Monday, 11 March 2013

Identifying wine of the World

Most of us are impressed by people who can get the wine correct at a blind tasting, and secretly wish that we could do the same. Considering there are more than a dozen major wine producing countries and over 20 popular grape varieties, not to mention the hundreds of smaller wine producing regions and the even greater number of indigenous grape varieties and wine blends, it is daunting if not impossible to win in a blind tasting game. How do people do it then?

Most tasters normally start by eliminating half of the world, by going down the Old World / New World route. Because of tradition and winemaking technique, Old World wine (such as France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Germany, Austria) tends to be more restrained. Reds usually have a savoury characters while whites may have a hint of saltiness (some say minerality). New World wine (Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, the USA, Argentina, Chile) is usually more fruit focused and forward. This is true even for aromatic grapes like Riesling. A German Riesling is more subdued than a Clare Valley one. So if the wine smells of abundant fruit, chances are it is likely to be from the New World.

To get closer to the origin, one needs to know the geography. Wines made in cool or mild climates are likely to have lower alcohol and higher acidity than those from warmer regions. This is because in warmer conditions, grapes ripen faster, accumulate more sugar and lose acidity faster. Sugar is converted to alcohol during fermentation, so wine from hot areas like Southern France will have higher alcohol than the cooler Burgundy. However, there are exceptions. Grapes grown in a continental climate—hot days but cool nights—have both high sugar and high acidity. And don’t forget that water and altitude play a part as well. The ocean has a cooling effect on coastal vineyard areas in Chile, California and Stellenbosch, but brings a milder climate to Bordeaux, while every 100m increase in altitude will see the temperature drop by 0.6ºC.

Combining the above factors, you can narrow the probabilities down quite a bit. Say you are presented a delicate wine with fresh acidity and moderate alcohol; it is likely to be from a cool climate region in the Old World. A wine with pronounced fruit characters but only moderate alcohol is likely to be from a not too hot New World region, possibly Margaret River, or some high altitude vineyards in Chile.

Getting excited? It’s time to study now. You don’t need to be a brilliant taster but you must have the knowledge if you want to get the wine correct. The wine’s structure is what’s most important. Some grapes, such as Nebbiolo, Touriga Nacional and Cabernet Sauvignon always have high tannins, but the first two will also have higher acidity. Merlot, Malbec, Pinot Noir and Zinfandel have both medium tannin and acidity. Grenache, Gamay and Barbera have low tannin but the latter two have much higher acidity than Grenache. Colour also gives some hints. For example, what is a red with pale colour and high acidity? It could be Nebbiolo, Sangiovese or Pinot Noir, but if the tannin is high then it can’t be Pinot Noir. Now, look at the alcohol. If it is over 14%, it is highly likely to be Nebbiolo because Piedmont (where Nebbiolo is grown) has a more continental climate than Tuscany.

Take another example. A near opaque wine with moderate acidity and lush black fruits is probably a New World Shiraz, Merlot or Malbec. If the tannins are obvious but round, and there are jammy and spicy notes, I would put it as a Shiraz above the others. And if the alcohol is 14-14.5%? Very likely a Shiraz from the Barossa.

White wine is similar. It doesn’t have tannin, so acidity and alcohol level are the key factors. White grapes can also be categorised into aromatic ones such as Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Viognier, Gewurztraminer, Muscat; or neutral ones like Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc and Semillon. Semi-aromatic grapes include Chenin Blanc, Pinot Gris and Albarino. So an aromatic wine with crisp acidity could be a Riesling or Sauvignon Blanc, but if it has a purity of fruit and alcohol of 13 or 13.5%, it is possibly a New World Sauvignon Blanc. Alsace Riesling could have 13% alcohol but it would be more mineral rather than fruit focused.

Unfortunately—but this is exactly what makes it so interesting—wine is not that black and white. With climate change, flying winemakers and the exchange of winemaking techniques, we are now seeing Old World wine styles made in the New World and vice versa. Some Bordeaux reds, especially those from riper vintages, are more fruit-forward with rounder tannins than the classic ones. The Kumeu River Hunting Hill Chardonnay from New Zealand (available from Northeast) is made in a Burgundian style which, in blind tastings, has fooled many a wine professional into believing it is a premier cru Burgundy.

My belief is that guessing the exact wine is not a very good reason for learning and enjoying wine. What matters is that we understand its quality, its style, its sense of place, and appreciate the effort that the winemaker has put into making it. As long as we follow the logic and know the theory, we won’t be far off in identifying the wine. And so what if we mistake a good quality South African Stellenbosch Cabernet Sauvignon for a Chilean from the Aconcagua Valley?

Abridged version published in the South China Morning Post on 07 February 2013

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