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.
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.
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.