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WINE 101 from our very own “Wine Goddess” Leslie F. Hamilton of The Wine Shop

For those of you who don’t know, I teach wine classes. I often have new students who haven’t been drinking wine for long, and it seems intimidating to them. So, just in case you are in the same boat, I thought I’d write this article on how to taste wine. Seems silly, huh? But there is a science to even the most basic things in life. I wouldn’t know how to begin to collect garbage for a living, but the city employees seem to do it with ease. I also don’t know how to write equations for NASA, but we have many things floating up there in space. With that being said, I hope this article will enlighten your wine drinking experience!

Firstly, you may wonder what is the point of all the wine reviewers telling you about what the wine looks like? Well, first and foremost, there are obvious faults you can simply see before you ever take a sniff or taste of a wine. For instance, if a white wine looks too “mellow-yellow”, it could be past its’ prime. White wines darken with age, where red wines lighten or “brick” with age. On a normal basis, white wines don’t have much longevity. That being said, there are some white wines that are able to age over 100 years. And, much to your surprise, the grape of that wine would be…RIESLING!! We will get back to that subject later. There are other white wines that have the ability to age, and we (once again) will touch on that in another article. But, back to what to look for in a wine: usually wine should be clear, with some brilliance. If there is sediment in a wine, it may be due to it being an unfiltered wine. This is normal for this type of wine but it should clearly state “unfiltered” on the label. Otherwise, beware!

Before you ever swirl a wine in the glass, take a sniff. There will be some aromas that will either intrigue you about this wine or totally turn you off. If you don’t get enough of a scent from the wine sitting still in your glass (waiting, anticipating your first sip), then swirl it once or twice. All ladies like to be swirled. And this lady of a wine you are making a move with on the dance floor is going to open up to you like a sweetheart on prom night. Take a deeper whiff. Agitation on a wine gives the molecules a minute to open up to you. Smell is eighty percent of what you taste. You also continue to smell a wine after it is in your mouth. If you can’t get at any particular aromas, go to something else and breathe in...then return to your wine. It’s like picking out a perfume at your local department store. They give you coffee beans, right? Then you can smell more than one with effectiveness. It’s the same with wines. You don’t necessarily need coffee, but anything polar opposite would do the trick. If you get the scent of a wet dog (forgive me, my poor Lucie dog) or wet cardboard, this is what a “corked” wine smells like. I hope you kept your receipt and please return it to your wine store. “Corkage” on a wine is from a chemical compound call trichloroanisole, or TCA. It is formed when a natural fungi found in cork comes into contact with certain chlorides that are used in sanitation products in the winery. On a similar note, there may be a “barnyard” scent. This is not a wine fault. It is actually a coveted thing in certain red wines. There is an earthiness that gives certain red wines a unique quality some people can’t get enough of! And I, personally, like to keep my glass after it’s been empty for a moment or two. Have you ever had a glass that you emptied the night before (or almost) that the next day you thought the smell would bowl you over? The French call that “fond de verre”, which translates to: bottom of the glass. The richest aromas emerge after considerable time with oxygen. This is why we swirl, other than its just plain fun!

Now comes the best part…tasting!! Take an ounce or so in your mouth and work it around your palate. If you can’t get a good grip on the flavor, try breathing in some air white still holding the liquid in your mouth. The taste should open up even more. Although I like to give out literature on what “should be” flavors in different varietals, there are really no wrong answers. If you taste cherry, you taste cherry. Most often there are multiple answers in what flavors a wine gives. The true factors of what you are looking for in tasting are whether the wine is dry or sweet, acidic, bitter, astringent, or tannic. Let me break it down. Dry and sweet are at opposite ends of the stick. Sweet refers to the residual sugar found in a wine. Dry means little to no residual sugar. Although a wine may taste fruity, it doesn’t mean it has residual sugar. And while most people think of acidity as more sour notes, this is what makes your mouth water when you sip a wine. Acidity is also what allows a wine to age. Bitterness in a wine may come from many different sources. Unripe grapes will give bitterness, as well as excessive oak, over-extraction of the grapes, and most often bitterness occurs when there are high alcohol levels. Astringency is produced by tannins, mostly in red wines. Tannins are what make the sides of your tongue feel dry when you sip a wine. In my classes, I have everyone peel a grape. Then bite into just the skin. This kind of chalky feeling is what tannins do. Although it doesn’t sound very appetizing, tannins definitely have a substantial place in wine. Have you ever had a big fatty rib-eye steak? When your mouth gets coated with the fat, it’s hard to taste the flavor. Tannins cut through the fat, allowing you to taste more of the flavor. And, if I’m taking in all those calories, I want to at very least taste every morsel.

Once you have tasted a wine, you now have a “map”, so to speak, to judge whether or not a wine is well balanced. Think of it as a square. Well, maybe more of a rectangle or parallelogram, depending on the wine. The point is you have four corners. Dry, sweet, acidic, and tannic. If you can identify each of these in your wine, and it (in a perfect world) would be a square in terms of mapping the percentages, this equals a perfectly balanced wine. There are also some outside influences when you taste wine that you should take into consideration. Did you just brush your teeth? If so, you’re probably not going to be able to judge that wine you sipped right after very well. You also shouldn’t rely on just one taste of the wine. It takes more than one taste for the top wine experts to judge it properly. If you are trying to compare two different wines, make sure you have a systematic approach. I.e. one ounce of each, using the same glassware for each, smelling before sipping… you get the idea.

Now that you have a basic approach to tasting a wine, which varietal(s) do you prefer? There are over 36,000 different names for grapes, but in actuality, only 6,000 different types. There are eight “noble” grapes, most commonly known in the wine world as, “The Big 8”. Four being white wine grapes and four being red wine grapes. The white grapes are: Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, and (the most noble) Riesling. The red grapes are: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, and Syrah. Tune in for my next article when I really start to dive into these varietals.

Hopefully, you now will go to your local wine tasting (I’ll be at The Wine Shop in Dilworth Fridays 5-7pm), and have more confidence tasting and talking about wine. Keep in mind that what is really important is what YOU like. I have had customers apologize for wanting wines that have a reputation for not being a serious wine. Don’t apologize for liking what you like. If we all liked the same thing, I’d only be able to sell one wine. How boring would that be? Variety is the spice of life and I hope you find it in your next glass of wine. Cheers!


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