time in oak and are at their best when handled in stainless steel. For instance, putting a sauvignon blanc through oak aging or keeping it in stainless would be a winemaker's stylistic decision.

Different types of barrels impart different flavors, ranging from sharp cedar and pine notes to deep, smoky ones. There are so many different flavors and effects that it's a topic of its own—French, American and Hungarian coopers all have different flavors, as do individual forests and coopers. Even among French barrels there's a huge variety of flavor. There are also the stylistic decisions of whether to use tight or loose grain; one, two or three-year air dried wood; light, medium, or heavy toast; and toasted heads.

New barrels impart a lot of oak character quickly, while older barrels which have been broken in release their flavors more slowly.

Oak should be a perfume in the wine, and not overwhelm it. Oak can also lend structure to a wine, like a staircase leading you deeper into other aromas and flavors.

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Assignment #3

Discerning subtlety and manipulation

Equipment for one: A glass of wine!

Equipment for six: 36 wine glasses and 6 bottles of wine, 3 white and 3 red

white paper placemats

notepads and pencils or pens

bread

filtered water

Quality, ripeness, and acidity

For each wine sample, ask yourself:

Does this wine have a fresh, perfectly ripe character?

Does it taste under- or over-ripe?

Does it have a distinct 'varietal character'

Dry or sweet

For each wine sample, ask yourself:

Can I detect clearly identifiable fruit character?

Does the wine seem sweet?

If I think the wine is sweet, does that sweetness highlight the fruit, or smother it?

Fat mouthfeel

For each wine sample, ask yourself:

Does this wine have a fat, unctuous mouthfeel?

Can I taste deeper and intriguing flavors, beyond the core fruit flavors?

Would I serve this wine with food, or sip it on its own? Why?

Malolactic conversion

For each wine sample, ask yourself:

Can I smell lactic acid?

Is the aroma strong or faint? Do I suspect a full or partial ML conversion?

Do I like / prefer this aroma?

Oak, vanilla and smoke

For each wine sample, ask yourself:

Do I detect oak in the aroma?

How would I describe this particular oak character?

Is the aroma of oak in balance with the other aromas?

Is this an aroma I enjoy in this varietal?

Click here for the class Q&A.

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Assignment #4

Using your component descriptor kit

See the class introduction for instructions on preparing your component descriptor kit.

Use your infusions to familiarize yourself with common individual wine aromas. By practicing blind, the exercise of identifying a single aroma will train your mind to scroll back through your sensory experiences for a match. With experience and practice, you can train yourself to recognize individual aromatic components in a glass of wine.

The following exercises and practice sessions are, as always, more enlightening and fun when shared with friends, but you can do them solo as well.

Equipment for one: A glass of wine!

Equipment for six: 36 wine glasses and 6 bottles of wine, 3 white and 3 red

placecards to identify wines

notepads and pencils or pens

bread

filtered water

Exercise #1

Arrange the jars on a table or flat surface. Use placecards by each jar to identify the aroma. Inhale each aroma and look away or close your eyes, committing the aroma to memory. Visualizing the scent often helps. "See" the fruit, herb or spice in your mind, and "feel" it in your hand.

Exercise #2

Rearrange the scent jars and close or overturn the placecards. Try to recognize and identify each scent.

Again, visual organization may help. Imagine yourself cruising the aisles of a grocer or outdoor market looking for the source of the aroma. Remember to peruse your mental garden, pantry, and spice rack for surprising and elusive aromas. Try to visualize what the scent would be if you opened your eyes and were holding it in your hand.

Scents will be interpreted differently by everyone. Here are some common variations:

gravel, mineral = limestone, saltiness, earth

peaches = apricots, stonefruit

herbs = herbs de Provence, sage, marjoram, cut grass

tarragon = licorice, anise, fennel

cloves = nutmeg, exotic spice

Exercise #3

Evaluate the aromas of a white wine and a red wine. Try to determine if the scents in your kit are present or absent.

Click here for the class Q&A.

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