Advanced Wine Tasting Topics
by Lauriann Greene-Sollin, Sommelier-Conseil
French Wine Explorers Wine Tours
The French have two words for "tasting": gouter, which means simply to taste as in to sample, or déguster, which means to taste with the goal of identifying the characteristics of a product to enable one to judge its quality. In the world of wine, we favor the term déguster. La dégustation of wine is not the preoccupation of snobs, but of those who have an inquisitive spirit and questioning mind, and who wish to gain a more in-depth understanding of this extraordinary beverage that has been so lauded and coveted for so many centuries.
In the Introduction to Wine Tasting, we looked at the basic steps involved in the dégustation of a wine. In this article, we'll go beyond those basics to get a more complete understanding of the process of wine tasting, develop a more extensive vocabulary for your tasting experiences, and define more exactly the different elements in wine that contribute to quality. I hope to be able to also give you a little view into the particular sensibility that the French bring to wine tasting, to enable you to see how they feel and speak about the wines of their country.
I. The role of the senses in wine tasting.
a. Sight and Smell: In our Introduction to Wine Tasting, we presented three distinct steps for tasting a wine: the look, the smell and the taste. Each step utilized one sense at a time (sight, smell and taste respectively). In reality, the senses do not work in nearly such a distinct manner. For example, the look of the wine can greatly influence your sense of smell, and thus your appreciation of the aromas of a wine. We associate certain aromas with white wine, and others with red wine. Studies have shown that subjects who tasted wine in black glasses had difficulty discerning the aromas of the wine in question. In another study, subjects were served a white wine and asked to describe its aromas. The responses were white flowers, apple, pear, and peach. Then the exact same wine was served, but with red food colouring added. The subjects, thinking this was now a red wine, described the aromas as strawberry, raspberry and coffee. They also found the wine to be slightly tannic!
b. Smell and Taste: In the mouth, these two senses are inextricably linked. The combination of the tastes of the wine and the smells of the wine is referred to as "flavour". In fact, flavour is mostly determined by smell; 80% of what we call the "flavour" of foods or wines is actually the smell of these foods or wines. For this reason, when your nose is blocked, the food you eat seems flavourless. You can see why we spend so much time waxing poetic about the aromas of a wine - without them, the wine would have little flavour. The aromas are so important that we gauge the persistence of a wine by the time it takes for the AROMAS to dissipate after the wine is no longer in the mouth, NOT the tastes. The importance of retro-olfaction once you have the wine in your mouth should not be underestimated! Your enjoyment of a wine is to a great extent determined by the pleasantness, complexity and persistence of aromas. The rest of your enjoyment comes from the balance of the wine, the body of the wine, and the density or concentration of the wine.
Some aromas can fool your palate, making it think that it's tasting something sweet or sour. Wines that have very fruity aromas can seem sweet: take two dry wines, one that has very fruity aromas, and one that is less aromatic, and taste them side by side - the fruitier wine will seem sweeter, even if both wines have exactly the same residual sugar content.
c. Taste and Touch in the Mouth: The taste receptors (or buds) of the tongue can discern only five tastes: salty, sweet, bitter, sour, and a newly-identified taste, umami, that is still not totally understood. Saltiness is rarely experienced in wine. Sweetness is sensed by the taste buds at the tip of the tongue. Bitterness is sensed at the very back of the tongue near the opening of the throat, and sourness at the sides of the middle of the tongue. Bitterness is usually discerned in the aftertaste of a wine, since it is only when the wine reaches the bitterness buds at the very back of the tongue near the throat that this taste is discerned. In the center of the tongue are receptors for all four tastes, but fewer of each, so you have less taste in that area of the tongue. The four "tastes" we mentioned in the
Introduction to Wine Tasting -- tannicity, acidity, alcohol and "gras" or "moelleux" (roundness in the mouth) -- correspond only somewhat to these four real tastes that the tongue is capable of discerning. Some of them do have a taste, but not all (see below). In English, we unfortunately do not have a good word for these gustative sensations that are experienced not by the taste buds, but by other receptors in mouth (chemical and touch) receptors (the French call them saveurs). Let's examine the four gustative sensations one at a time:
Tannins in red wine can be experienced as a tactile sensation, felt at the center of the tongue as astringence. Tannins also have a taste, that of bitterness, usually discernable in wine when they are unskillfully extracted or unripe at the time of harvest, or when the tannicity of the wine is excessive and not balanced by the other gustative components of the wine;
Alcohol as a tactile sensation is felt as heat or burning in the mouth or throat. Alcohol also has a slightly sweet taste (both ethyl alcohol and glycerol, both present in wine), but that taste is not easily discernable in most wines;
Fatness/richness of a wine (in French, the moelleux) is also experienced by the sense of touch within the mouth. This sensation, one of filling and coating the mouth, is due mostly to the alcohol content of the wine, but the glycerol content and the sugar content also contribute to it (as well as the concentration of the wine). Although the alcohol, glycerol and sugar all taste sweet, we focus on the tactile sensation when analysing and describing the body (see below) of a wine. The fatness or richness of a wine are partly responsible for the smoothness or silkiness of a wine in the mouth;
Acidity is experienced much like tannicity is. In most cases, we will have only a tactile sensation as a result of the acidity of a wine, a sensation of puckering or slight pain in the cheeks (at the site of the salivary glands) that causes salivation. Only when the acidity is excessive or particularly unbalanced in regards to the other components will we be compelled to describe the wine as "sour", which is nearly always a sign of poor quality.
Acidity: flat, fresh, lively, nervous
Alcohol: light, present, generous, very generous, hot, burning
Fatness/richness: firm, round, ample
Judging a wine once it's in the mouth is a complex exercise. Remember that the main goal of the gustative examination of a wine is to judge the balance of the wine. We gauge not only the relative strength of the tastes of sweetness, bitterness and sourness (the tastes) in the wine, but also the relative strength of the tactile sensations brought about by the contact of the tannins, acidity, alcohols and moelleux in the wine with the tongue and palate. When we judge the balance of a wine, we are judging, at the same time, the juxtaposition of the tastes in the wine and the sensations of astringency, tartness, richness and heat created by the wine:
Balance of tastes: sweetness balances acidity, and vice versa. For this reason, we put sugar into lemon juice to make it more palatable (lemonade). Many people put a lemon slice in their Coca Cola to make it less sweet and more pleasant to drink. Sweetness also balances bitterness. A cube of sugar makes coffee and tea less bitter.
Balance of sensations: fatness or richness balances astringency. In North America, we put milk in tea and coffee, because the fats in the milk make the astringency of the coffee and tea less noticeable. Astringency tends to accentuate tartness, and vice versa. Heat (alcohol) balances tartness (acidity), which is felt as freshness, and vice versa. A wine with a strong "moelleux" (for example, a dessert wine) needs an equally strong acidity to keep the wine from seeming heavy.
The temperature at which we serve wine also helps to balance or contributes to unbalancing the tastes in the wine. We serve white wines at fairly cool temperatures because the cold accentuates the acidity, a quality we enjoy in white wines. Cold also downplays the sweetness of off-dry white wines or white dessert wines. A white wine that is too warm will seem flat and lifeless for lack of acidity, and a sweet white wine that is served warm will seem heavy and overly sweet. Serving a red wine at a cold temperature will have the same effect of accentuating the acidity, but in red wines, the cold also accentuates the tannins and make them seem harsh. This is fine for light-bodied wines with little tannins, but for more structured wines, service at a warmer temperature will make the tannins more supple. A red wine served too warm, for instance at room temperature, will lack freshness (not enough acidity), seem overly alcoholic, and lessen the impact of the tannins to give an overall impression of flabbiness and lack of structure. It takes a skilled taster to be able to tell the difference between a wine that is truly unbalanced in and of itself, and one that is balanced but is being served at the wrong temperature!
Balance of white vs. red wine: The play of tastes and sensations determines the overall balance of the wine. The sensation of smoothness in a wine often is a result of a good balance of tastes and sensations, where no one taste or sensation sticks out. However, it is important to note that an absolute balance is not always desirable in wine. In white wines, we value the freshness that acidity brings to the wine - they make white wine refreshing and balance any sweetness that can be too dominant in the absence of tannins. So the desirable balance of a white wine will lean a bit toward acidity. What differentiates red wine from white are its tannins, and many red wines have a good deal of astringency as a result of their tannins. Tannins give structure and complexity to red wines, and help them age well. So the desirable balance of red wine will lean toward astringency. For these reasons, the finish, or last impression left in the mouth, of a white wine tends to be freshness, and the finish of a red wine tends to be astringency.
Balance of wines based on region or climate: wines from Northern French climates and regions (what we call "régions septentrionales") tend to have a higher acidity than wines from Southern climates or regions. The balance of these wines will therefore lean a bit toward acidity. The Southern wine regions ("régions méridionales"), with their hot and sunny climates, tend to produce grapes that are higher in sugar content and lower in acidity. The higher the sugar content, the more alcohol that will be produced during the vinification process. The balance of Southern wines will be a bit more alcoholic than Northern wines. It is up to the experienced wine taster to be able to tell the difference between a Chateauneuf-du-Pape red that is balanced, even though the wine seems somewhat alcoholic (which is normal for these wines), and a Chateauneuf-du-Pape red that is so alcoholic that it dominates the other tastes and sensations of the wine, and is therefore unbalanced; the same holds true for a nervous Muscadet that is well balanced for a Muscadet, and another that is so acid that it seems sour and difficult to drink.
An important component of balance - concentration: the concentration of a wine plays an important role in the overall balance of the wine. Wine is 80-90% water. The remaining 10-20% of the wine contains all the aromatic and taste components that make wine enjoyable to drink (the dry matter of the fruit). The closer the water content gets to 90%, the less "good stuff" (what the French call "matière", or matter) there is in the wine. A higher water content usually results from poor viticultural practices that emphasize quantity rather than quality. High yields = watery wine, lower yields = more concentrated wine. In a wine that is diluted, any small imbalance of tastes or sensations will be accentuated: a Chablis, for example, will seem more acid than usual, and a Chateauneuf-du-Pape even more alcoholic. This is not to say that a wine that has a good concentration will always be well-balanced, but concentration does play a mitigating role in the balance of a wine.
Concentration of fruit is one of the factors that give a wine a long persistence on the palate. Persistence is one of the best measures of how long a wine can be kept and aged. Concentration is one of the factors that contribute to the perception of body in a wine.
e. Body: The perception of body in a wine is the result of a combination of concentration and several other factors:
Viscosity or unctuousness: mostly a function of the sugar content of a wine, it makes the wine more dense, less fluid, and therefore gives a sense of greater volume or body;
Fatness/richness: the moelleux of a wine, as explained above;
Concentration (as mentioned above)
Tannins: the tannins in red wine give a certain body to these wines. Generally, the more tannic a wine, the fuller bodied it will be.
Many people will describe a wine with a high alcohol content as being "full-bodied". The alcohol content is part of the moelleux, and is therefore only one of the elements that creates body in a wine. But a high alcohol content will give an immediate impression of body to a wine. Sugar and glycerol content also contribute to the richness or roundness of a wine. The current fashion for "full-bodied" wines has led some New World winemakers to place too much emphasis on the alcohol content of their wines, and to leave grapes to over-ripen on the vine to produce a lot of alcohol and higher than traditional amounts of residual sugar in their wines. Unfortunately, a high alcohol content and sweetness without concentration or acidity, tannins and moelleux to balance it will produce a sensation of hotness and heaviness that will be unpleasant.
It is important to understand that a lot of body is not necessarily a sign of quality in a wine. What many people would refer to as "light bodied" wines, such as the wines of the Touraine in the Loire Valley, or the reds of Burgundy, can be very fine wines, they are just in a different style than the fuller-bodied wines of Bordeaux or the south of France. In France, we enjoy wines for what they are, and many lighter-bodied styles of wine go better with many dishes than more full-bodied wines, which would be too heavy and overpower many dishes.
f. Other tactile sensations in wine: We speak of the sensation of silkiness, softness, velvetiness or smoothness of wines in the mouth. Dessert wines that have a high viscosity offer a certain kind of smoothness, but dry wines can also be velvety and soft in the mouth. One of the prime causes of this pleasant sensation is an excellent balance of tastes and sensations in the mouth. Another is a good moelleux. Tannins in red wine give a texture to red wines that goes well with the meatiness and course texture of red meats. Finally, the quality of the tannins in red wine can contribute to a silkiness on the palate that is pleasant and desirable.
g. Quality of Tannins: In the vinification of red wines, the winemaker strives to extract tannins that are fine and elegant. We often speak of "good" tannins and "bad" tannins in France. Good tannins are a result of mature grapes and good vinification and aging practices; they give red wines structure, balance and body, and help them age well. Bad tannins have a bitter or vegetal ("green") taste, are aggressive, hard and dry, a result of grapes picked before full maturity and/or badly vinified. Try chewing on a fruit stem or pits, and you'll see what these tannins taste like. Tannins that are fine and elegant and not dry or hard will remain that way throughout the life of the wine, becoming more and more blended with the other elements of the wine. Tannins that are harsh and dry with a large grain will never become fine and elegant, no matter how many years you age the wine. In fact, dry tannins in the finish of a wine can be the result of barrel aging that lasted longer than the quality of the wine could sustain.
Tannins (quantity): none, present, astringent, tannic, very tannic
Grain/texture: coarse, rough, fine, very fine
Overall: aggressive, rustic, harsh, dry, plump, fine, elegant
h. Evolution of sensations and tastes in the mouth over time
In the gustative analysis of a wine, we talk about the attack, the middle of the mouth, and the finish of the wine. These correspond to the evolution of the wine over time in the mouth, as it first hits your tongue (the attack), to when it crosses the main part of the tongue and palate (the middle of the mouth), to the final impression of the wine when it is expelled or swallowed (the finish). When discussing these three stages, we refer again to the sensations or tastes of the acidity, roundness, alcohol and tannins (if present) in the mouth. Thus a wine can have an attack that is fresh (acidity) or sweet (sugar, often the case if there is any noticeable amount of residual sugar, since it is on the tip of the tongue that there is the greatest concentration of taste buds sensitive to sweetness), etc. In the stage of the middle of the mouth, we often notice the overall mouth-feel of the wine, the body and concentration of the wine, as well as the balance of the tastes. At the finish, we notice the last impression that the wine leaves on our palate after we've swallowed it or spit it out. It can be a final impression of freshness (acidity), astringency (tannins), or heat (alcohol) - sometimes it's a combination of two of these. Some people refer to a "clean" finish, which means that no one element stands out at the end, and that the mouth is left feeling fresh and clean. A wine must have a good acidity to have a clean finish.
Coming somewhat after the "finish" of the wine is the aftertaste. In the aftertaste, we are not referring to sensations but rather tastes, and the one usually encountered (if there is an aftertaste at all) is bitterness. Bitterness is felt at the very back of the tongue and the throat (that's where the greatest concentration of taste buds that sense bitterness are located), which is the last part of the mouth that contains taste buds that the wine touches before continuing down your throat. Sometimes there can be a lingering sweetness after a wine is expelled, but that is not usually associated so much with an "after"-taste as with a remnant of the taste of the wine itself. An aftertaste of bitterness is always a defect in a wine, a sign of poor quality.
II. More about aromas
In wine tastings, there is often too much of an emphasis placed on identifying particular aromas in a wine. One's perception of aromas is very individual. Each person has his own threshold for sensing the molecules that are responsible for the aromas in wine; for example, some people are very sensitive to oaky or woody notes, others will hardly detect them at all. What one person identifies as lemon, another will identify as grapefruit. The naming of aromas being such a subjective and individual thing, it becomes less important to name particular aromas than to be able to name families of aromas (see these listed below).
In addition, what is most important in gauging the quality of a wine is not the particular aromas, but the complexity, intensity and quality of the aromas.
Complexity: the greater the number of families of aromas that are represented in a wine, the greater the complexity of the wine. A wine that is purely fruity will be said to have simple aromas. A wine that has fruity and spicy notes can be said to have rich aromas, a step up from simple. Finally, a wine that has fruity, spice, animal and forest floor aromas could be called complex. The greater the complexity of aromas, the greater the quality of the wine.
Vocabulary: simple, rich, complex, very complex
Intensity: how strong are the aromas of the wine you're tasting? If you can smell the aromas before the glass even gets to your nose, the wine is very aromatic. If you need to put your nose into the glass to smell the aromas, but the aromas come through very well once your nose is there, the wine is aromatic. If you have to swirl a little before the aromas come out, the wine is somewhat aromatic. If after swirling your wine quite a bit the aromas still are hardly perceptible, the wine can be said to be not aromatic, or closed. Wines can go through a period (often in their youth) when they do not reveal themselves, and seem to have little to no bouquet or aromas. During that period, we say the wine is "closed". Aerating a young wine can help it open up; in other cases, it's just a matter of waiting to see how it develops. In wines that are not worthy of aging, it may just be a wine that has little aromatic interest, and therefore is a wine of inferior quality.
Remember that you will always smell the wine better once it is in your mouth than when it is in your glass (as we discussed in the Intro to Wine Tasting) by retro-olfaction. Also, as the wine heats up in your mouth (an environment whose temperature is, of course, over 98° F), it releases its aromas more easily.
Vocabulary: very aromatic, aromatic, somewhat aromatic, not aromatic or closed.
Quality of aromas: this is perhaps the most subtle assessment to make. In France, we speak of elegant aromas, or a aromas that have great finesse or purity; and then rustic or ordinary aromas that are not very pleasant or subtle. Elegant aromas are intense without being vulgar, that are delightful and fresh, or that retain the pure and true (in other words, aromas of fruit or flowers that are like smelling the real fruit or flowers themselves). Rustic aromas are strong and brash, sometimes almost unpleasant. Think of the difference between smelling a fine perfume like Chanel No. 5 and then smelling a cheap "Eau de Toilette" from the drugstore. Elegance, finesse and purity of aromas are signs of quality in a wine.
Vocabulary: unpleasant, banal, rustic, ordinary, well bred, pleasant, fine, elegant, distinguished, rich, pure, racy, typical, atypical
Types of Aromas: The grape is naturally not a particularly aromatic fruit, but it possesses a tremendous aromatic potential that is brought out all along the chain of fabrication from grape to wine. The aromas that will be brought out differ from variety to variety, and depending on the soil and climate of the place in which the grapes were grown. Certain aromatic components (molecules) will be liberated, and others suppressed, at each stage of vinification. We can identify in the nose of the wine the stage at which the molecule was produced.
Primary (or Varietal) Aromas: these are the aromas of the grape itself before it has undergone any transformation. Each grape variety has its own varietal aromas, but some grape varieties like Muscat, Viognier or Gewurztraminer have a great enough concentration of varietal aromas to make them easily recognizable. These varieties tend to retain their fresh and fruity primary aromas once they have been (skillfully) made into wine.
Secondary (or Fermentary) Aromas: other aromas are created during the vinification process, when aromatic esters and acids are created by the fermentation process. These secondary aromas, which make up the principle aromatic profile of young wines, include fresh fruit, herbs, flowers, yeast, minerals, brioche, toasty or grilled odours (grilled or toasty aromas are typical in Chardonnay, for example, even if it has never been aged in oak, and not to be confused with the tertiary aromas of oak).
Tertiary Aromas (or aromas of aging): other aromatic molecules are produced as wines age, as a result of micro-oxygenation and esterification. As a wine ages, its aromas pass from those of fresh fruit to those of cooked fruit or fruit jam, fruit soaked in alcohol, or dried fruits and nuts; dried vegetal or animal aromas can develop (forest floor, barnyard, leather); and if the wine was aged in oak barrels, the original light and fresh aromas like toasty or grilled odours, caramel or brioche can turn to blond tobacco, cigar box, or stronger empyreumatic smells of tar, burnt wood, coffee, chocolate.
Families of Aromas:
Fruits (lemon, raspberry)
Flowers (acacia, violet)
Spices (pepper, cloves)
Animal (barnyard, leather, gamey)
Empyreumatic/Roasted (burnt, coffee, grilled toast)
Vegetal (green pepper, fern)
Pastry (brioche, almond paste)
Milk (yoghurt, cheese, milk)
Forest floor (dead leaves, mushroom)
Petrochemical (tar, gasoline)
Mineral (flint, stone, chalk)
NOTE: some aromas can be classified in several families, such as mushroom (forest floor or vegetal); or vanilla (pastry or spices); or tar (empyreumatic and petrochemical), etc.
Persistence or length on the palate: as we discussed previously, we count the number of seconds ("caudalies") that the AROMAS of a wine persist on the palate after the wine is expelled (spit out or swallowed). A long persistence of aromas of a wine on the palate is an indication of quality in a wine, and is one of the factors that helps us differentiate a "little" wine from a "great" wine. A long persistence usually indicates a wine that has excellent cellaring potential, and is associated with a good level of concentration of dry matter in the wine (after all, the wine has to have some substance to be able to stand up to years of cellar aging without becoming flat, oxidized and lifeless). For all these reasons, measuring the persistence of a wine on the palate is an important element in the final evaluation of a wine at the end of your dégustation