In the blind tasting portion of the Master Sommelier exam a candidate is confronted with six wines and has 25 minutes to identify the vintage, grape variety(s), country, region and appellation using a very specific tasting technique called “deductive tasting.” That’s four minutes and ten seconds for each wine. The bad news is that I can’t teach you how to pass the exam in this brilliant missive. The good news is that I can walk you through this deductive tasting technique step-by-step, and in doing so you’ll become a much better taster regardless of your level of expertise–whether it be novice or skilled expert.
However, before we start I want to note a few disclaimers.
* Each individual is gifted with a unique organoleptic set-up, i.e., the senses of smell and taste.
* Each individual also has different tolerances and sensitivities to the various components that make up wine. Thus one taster may be sensitive to tannin while a second taster may be sensitive to acidity while a third sensitive to sulfur dioxide.
* One’s tolerances and sensitivities account for, in a large way, one’s personal likes, dislikes, and preferences in wine. This is a simple explanation as to why some like sweet wines while others loathe them; why some relish the brutally harsh tannins of a barrel sample of Cabernet Sauvignon when the same wine would do untold damage to another’s palate and sense of aesthetics. And so on.
* Given the previous, it’s very possible to find a wine that you detest–but that is perfectly well-made and typical for the grape varietal/style of wine.
Setting the Stage
There are a few things to take care of before getting down to serious tasting:
Proper setting: natural light is best but a good source of incandescent light will work well. By all means, avoid using a setting with fluorescent lighting that renders everything and everyone a delightful cadaverous gray. Also, make sure to have either a piece of white paper or other white background to view the wines against.
Proper glassware is absolutely mandatory. Make sure you have good wine glasses with which to conduct your vinous explorations. They don’t have to be outrageously expensive hand-blown crystal masterpieces. However, they do have to be egg-shaped with a tapered bowl, they must be able to hold at least 14 ounces, and they must be clear and sans artistic etchings. Please, no frosty Viking mugs that you picked up at a local gas station. As for those big, expensive, etched crystal behemoths you received as a wedding present–let them quietly sleep away in the dining room hutch collecting well-deserved dust.
Wine Tip #114:
If I were forced to choose a single wine glass to take to that proverbial tropical isle, it would be an easy choice: Riedel’s Vinum Chianti/Zinfandel glass. It’s elegant, attractive, very functional, and it doesn’t cost a fortune.
Extraneous odors: no colognes or perfumes, mangy dogs, garlicky foods or other sources of strong odors. Nothing obliterates the nose of a fine wine like a blast of Chanel No. 999.
Catch and release: as in tasting and spitting. Yes it’s a good thing to do when fishing and the right thing to do when tasting wine. In a bonafide professional tasting there’s little, if any, drinking, at least until the task at hand is completed and everyone is enjoying a glass of their favorite bottle while exchanging industry gossip. As a professional it’s not uncommon to taste upwards of 75-100 wines a day, and if one isn’t spitting one can quickly get to the stage of the “big spit.” I’ve rarely seen anyone in a professional tasting not spitting and in the few instances where I have it’s been very messy indeed. In a more practical context, the difference between tasting and drinking is enormous. There are such strong neuro-associations to drinking that the brain has trouble divorcing itself from the quenching thirst/survival mode to properly analyze a wine. Personally, when I taste I learn as much, if not more, about a wine after spitting it out then when it’s still in my mouth. And I’m vitally interested in how the wine changes once I take a sip as it travels across my palate, especially how it finishes–all tough to do if one is simply hoovering the wine.
The Main Event
Now that you’ve set the stage we can actually discuss deductive tasting. Deductive tasting as taught by Master Sommeliers can be broken down into four different criteria: sight, nose, palate, and conclusion. For the sake of humanity and this particular context, we will primarily focus on the first three criteria as they are the building blocks of all wine tasting.
Sight: the Most Overlooked Aspect of Tasting
A dreadful pun but no truer wine words were ever spoken. A quick inspection of a glass of wine can reveal a good deal of information concerning a wine’s age, cellaring conditions, methods of vinification, and even a strong hint as to its identity. Here is a list of all things visual to consider when looking at a glass of wine:
Clarity: is the wine clear? Is it hazy? If the wine is clear odds are it’s been filtered. This is the land of Velveeta and Spam and we Americans like everything overly-processed and squeaky-clean and thus most domestic wines are filtered. That’s right, filtered as in put through a series of filter pads like swimming pool or aquarium water. The purpose
filtering wine is two-fold: it renders the wine clear and bright; and it also removes unwanted microbes and residual yeasts which could cause the wine to re-ferment in the bottle or spoil at some later unfortunate time–unfortunate as in after you’ve purchased the bottle.
But is filtering wine a good thing? There are many who believe, some vehemently so, that filtering strips a wine of much of its flavor and identity; that filtering out potentially harmful microbes, yeasts, etc., also removes a good deal of the grape solids responsible for a wine’s flavor. The truth as in many other things is somewhere in between. Filtering wine is definitely not a black or white, yes/no issue. Some grape varieties/wines do very well without filtering, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Syrah to name a few. Other thick-skinned varietals such as Cabernet Sauvignon do best with at least a polish filtration before bottling. Otherwise, they’re quite chewy. The debate rages on…
Brightness: is the potential of a wine to reflect light, itself a function of the wine’s clarity. Tilt your glass of vino forward against a white background (don’t spill it). Observe how much light is reflected in the glass and on the white surface below the glass. A little? More than a little? A veritable rose window of crystalline reflections? The brightness scale is as follows:
Cloudy – Hazy – Dull – Bright – Day Bright – Star Bright – Brilliant
A cloudy wine is just that: cloudy, even murky. A cloudy or hazy wine usually means one of two things: the wine is either unfiltered or flawed–or perhaps an older red wine with the sediment mixed into solution (more on that in a moment). If the wine is flawed you’ll know just as soon as you stick your nose in the glass. The difference between bright, day bright and star bright lies in just how much light is reflected in the wine. A brilliant wine is unmistakable. Usually a wine that earns the brilliant designation is a very pale, almost watery colored, white wine that’s been in the bottle for less than a year. Young Mosel Riesling or New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is often brilliant. Red wines, for the record, are rarely, if ever, brilliant because the intensity and pigmentation of color precludes the reflection of much light.
Color: or “hue” as the Brits say. Color, more than anything, speaks to the age and condition of a wine. The general rule of color and wine is that a white wine deepens in color as it ages while a red wine loses color, gets lighter, as it ages. Here are the color scales for wines:
White wines: Straw – Yellow – Gold – Brown
Pink Wines: Pink – Salmon – Brown
Red Wines: Purple – Ruby (red) – Garnet (brown or yellow) – Brown
Why is color important? Color in wine is a function of the aging process, the process of slow (hopefully slow) oxidation of a wine as it sleeps peacefully in the bottle while in someone’s perfectly maintained cellar–and not the cheapo plastic rack on top of a refrigerator. Alas, this is not always the case. Inconsistent temperature in a winery’s cellar, no temperature control on an ocean container, or the delivery guy parking his truck at his girl friend’s house in Scottsdale over the weekend during July can all contribute to the premature aging and even downright oxidation of a bottle of wine.
Taking that into consideration, a young Sauvignon Blanc tends to be pale straw in color while a ten-year-old White Burgundy is deep yellow-gold. Likewise, a glass of Nouveau Beaujolais should be light purple in color while a 15-year-old Barolo is light to medium reddish-brown, or ruby garnet as we say in the business. And so on and so forth. It’s also highly recommended to use the quantifiable descriptors light, medium, and deep when describing a wine’s color, and for good reason: there are usually secondary colors involved.
Secondary colors: is there more, you ask? Absolutely. Take that glass of young Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand again and tilt it against the white background. Look specifically at the outer edges of the glass. There you’ll see hints of green and possibly silver or unpolished brass. These tell-tale colors are signs of a white wine that is: (a) young and (b) was produced from grapes grown in a cool climate. The color green in a white wine, by the way, is chlorophyll, in this case the unripe portions of the grape. While most young white wines display some greenish tint, I’ve tasted 40-year-old Mosel Rieslings that still displayed a hint of green.
Why is this so important? Simply because the color of any wine should tip you off as to the age and/or health of said wine. If someone hands you a glass of white wine at a dinner party that looks more like an errant urine sample and says, “this is the latest Chardonnay from Chateau XYZ” you’ll immediately know there’s a problem. Likewise, a bottle of the newest release of some ludicrously priced Napa Cabernet should be deep, vibrant ruby red and not reddish-brown.
Rim Variation: is a function of the color of an older wine. If you’ve had the pleasure of tasting a red wine with more than ten years of age you may have noticed the gradations of color in the glass. The wine at the center of the glass is much deeper in color than the wine at the rim, or meniscus, of the glass with any number of different gradations of color in between. While rim variation can be easily found in red wines of any age white wines only display it after considerable age. With red wines, the older the wine, the more variation in color. And that’s a valuable tip indeed when tasting in an examination setting.
Sediment or particles: one often comes across sediment in wine, both white and red. Some white wines will display small, opaque white crystals that resemble bits of broken glass more than anything else. But no, it isn’t glass and no; you can’t sue the winery for a lifetime supply of their wine. Those pesky crystals are tartaric acid, or tartrates, present in each and every wine. Most wineries cold stabilize (aka quick-chill) their white wines to just above freezing before bottling to remove excess tartrates. However, in this modern, artisan-kind-of-a-world, some wineries choose not to cold stabilize their wines and thus tartrates will inevitably form in the bottle when put in the fridge or an ice bucket. The solution is to let the wine warm up a bit allowing the crystals to dissolve back into the wine. Tartrates, by the way, can also be found in minimally processed reds in the form of deeply colored crystals on the bottom of the cork or in the neck of the bottle. These can be wiped away with a clean cloth. They’re tasteless and completely harmless.
Older red wines will also often “throw” off sediment which is tannic acid, or the tannins, which have precipitated out as the wine ages. Red wine sediment can either be fine as in an older red Burgundy, or thick and chunky as in a bottle of old vintage Port. Finally, sediment can also be found in young red wines that have undergone minimal or no filtration. Careful decanting will take care of the problem in any form.
Wine Tip #1001:
There is a special term used to describe particles in a glass of wine. A term that will endear you or curse you to friends and family if used in their company; a term near and dear to wine geeks the world over. Here it is: particles in wine are referred to as “flocculation,” or “flocculate material.” That’s right, flocculation. It’s a chemist’s term but it always sounded something like sheep and bondage to me. Use the term carefully in mixed company lest you be asked to immediately vacate the premises.
Legs or tears: swirl the glass by drawing small circles on the table. Now hold the glass up and observe the tears or legs of the wine as they make their way back down the sides of the glass. Two things to note: the size and width of the tears, and how quickly or slowly they move down the sides of the glass. The legs or tears can tell us two things about the wine: the relative level of alcohol in the wine and/or the presence of residual sugar. Thin, quickly moving legs will tell of a wine light-to-medium in body with relatively low alcohol or without residual sugar. However, if the legs are thick, stained in color and slow to move, then one can expect a full-bodied red wine with considerable concentration and relatively high alcohol content—or considerable residual sugar. Or both.
The legs-alcohol-body connection while seemingly mysterious, is actually just a function of how ripe the grapes were when harvested. In a cool climate grapes don’t always fully ripen, and with not much sugar to ferment the alcohol level in the finished wine is consequently low. Think again of the aforementioned Mosel Riesling at less than 8% alcohol: barely ripe grapes, light color, relatively low alcohol and thin, quickly moving legs. In a warm climate, say the Barossa Valley of Australia, the temperatures are hot during the growing season, often over 100 degrees. Here the Shiraz grapes get fully ripened developing an abundance of grape sugar which is then fermented into 14-plus-percent alcohol. Ripe grapes, deep color, high alcohol, thick and slowly moving legs. I think you get the picture here.
Having gone through all that I must make one important point: though we look at the legs/tears of a wine to get a clue about the alcohol level and body of a wine (or the presence of residual sugar), these wonderful legs/tears have nothing, that is absolutely nothing, to do with the quality of a wine. There is no such thing as “good legs,” or “bad legs” in wine. Period. A good thing to know.
Believe it or not, one only has about 20-30 seconds to go through everything I’ve just covered about the appearance of a wine for each of the six wines during an MS tasting exam. That’s right, just about half a minute’s time. That’s because the nose and palate are the most important parts of deductive tasting. Onward.
Nose: the Most Critical Aspect of Tasting
The sense of smell is the most important of the five when evaluating wine. While one can only taste five things (sweet, sour, bitter, salty and something mysterious called umami), scientists tell us that we can smell over 100,000 different things. In fact, smell accounts for as much as 85% of the sense of taste. No mystery here if you think about how bland everything tastes when you’re dealing with the mother of all head colds.
Snortingtechniques: there are several different ways to smell wine and one will probably work best for you. Try several short, quick sniffs or one long gentle sniff or something in between. After years of using various methods I’ve come across a way of smelling wine that works best for me:
Wine Tip #509:
Most people smell wine by simply sticking their schnozz in the glass and sniffing in some varied manner. That’s called passive inhalation as the nose alone is being used to smell the wine. But there’s also something called active inhalation where one actually smells wine using both the mouth and nose. To accomplish this wondrous technique tilt the glass forward to about 40˚ and lean your head forward, putting your nose just above and over the glass as you normally would. But this time slowly open your mouth to about a quarter of an inch and begin breathing in and out gently through both mouth and nose just as a baby would. The difference is usually noticeable for most, revelatory for some. I’ve found that using the inside of the mouth brings more organoleptic real estate to the job of smelling wine, making it easier to discern nuances and secondary flavors. Try it and see if it works.
Here are all things nasal to consider when evaluating a glass of wine:
Fault factor: looking for flaws in all the wrong places … Actually, it’s true. The first thing to do after putting your proboscis into the glass is to check the wine for flaws. Is the wine corked, i.e., does it smell like musty cardboard? Is the wine oxidized, i.e. does it smell baked, off or otherwise? Does it smell like vinegar? Does it smell like Madeira? Does it remind you of the 4A Club in high school? We call that “rustic” in the wine business. You may call it otherwise.
Whatever the case, there are any number of things that can go wrong in the winery that will render a wine’s quality less than pristine. This will only be confirmed when you taste the wine, if you choose to do so. We have an expression in the business called DPIM, or “don’t put in mouth.” Once you’ve become proficient as a taster you’ll be able to quickly recognize those “DPIM” wines by the nose alone, and won’t suffer the fate of putting something regrettable in your mouth. But one can always be surprised. In that case, one simply does it for the sake of science or a noble cause or takes it for the Gipper or something like that.
Fruit: once past the flaw check the next thing to consider about the nose of a wine is the fruit qualities. Here we’re referring specifically about the inherent flavors of the grape from which the wine was made and not winemaking techniques. Some wine writers refer to these favors as the “aroma” of the wine versus the “bouquet” which comes from winemaking techniques.
There are different fruit qualities associated with specific grape varietals. I won’t go into that here as it’s been done many times by writers more capable than me. Suffice to say that upon first putting your nose in a glass you may be greeted with notes of apples and pears for a white wine, while a red wine may offer notes of cherries (red or black), plums and more. These are all primary fruit flavors from the grapes. Further, there are “fruit groups” for white and red wines. Here is a list to get you started:
Tree fruit: apple and pear
Citrus fruit: lemon, lime, grapefruit, orange, tangerine and the like.
Tropical fruit: pineapple, mango, papaya, passion fruit, banana etc.
Stone or pit fruit: peach, apricot, nectarine
“Other”: yes, there’s always a “miscellaneous” category. Otherwise, where would one put things like melon or, say, durian? Just kidding on the last one.
Red fruits: red cherry, red raspberry, cranberry, strawberry, red currant, red plum, pomegranate.
Black fruits: black cherry/berry, black currant, black raspberry, black plum and in even riper versions boysenberry and blueberry.
Dried or desiccated fruit: raisin, date, prune, fig
Secondary aromas: as with the color there are usually secondary aromas and flavors in wine. A white wine may have the apple and citrus aromas accompanied by non-fruit aromas such as flowers, green herbs, spices, and more. Once you’ve noted the fruit and the non-fruit aromas it’s time to move on.
Earth: that’s right, earth as in dirt or minerals. Wines from the old world, or European wines, tend to have a pronounced earthy or mineral quality to them. Wines from the new world, or non-European wines, tend to have little, if any, earthiness to them and also tend to be fruit-driven. Think about a great Burgundy or classified growth Bordeaux and earthiness will play a major part of the flavor profile of the wine. Earthiness can be expressed in the form of chalk (Chablis), slate (German Riesling), damp earth, wet leaves, mushrooms, underbrush, or just plain dirt. In the tasting exam setting, earthiness (or the lack thereof) is a major clue as to a wine’s origin. Mind you these are broad generalizations and there are always exceptions to the rule. It’s also useful to discriminate further between organic and inorganic earth elements as in mushroom and potting soil vs. clay and chalk.
Wood: fine wines are often aged in small, 55-to-60-gallon oak barrels. The oak will make itself apparent in the form of aromas of smoke, toast, sweet baking spices (from caramelizing the inside of the barrels), and what I often call the “two-by-four” factor: the wine smells like a freshly sawed oak plank. That’s usually a sign of too much wood in a wine. The presence (or lack of) these wood flavors are another clue as to a wine’s identity. Certain white wines (Alsace, Germany and others) have little, if any, wood flavors, while other whites such as white Burgundies or California Chardonnays often have considerable wood flavors. The same goes for red wines.
Alcohol: confirms what you’ve already seen in the legs or tears of the wine. Alcohol makes itself known in the form of heat in the nose. A wine with relatively low alcohol won’t register any sensation of heat in the nose while a fortified wine such as port will cause quite a bit of warmth.
Age: youth versus vinosity. Does the wine smell of bright, youthful fruit? Or are there earthier, spicier flavors? A young red wine will display bright berry fruit while an older wine will reveal flavors such as leather, tobacco, and spice box. This shouldn’t come as a shock because you’ve already detected youthful or aged qualities in the color of the wine. Think of it as building a case that will culminate in your conclusion as to the identity of the wine. By the way, the qualities of an aged wine are called “vinous,” or the wine is referred to as having “vinosity.”
Wine Tip #336:
Say you’ve read all the above and go to try it out in the form of pouring a glass of wine and smelling it. And then nothing. To you the wine smells like “white wine” or “red wine.” By now you’re thinking that I’m completely full of it or hallucinating. Or both. And you’re partially right on all counts. But seriously, when I first became enamored of wine and started going to professional tastings I was in much the same boat. People next to me would go on and on extolling the fruit qualities of a wine as well as something called “terroir” which sounded impossibly mysterious. To me the wines smelled like either white wine or red wine, and not much else. But I stuck with it and little by little flavors started to creep into the nasal receptors in my brainpan. The lights started to come on. In fact, I was simply using my olfactory neural pathways over and over until they started to wake up and function. Repetition, as with so many other things, was the key. To this day I’m still trying to improve at tasting and that will always be the case. One can never taste enough wine.
Palate: Confirming the Nose and Assessing Structure
So you’ve spent the better part of 90 seconds of your precious four minutes and ten seconds on the nose of the wine. Combine that with the 30 seconds it took to cover the appearance of the wine and you now have two minutes and 10 seconds to actually taste the wine and come up with a logical conclusion. If you’ve thoroughly done your homework on the nose of the wine tasting will only confirm what you’ve already smelled and also give you an idea of the structure of the wine as in the level of acidity and alcohol, the finish and, in the case of red wines, the tannin. There probably won’t be any surprises and any you do come across will probably be unsavory. Here’s the check list for the palate of a wine:
Dryness/sweetness: how dry or sweet is the wine? Bone dry or simply dry like most table wines? Or off-dry with just a touch of sweetness? Or full-blown dessert wine that’s very sweet and hopefully balanced with enough acidity to keep it from resembling an industrial sweetener? The level of sweetness and or dryness can be a very important clue as to the varietal, style or origin of a wine. Also, don’t confuse fruitiness with sweetness. If in doubt, pay attention to how dry or sweet the wine is on the finish and not just the initial blast of fruit on the tip of the tongue.
Body: or weight or mouthfeel as we wine geeks like to call it. A wine can be light-bodied, medium-bodied, full-bodied–or something in between. Why is one wine light-bodied while another full bodied? The answer is the level of alcohol in the wine. When you finally taste a wine it should confirm what you’ve already seen in the quality and movement of the tears or legs, and in the amount of heat you’ve detected on the nose. Generally, the more alcohol the more glycerin and the fuller the body in the finished wine.
If you’re having trouble grasping the “body” thing, let me suggest this: think of
in terms of dairy products. A light-bodied wine would have the same texture and weight as non-fat milk, a medium-bodied wine the same as half and
, and a very full-bodied wine the same weight as heavy cream.
Fruit: in tasting the wine we’re simply confirming the holy trinity of fruit,
and wood that we’ve already smelled in the glass. Taste the wine again looking to confirm the primary and secondary fruit flavors you’ve already smelled in the glass. Are the same flavors there? Are there different flavors? Are the flavors more or less pronounced on the palate as opposed to the nose? From there note the non-fruit flavors that were smelled in the wine. Are they the same? Different? Be sure to confirm them.
Earth: does the wine taste earthy? As in taste of dirt, damp earth, mineral, slate, and chalk? If it does, you may be able to actually sense or feel it all over the inside of your mouth, especially the roof of your mouth just up and behind your upper front teeth. Qualities and mineral and earth lend complexity to a wine and provides more pieces in the vinous puzzle of its identity. We geeks like the intrigue of earthiness and minerality. It makes us return to the glass for another sip, and another and another.
Wood: the last of the holy vinous trinity is wood. Oak in wine tastes like sweet spices, caramel, smoke and wood–that two-by-four kind of a feeling. Oak also has a gritty, sand-paper like sensation on the back of your tongue. One tastes wood in the middle of the back of the tongue, exactly where many of the receptors to bitterness are located. When oak is used to excess, as is often the case, the wine tastes overly bitter or tannic. And that leads us to the structural elements: tannin, acidity, alcohol and the finish.
Tannin: tannins, or tannic acid, are derived from the grape skins and the barrels used to age the wine. In moderation, tannins add structure and complexity to any wine. They also are a valuable preservative that
the potential to age. In excess, however, tannins render wine bitter and undrinkable. If you’re having trouble getting the tannin thing, simply think about drinking overly-brewed tea. You get the picture.
Red wines almost always have more tannins than whites. Some reds don’t have a great deal of tannin while others have more than enough to take oil stains off your driveway. There are also certain white wines such as new world Chardonnays that can display a great deal of tannin. Said wines have been barrel-fermented and aged in 100% new oak barrels for extended periods of time and can be as tannic as many red wines. It makes me want to go right out in the back yard and burn a piece of fish on the grill. That’s what you’d have to do to match the intensity, the alcohol and the tannin of one of these expensive beauties.
Acidity: there are four primary acids in wine: tartaric, malic (tart green apples), lactic (the softer acid of dairy products), and citric. Acidity is another crucial Tinkertoy found in all wine. Without
a wine would be flabby and incapable of aging. However, too much acidity renders a wine
tart and acidic. A good balance is
Alcohol: as in the nose we’re looking for the sensation of heat, this time in either the throat or chest cavity. A low-alcohol wine will have a decided absence of heat while a fortified wine like a port will produce a warm glow in the mouth, throat, and chest. Again, the amount of heat detected will only serve to confirm what you’ve already seen in the quality of the legs and the presence of heat on the nose.
Finish: or the aftertaste of the wine. Is it a short, medium or long finish? Think of the last glass of white, pink or red plonk you’ve glugged out of a jug or box. Remember how the aftertaste of the wine stopped short as if someone suddenly turned out the lights. Then think of the best wine you’ve ever enjoyed. Remember how you could still taste it minutes later. If the finish is longer than say 20 seconds, it’s a long finish and you’ve got a good glass of wine. The general rule in wine tasting is: the longer the finish, the better the wine; no matter who made it, where it’s from or how much it costs. Remember that one as it’s important.
Balance: is a word wine geeks toss around all the time. In short, balance can be thought of as harmony between all the various elements in a wine: the fruit, the acids, the tannins. When tasting a wine ask yourself if there is harmony among all these elements? Or does something stick out like the proverbial sore thumb?
Complexity: another wine geek term much tossed about but rarely explained. In its most basic terms, complexity can be defined as the amount of aromas and flavors in a wine combined with how much the wine changes as it travels across your palate. For example, a simple wine will only display one or several aromas/flavors in the glass and change very little as you taste it. Don’t expect said wine to develop and change in the glass once poured. A complex wine, on the other hand, offers up many different aromas/flavors and will change dramatically—and pleasantly—as it travels across your palate. Once poured it will continue to change and develop in the glass revealing even more nuances over time. It’s sort of a “Mary Had a Little Lamb” versus a late Beethoven quartet kind of a thing.
That’s the end of the compulsory exercises. Now for the real fun in the form of coming up with a well-reasoned conclusion.
The Initial Conclusion is where we start to hone in on what the wine is and where it could be from. We’re not going to get picky with details just yet. The first thing to consider is the climate where the grapes were grown.
Cool vs. warm climate: is the wine light in color, low in alcohol and high in acidity? If so, odds are it’s from a cool climate where the grapes don’t get fully ripened. Or is the wine deeply colored with rich, concentrated flavors and high alcohol? Then the wine is from a warmer growing region where the grapes were able to fully ripen.
Old world vs. new world: here we’re asking what drives the wine: fruit or other-than-fruit elements. Does the wine smell and taste of earth or minerals? If so, the wine is probably from an old world country. High acidity can also be a hint that the wine is from an old world country as there are many cooler growing regions in the old world. If the wine is overtly fruity without a trace of earthiness, chances are it’s from one of the new world countries. Done deal.
Grape variety or blend: here, my fellow eno-campers, is where one has to have an opinion or at least make an educated guess. Taking everything you’ve seen, smelled and tasted into consideration: what’s the grape variety? Or is the wine a blend of several grapes? Here the fruit qualities, the earthiness or lack thereof, and the use of oak (or not) in the wine are all important clues. Hopefully, your previous tasting experiences will provide a good frame of reference. The bad news is that it takes years of tasting to form such a frame of reference. The good news is that you have to taste and drink a lot of wines to form these taste references. It could be a lot worse. This could be widgets.
Age: given what you’ve seen, smelled and tasted, is the wine young and vibrant with loads of primary fruit, or is it filled with rich, leathery, earthy secondary flavors from bottle aging? Give the age range in terms of young (1-3 years), medium (3-5 years) and old (5 years and beyond).
Quality level: this is a subjective judgment at heart, but one that can be made quickly. Is the wine a simple vin ordinaire? Better than that? Or is it a profound wine offering a brief but life-changing experience? Would you enjoy the wine with dinner tonight? Would you offer it to a friend? Enemy? Would you soak a chicken in it? You make the call.
Now it’s time to state your case, hang your hat, and make your mark. Given all the previous, tell us about the:
Vintage: give one year, two at the most. Be careful here when giving two vintages as opposed to one. Vintages can vary dramatically in old world regions. Remember the 2002 and 2003 vintages for red Burgundy or the 2004 and 2005 vintages for Bordeaux? No further questions, your honor.
Grape varietal: you’ve finished waffling (hopefully) and you now know exactly what the grape variety(s) is/are. State it with conviction.
region, and appellation: take us home. Give us the “France, Bordeaux, Right Bank, St.-Emillon, Premier Grand Cru Classé Class B 2005,” or the “Germany, Riesling, Mosel, Spätlese 2009.” Let us have it all.
Then sit back, relax and take a sip. Right or wrong, you’ve earned it.