The ABCs of Wine Tasting

Excerpted from an article by Thomas Matthews

Drinking wine is easy: tilt glass and swallow. Tasting wine is more of a challenge. You need special tools, the proper environment, keen concentration, a good memory and a vivid imagination. But after three or four glasses, the basic effect is the same either way. So why bother? I'm a baseball fan. When I take a friend who knows nothing about the sport to the ballpark, he may enjoy the crowd, down a hot dog, cheer if someone hits a home run. The rest of the time he's asking me, What's the big deal? One guy throws a ball, the other guy misses it. But for me, every pitch is a small drama: what the pitcher chooses to throw, how the defense sets up, where the batter tries to hit it, how the strategies play out. When nine innings are over, we both know the score. But while my friend may have passed a pleasant afternoon, I've been totally absorbed in the game.

Life can be lived in a casual way, or plumbed to the depths. We all choose how and where to spend our energy and attention. You may play music, cook seriously, tend a lovely garden. Maybe the things you love aren't vital, but they make life richer. Passion is never wasted effort. That's why wine lovers learn to taste. We know that the effort we put into understanding and appreciating wine—as opposed to simply enjoying it (or its psychotropic effects)--pays big dividends. Really tasting wine adds an extra dimension to the basic daily routines of eating and drinking. It turns obligation into pleasure, a daily necessity into a celebration of life.

So what is wine tasting all about? Like any skill, serious tasting requires a combination of technique and experience. The more you do it, the better you become. Given an unidentified wine, an expert taster, using only his senses and his memory, can pick out the grape variety, the wine's vintage, its region of origin, even the specific winery that produced it. That's the myth. In fact, if the wine is served at room temperature and the taster is blindfolded, most can't even tell whether it's red or white. Harry Waugh, an English wine expert who has been tasting for nearly 80 years, was once asked if he had ever mistaken Burgundy for Bordeaux. "Not since lunch," he replied. Blind tasting is a great parlor game. But the real goal is to understand a wine, not to unmask it. Through a concentrated application of all the senses, and by comparison of the immediate sense data with memories of other wines tasted, the serious taster can decipher a wine's biography to an amazing extent, including the growing season that produced it, the approach of the winemaker who created it and its relation to other wines of similar type or origin.

Every bottle of wine is a message, the physical embodiment of a specific place and time captured and transmitted for the pleasure of the taster. Open a bottle of 1961 red Bordeaux and even a generation later the dusty warmth of that long, hot summer floods the dining room. Even more, though, wine is a catalyst. The effort to understand it through tasting, and to share that understanding with other tasters, creates a common experience that builds bonds between people. The great French enologist Emile Peynaud emphasized this aspect of tasting in his landmark book, The Taste of Wine: "Great wine has that marvelous quality of immediately establishing communication between those who are drinking
it. Tasting it at table should not be a solitary activity and fine wine should not be drunk without comment. There are few pleasures which loosen the tongue as much as that of sharing wine, glass in hand. In essence it is easy to describe what one senses provided one has made a sufficient effort to notice it. What is clearly perceived can be clearly expressed."

The techniques of tasting enhance the ability to perceive wine clearly. They're actually pretty simple and follow logically through a well-defined series of steps. Some of the procedures may seem unnatural or pretentious to the uninitiated, but they've been developed over centuries to achieve specific ends. After a while, they become automatic. Swirling wine in the glass to release the aromas may feel clumsy at first, but now I often find myself at the table swirling my glass of water. At Wine Spectator, the editors taste nearly 8,000 wines a year. Here's how we do it. First of all, consider the circumstances. Not all wines deserve or repay close analysis. If you're drinking white Zinfandel out of paper cups at a picnic, any attempt to taste seriously will be wasted effort and probably perceived as snobbery. Professional tasters prefer a day-lit, odor-free room with white walls and tabletops, in order to throw the wine into the clearest possible relief, but in the end it's a sterile environment that improves analysis at the cost of pleasure. To maximize both enjoyment and understanding, serve your wine at a dinner party with friends; comfortable chairs, warm light and good food create an ambience where the wines--and the guests--can express themselves without constraint or reproach. Remember that tasting is not a test--your subjective response is more important than any "right answers." The bottom line is: Wine that tastes good to you is good wine.

And no matter how advanced your technique, tasting is not an exact science. Sensitivities vary widely when it comes to flavor and aroma. These differences are both physiological and cultural. When test groups of French and Germans were given wine with 8 grams of sugar per liter, 92 percent of the Germans called the wine "dry" while only 7 percent of the French did. Their reference points were different: German whites are more often frankly sweet than French ones, so the German tasters were less sensitive to sugar in their wines. The goal in tasting wine is not to "find" the same aromas and flavors some other taster is describing. If you hone your own perceptual abilities and develop your own vocabulary to articulate them, you'll not only derive more pleasure from the wine itself, but also stimulate better communication between you and the friends who are sharing the bottle.
Author: Thomas Matthews
Source: The ABC's of Wine Tasting