Thursday, 20 October 2011

Tasting wine

I was inspired to write this after talking to the participants at 'Test Your Palate', an open bottle tasting event for the general public held alongside the Hong Kong International Wine and Spirit Competition. I hope it will help people grasp the few essential points of tasting.

The spectrum of primary fruit flavours in wine depends on the degree of ripeness. For white wine it ranges from green apple (just ripe) and citrus (lemon, lime) to white fruit (pear, peach), yellow fruit (nectarine, apricot), and tropical (mango, pineapple). Generally speaking, wines from cooler climates concentrate the more delicate flavours while warmer climate white wines display the heavier fruit aromas. Similarly, the flavour spectrum of red wine begins at red fruit (strawberry, raspberry, cherry) and extends to black fruit (blackcurrant, blueberry, blackberry). So instead of naming ten different fruits, one can simply say "yellow fruit" or "black fruit" to place the wine in the appropriate position.

Broadly speaking, aromatic white wines have added aromas such as delicate floral (Riesling), grassy and passionfruit (Sauvignon Blanc) or the heavier rose and ginger (Gewurztraminer). Red wine aged in barrels may acquire spiciness (French barrels) or the sweeter scent of vanilla/coconut (American barrels). Earthy and mushroomy notes are likely to be found in aged red wines.

Minerality is a controversial descriptor. Some experts say it’s a reflection of terroir and can only be found in cooler climate (Chablis) while some dismiss it as total nonsense. I was confused by ‘wet stones’ until I realised it referred to the smell of the sea. My own interpretation of minerality is a mixture of savouriness and acidity on the palate; nothing to do with wet stones!

Tannins and acidity can only be detected on palate. So it is invalid to claim a wine is too tannic simply by smelling it. Acid makes us salivate. Tannins leave a (sometimes not too pleasant) drying sensation. Acid and tannins, together with sweetness and alcohol, give a wine its structure. And it is always the structure, not the aroma, that gives the real clue to the grape varieties it contains. For example, Pinot Noir and Sangiovese have a similar pale brick colour and similar aromas (red fruit) but Sangiovese has higher acid and tannin. Unoaked Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc have similar green apple and citrus aromas, but Chenin Blanc will have higher acidity.

A good quality wine must have length—you can still taste the wine after you swallow. The longer the length, the better the quality. Long length is supported by a wide spectrum of flavours in different categories: fruit, spices, smokiness, earthiness, etc—much more than just the five different kinds of black fruit. Tannic wines can age for as long as they have the fruit to support the tannins. Fruit disappears faster than tannins so if a young wine has a lot of tannin but not a lot of fruit, the wine will end up having only tannins in a few years. Acidity makes a wine fresh and vibrant. Again, wines for ageing need acidity, otherwise they will taste flabby and dull. A good wine is balanced, complex yet harmonised.

Some wines are deliberately made for drinking young. Most New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is intended to be drunk within two or three years of the vintage (ideally the first year), otherwise it will lose its freshness and vibrancy. The same is true for rosés. The reason that most New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs are bottled under screw cap is precisely to preserve its freshness and fruitiness—cork allows in oxygen which accelerates the disappearance of the fruit.

While we should savour complex and high quality wine when we get the chance, there are lots of well-made mid-priced wines in the market that are perfect for all sorts of occasion: a social gathering, a simple meal with family, or watching your favourite TV programmes. Remember: we don’t eat abalone or lobster every day.

The point I would like you to take home is that different people (not only experts) have different vocabularies based on their own experience. While one might name 20 different aromas just by sniffing, they can probably all be grouped into six or seven categories. Tannins, acidity and sugar can only be tasted (not smelled) and they are essential for wine ageing. So don’t be intimidated by all the flowery tasting notes. Develop your own vocabulary and association of aromas. Once you've built confidence in using your own system you'll enjoy your tasting so much more. Don’t let other people dictate what you should drink or like. It is your palate, trust it. Wine is for enjoying. What's important is that you enjoy it, with food, with friends.

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