-by Ranjith Chandrasiri-
There is an important step between knowing how to taste wine and finding the wines that you like. That step is putting taste into words. There are two hurdles here; coming up with the words to describe what you like or don’t like, and then getting the other person to understand what you mean. Naturally, it helps if we all speak the same language.
Unless you want to drink the same wine for the rest of your life, you are going to have to decide what it is that you like or dislike in a wine and communicate that to another person who can steer you in the right direction. Appearance and aroma are not critical in finding a wine you like. If you prefer white, red or pink, it’s because of the way the wine tastes, not because of the colour.
When you first begin to taste wine, you are usually faced with two opposite problems. The wine was so simple that you really couldn’t find anything to say about it or the flavours were so complex that you couldn’t sort them out. Learning to describe the taste of a wine in wine language is the secret.
Wines have flavours, but wines don’t come in a specific flavour- strawberry, chocolate or plain vanilla. While you might enjoy the suggestion of chocolate in a red wine, you wouldn’t want to go to a wine shop and ask for a chocolaty wine. Instead you would refer to “families of flavours” in wine.
Fruity wines – the ones that make you think of fruit when you hold the wine in your mouth.
Earthy wines – These make you think of mushrooms, walks in the forest, dry leaves and so on.
Spicy wines – Cinnamon, cloves black pepper for example.
Herbal wines – Mint, grass, hay, rosemary and so on.
And there are so many other flavours in wine that you could go on and on.
Beginners sometimes describe dry wines as sweet because they confuse fruitiness with sweetness. A wine is fruity when it has distinct aromas and flavour of fruit. You smell the fruitiness with your nose and in your mouth you “smell” it through your retro- nasal passage. Sweetness on the other hand, is perceived on the surface of your tongue. When in doubt, try holding your nose when you taste the wine. If the wine is sweet, you will be able to taste the sweetness despite the fact that you can’t smell the fruitiness.
All wines have acidity for both its flavour and its preservative quality. Acidity is more of a taste factor in white wines than in reds. For white wines acidity is the backbone of the wine’s taste. White wines with good amount of acidity taste crisp, and those lack acidity taste fat and flabby. The sides of the tongue trigger your perception of acidity. You can also sense the consequences of acidity (or lack of it) in the overall style of the wine – whether it’s a tart little number or a soft and generous sort for example. Classify the wine you are tasting as tart, crisp or soft.
Tannin is the substance that exists naturally in grape skins. Because red wines are fermented with the grape skins, tannin levels are far higher in red wines than in white wines. Just as acidity to a white wine, tannin is the backbone that gives the structure to a red wine. Because tannin sometimes taste bitter, you sense tannin near the back of your tongue. Wood tannin contributes a warm sensation on the insides of the cheeks. The cumulative effect of both is a puckering drying sensation. Depending on the amount of tannin, a red wine can be called astringent, firm or soft.
Red wines have acid as well as tannin, and distinguishing between the two as you taste a wine can be a challenge. When you are not sure whether it’s mainly tannin or acid, pay attention to how your mouth feels after you have swallowed the wine. Both tannin and acid will make your mouth feel dry, but acid makes you salivate in response to the dry feeing (saliva is alkaline, so it neutralizes the acid). Tannin just leaves your mouth dry.
A wine’s body is an impression you get from the whole of the wine. It is the impression of the weight, which is usually attributed to alcohol in a wine. Think about the wine’s fullness and weight as you taste it and classify the wine as light, medium or full-bodied.
Good wine should have texture; it shouldn’t be thin like water. It can be subtle or thick and ropey like oil on canvas. It should also have what is called a long finish, which is the lingering sensation in the mouth. The balance of a wine – critical to its quality – depends on having all these factors present in the right amount.
When the wine is in your mouth, the multiple taste sensations – flavours, sweetness or dryness, acidity, tannin, balance, length, body and texture – occur practically all at once and the experience is so sensational that the best you can do is to try to describe it.