How to Really Taste Wine

The six most important words in wine tasting
Dec 18, 2012

The past few weeks have put me in situations where I've been called upon to talk about wine. I'm not a shy sort, so such occasions are fine with me. For example, I was recently in Seoul hosting a wine dinner.

Now, there's all sorts of nonsense making the rounds about Asians and wine. Some of this talk is even put about, I gather, by Asians themselves in the mistaken belief that because they're not Western they can't readily grasp the fine points of wine.

So when I stood in front of 65 people at the wine dinner in Seoul, all but a few of whom were Korean, I was politely blunt. I said that being a newcomer to wine was just that. It transcends culture. Being Asian was meaningless. Everybody is a newcomer to fine wine at some point in their lives, and that includes Europeans.

I went on to say that 40 years ago we Americans were collectively as ignorant about wine as any group of Asian wine newbies. And that we generated our own horror stories of rich guys who swaggered around insisting that they only wanted the "best" and that they didn't care what it cost.

Then I asserted that talking about wine doesn't involve flavor descriptors. This, it turned out, was the real jolt. I could sense the surprise when I said it. I, in turn, was myself surprised.

Since when did flavor descriptors become the basis of intelligent wine discussion? I later learned from guests at the dinner that the wine instruction that they had received was invariably just a string of flavor descriptors for each wine under "discussion."

We all know, of course, how this I-Spy game of ever more precise-seeming associations of scents and tastes—coffee, chalk, bergamot, road dust and so forth—came about. It was we wine writers who did it. And we then did yet more of it as wines from everywhere increased exponentially.

You, the reader, want to know what a wine tastes like. And someone saying, "This here wine tastes really good," is hardly going to satisfy. With thousands of wines a year to review, writers had no choice. How many times can you describe a Pinot Noir as being "cherry-scented"? So you get more specific, summoning up black cherry, wild cherry, pie cherry, maraschino cherry, cherry jam and cherry liqueur.

There's nothing wrong with this and I, for one, will happily defend my colleagues in the tasting-note trenches.

That said, anatomizing the scents and flavors of a wine hardly tells the whole story. Nowhere is this more true than during a wine tasting such as the one I was doing at the dinner or, earlier, at two training sessions for the hotel's eager-to-learn restaurant staff.

So how should you talk about wine? Every taster is different, and I'm not about to say that the following features represent the entirety of what could or should be examined and discussed.

But I will say this much: If you're missing these points, you're not going to fully grasp the qualities of the wine at hand. For me, these are the six most important words in wine tasting:

Complexity. The single greatest standard used in assessing the quality of a wine is complexity. The more times you can return to a glass of wine and find something different in it—in the bouquet, in the taste—the more complex the wine. The very greatest wines are not so much overpowering as they are seemingly limitless.

Complexity is not an arbitrary standard. We are, in fact, set up to respond favorably to it. We have big brains and cortexes. We know from decades of work in experimental psychology that over a period of time, we always seek more complex stimuli.

In music, we invariably progress from the simple, or the “banal” as one researcher referred to nursery rhymes, to more complex melodic patterns. It appears that we favor—relish might be a more descriptive, if less exact term—uncertainty or lack of predictability. One researcher contends that uncertainty in music is complexity. And that uncertainty gives greater “meaning” to music.

Complexity is more than multiplicity. For a wine (or a melody) to be truly satisfying, especially after repeated exposure, it must continually surprise us (uncertainty) and yet we must still be able to grasp these surprises as part of a larger and pleasing pattern.

So it is with wine. A multiplicity of flavors and aromas without some sort of cohesion becomes jarring and eventually irritating. True complexity keeps surprising us, but never fatigues us. That's no small trick. But it's one that the world's greatest wines regularly pull off—and it's why they're so acclaimed as the greatest.

Texture. This is a feature of wine that too often is overlooked. Yet pay attention to texture, as it may be the most important "hidden" feature of wine quality. This is especially true with white wines; one of the "giveaways" to quality (and potential longevity) in dry white wines is revealed by texture.

If you have the privilege of tasting white Burgundies made in the 1950s or earlier, you will be surprised to discover how thick and dense the texture of those Chardonnay wines is. What made it so? Very low yields and small berry size. These features also were (and are) critical to longevity. Simply put, texturally thin wines are a giveaway to dilute flavors and short life span, never mind the gussying-up of a lot of new oak and showy flavors from lees stirring. Texture tells the tale.

Midpalate Density. Every taster has his or her go-to feature. For some it's bouquet. For others it's a wine's finish, whether it's short or long, intense or faint. For me, it's midpalate density.

The midpalate feature is sometimes hard for tasters to recognize. The easiest way to grasp the notion is to imagine a candy with a hard, dense center. You suck on the candy and figure that it's soon to be gone. Then you reach that hard, dense center and you discover that there's a lot more yet to come. Voilà! Midpalate density.

For you Pilates types, think of midpalate density as core strength. Without it, a wine is weak. Wines, like trees, die from the inside out. If a wine lacks midpalate density, it will, over time, prove to be shallow and merely showy. Midpalate density comes from the vineyard, rather than from the winemaking. It's a creation of low yields and small berries, often from old vines. I consider it absolutely essential in assessing both a wine's probable longevity and its potential greatness.

Proportion. The element of proportion is easily grasped. A wine, like an attractive person, should be reasonably proportionate. It shouldn't finish "short." You should have a sense of the wine's flavors being metered out to you in roughly equal amounts and time spans: the scent, the beginning taste, the midpalate and, critically, the finish.

Sometimes, especially with very young wines, these proportions can be skewed and later come into greater equality. But with a mature wine, you should expect reasonable proportion. If it's not present, then the wine is either on its way out or it never had the stuffing of real quality to begin with.

Finesse. The feature of finesse is a favorite of mine. It's something I look for almost obsessively. Finesse is how the flavors of a wine are delivered. Imagine a lay-up in basketball where the player drives toward the basket, gracefully leaps up and the ball rolls off his fingertips and falls effortlessly into the net. That's finesse. That's how wines should deliver themselves to you. Without finesse, wines are clunky, never mind how much complexity they might have. Finesse, like good manners, is essential to refinement.

Balance. The concept of balance means different things to different tasters. It's one of those classic you-know-it-when-you-see-it qualities. At its most basic, balance refers to an equilibrium created by roughly equal amounts of “fruitiness” and acidity in wine (and sweetness in a sweet wine).

Balance is essential in that it makes a wine invigorating to us. A wine that lacks balance palls very quickly. We sense it almost from the first sip. It's not easily measurable and it's far from exact. A wine, unlike a ballerina, is not either in balance or out. There's always a range in what constitutes balance for every person.

In recent years, as wines have become more alcoholic as a result of grapes picked at high ripeness levels, the concept of balance has come to include a wine's ability to "balance out" its alcohol level with buffering fruit density. This is why balance has become such a prominent term in today's wine vocabulary.


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