Thursday 24 January 2013

New Year Resolution

No doubt some of us still nursing New Year hangovers today have made a resolution to cut down on drinking. I would like to encourage an alternative, more positive stance—make a resolution to start really appreciating wine drinking and exploring the world of wine.

There are so many labels on the wine shelves, and this confuses a lot of people, so they usually retreat into buying just the regions, grape varieties and brands they are familiar with. If you are one of them, you’re missing out on a lot of fun. To begin discovering the wine world, the key hurdle we need to cross is to understand what we mean by ‘quality’ and how to judge it. So let’s take a look at that (and bear in mind that good quality wine exists at all price levels so it doesn’t need to break the bank).

Professionals judge wine quality by four criteria: balance, length, intensity and complexity (BLIC for short). Start with balance: the three components that form the backbone of white wine are acidity, alcohol and sweetness, with red wine having a fourth, tannin, which can be from either grape or wood. These components must be well integrated with the fruit and no one of them should jump out above the others. If you immediately feel the heat of alcohol in a wine, it is out of balance. Similarly, if all you can taste is wood or tannin, again it is out of balance. Some people shun German Riesling because of a perceived sweetness, but a good quality one will have enough acidity to support the sweetness and will not be cloying.

Length, the second criterion, is the pleasant aroma—not the drying tannin—that stays in the throat after you swallow. The longer you can feel the wine, the better quality it is. This after taste usually lasts from a good 4-6 seconds to well over 30 seconds. Some wine may be pleasant to drink but its aroma disappears as soon as you swallow: its length is short, indicating lesser quality.

Intensity is probably the most difficult criterion to understand. It is not about the intensity on the nose, but on the palate. Take a wine designed for ageing, like a Barolo. When young, such a wine may be closed (ie, you can’t smell anything) but you should still be able to feel the concentration and density on the palate. This, together with the length and the balance, is the clue that the wine has the potential to develop and open up later.

The final criterion, complexity, is about the group of aromas that you can taste. Fruit aromas include citrus, apple, floral, white fruit, yellow fruit, tropical fruit, red fruit and black fruit, and these can be complemented by secondary characters such as herbal, spicy, nutty, raisiny and vanilla. Someone may impress you by saying they can taste blackberries, blackcurrant, blueberries and black cherries in a wine. Well, just remember that those are all black fruits, so there’s really only one aroma class and therefore that wine is not complex! On the other hand, if you can feel black fruits, spices and vanilla, that’s already three categories of aroma and the wine is reasonably complex.

For me, balance is the most important element. A wine can be simple, with just some citrus and apple aromas and a 3-5 second aftertaste, but if it is balanced and costs less than HK$150/bottle, it is a good quality entry level wine. Some Chardonnays from Casablanca, Chile fit the bill. In contrast, some wines that cost $500-600 per bottle may exhibit four or five types of aroma and have a good length yet somehow the oak or alcohol stand out; they are not balanced and I would not consider them as good quality for what they cost.

Armed with this technique, you can begin to get out of the comfort zone and start exploring different wine regions and grape varieties and what styles of wine you like best. In fact, you don’t need to confine yourself to only one style of wine as there are different styles for different occasions and food pairing.

Hong Kong is not short of wine tasting courses, ranging from the basic to the advanced. Many people like to take one of two courses to give them a head start. WSET (Wine and Spirits Education Trust) is the biggest wine education provider in the world and has developed a series of qualifications for the wine trade and wine consumers. WSET pioneered the Systematic Tasting Approach, which is a good framework for wine appreciation. There are over 20 WSET providers in Hong Kong. There are also courses aimed at wine lovers with a less formal yet still structured approach. Whatever courses you might choose, it is important to learn from enthusiastic lecturers. While I don’t know all the wine lecturers in town, I do respect JC Viens and Ian Symonds. Not only are they professional, they are passionate, which I think is the essential attribute for a lecturer. Remember we all enjoyed our Mathematics or Chemistry at school more if the teachers were excited about the subject? Wine, likewise, is a subject that needs a passionate teacher or mentor to unlock its mysteries.

Nevertheless, attending wine courses is not mandatory to appreciate wine. All you need is confidence and trust in your palate. The BLIC quality formula will guide you through the maze. If you taste one grape variety or region a week from now, you will have tried 52 wines by  the end of the year. And you’ll appreciate wine a lot more than if you just guzzle 52 bottles over Christmas.

Abridged version was published in the South China Morning Post on 03 January 2013