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Ask Dr. Vinny

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Dear Dr. Vinny,

What's your approach to analyzing the characteristics of a wine?

—Bennett, Cape Town, South Africa

Dear Bennett,

I think of wine tasting as a skill, one that you can improve at. One of my colleagues used to say it was kind of like going to the gym—it’s a lot easier if you do it every day than if you only go once every three months. So get your reps in!

I’m sure you could ask many wine lovers this question and get just as many answers—there's no wrong approach.

For me, the practice of being a good wine taster starts long before I sit down to taste a glass of wine. I make a conscious decision to pay attention to how things smell and taste everywhere I go. Be curious to smell all of the candles or teas or spices or essential oils when you’re at a store. Smell all of them. If you don’t know what currants taste like, buy some when they're in season. Read menus, and ask servers questions about ingredients. Expand your cooking repertoire. Conduct comparative tastings of other things. like chocolate or coffee. I’m the person that gives friends blind tastings of apples to see which variety they like best. When I buy four different types of cheddar for my mac and cheese recipe, I taste each one separately and note how they differ.

Next, I think it’s important to read plenty of tasting notes—from the backs of bottles, or winemaker’s notes or maybe even a really awesome website with hundreds of thousands of tasting notes? The more I read, the better my vocabulary.

When I’m tasting a wine, sometimes a descriptor just pops into my head, which is probably just my memory kicking into gear from paying attention to all those smells and tastes I’ve had in my life. The descriptors aren’t just about flavors, but also about a wine’s personality. Does it seem precise, or rustic? Is it harmonious, or is there something that dominates or sticks out?

Other tines, I’ll go through a mental checklist, looking for fruit flavors, spice, oak, herb, mineral notes. If I think I taste fruit, can I be more specific? Is it berries, or citrus? And from there I can run through all the types of citrus I know, and all the ways the citrus can be delivered, from zest to marmalade and everything in between. I recently also talked about how it can help to think of flavors as colors. I’ll close my eyes and think of what it tastes like, which is super abstract, but sometimes that’s how my fuzzy head works.

Finally, I’ll scan through clues about body: How dense are the tannins? How piercing is the acidity? How aggressive are the bubbles? Texture is important to the overall appreciation of a wine, so don’t forget to pay attention to that as well.

—Dr. Vinny

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