The Beginner's Guide To Wine Tasting - Part 2
Sweetness and Dryness
This is obviously relative – a Chablis, for instance, tends to be bone-dry so any deviation from this is noteworthy. Try not to confuse fruitiness with sweetness, for instance a New Zealand Sauvignon can be bone-dry whilst being as fruity as elderflower cordial.
Whilst trying not to get too technical, wine contains all sorts of acids, some good e.g. malic acid (which tends to make the wine taste of apples as it is also present in them) or lactic acid (which gives mango/papaya flavours), then there are the less-good acids such as acetic acid which tends to make a wine smell of vinegar. This vinegar smell is known as volatile acidity or VA and can actually be the deliberate style of the wine and if often seen on Lebanon’s most famous wine – Chateau Musar.
Tannin comes from the skins and the pips of a grape and helps a wine age, so when looking at tannins you are really determining when the wine will be ready to drink. A wine that gives immediate pleasure and doesn't have any tannins that need to soften is ready to drink. If a red has a lot of tannin, then it may well need several years to soften and to show its best, and is often described as ‘hard’ or ‘unappealing’. A wine that feels closed or tight at the back of the palate will generally improve with time, but there is always the danger that it will simply leap from being hard and tannic to unpleasantly dried out (i.e. too old) without ever peaking. Some young wines that taste very oaky, especially if the oak and the fruit seem separate, may just need time for these elements to marry together.
Perhaps the most important constituent of wine! Excessive alcohol will be felt initially as an unpleasant aroma – if you get a real "prod up the nostrils" as one winemaker once described it to me, you probably have a wine with excessive alcohol. This then comes back to haunt you as a burning sensation at the back of your throat, or as the same Ozzie bluntly put it "not a wine to wrap around your tonsils".
On one level this might seem the most obvious of a wine’s qualities to comment on and the fact that wines does not actually smell of grapes would seem odd. However, on another level this would be to suggest that after all a wine has gone through, from fermentation, to years of aging, for it to still taste of the original fruit would mean all that time money and effort would be for nothing. Fruit in wine shows in many different and ways than that, from gooseberries in Sauvignon Blanc to blackcurrants in Cabernet Sauvignon, but only very rarely as the flavour of grapes. If it does smell of grapes the chances are it is a Muscat.
Wines generally aspire to being full-bodied and wines with insufficient flavour are described as ‘thin’. Wines that are too rich (frequently from too much oak) are described as fat.
If all the constituent parts of the wine are roughly in harmony the wine is said to be in balance, if one particular characteristic dominates (frequently too much alcohol in New World wines or too much acid in Old World wines) then it is unbalanced. A perfectly balanced wine where the fruit, winemaking and aging characteristics are all shown equally is a rare and beautiful thing.
Factors affecting a wine’s flavour:
As a rough order of importance a wines flavour is most affected by the basic grape variety, then the wine-making, closely followed by the country or area of origin and finally vintage / time it has been aged. It therefore makes sense when learning about wine or judging one blind to think in the same order.
Although there are nearly 5,000 grape varieties the vast majority of wines are made from just a dozen or so ‘international’ varieties, a selection of which is listed below:
Wines made from Chardonnay naturally have a relatively neutral flavour, variously described as like butter, steel or melon. This neutral character is usually accompanied by a fairly full weight on the palate. As a result many winemakers follow the tradition of Burgundy and ferment or mature their Chardonnay in new oak, giving the wine a buttery/ vanilla aroma and flavour. New barrel fermentation is often used to emphasise the oak character, often accompanied by battonnage (lees stirring) whereby the dead yeast remaining in the barrels after fermentation are stirred up on daily basis during the first few months of maturation – this gives the wine more flavours from the yeast.
Another very common technique is malolactic fermentation, both to reduce the acidity in colder climates such as Burgundy, and to add complexity to the wine through the increase in levels of flavour. What happens here is a second fermentation takes place whereby the harsh apple-like malic acid in the wine is softened to a much creamier melon-like lactic acid. Much of the tropical fruit character attributed to Chardonnay comes from compounds produced during malolactic fermentation.
Perhaps best known from New Zealand, Sauvignon Blanc comes originally from the Loire Valley in France (e.g. Sancerre/Pouilly Fume) and from Bordeaux, but has been widely exported. On its own, Sauvignon Blanc produces fresh, normally dry, aromatic wine, usually with the classic characteristics of Sauvignon (listed below) and crisp acidity. The wine rapidly develops a tinned asparagus flavour as it ages which is why it is best consumed young.
Common descriptors of Sauvignon Blanc: Banana, Blackcurrant bud, Elderflower, Freshly cut grass, Fresh peas, Gooseberry, Grapefruit, Green Apple, Green Capiscum, gunflint, Herbaceous, Lemon, Lime, Melon, Passion Fruit, Vine Tomato, Tropical fruit.
Riesling (pronounced ‘Reezling’ NOT ‘Ryezling’) has been described as the world’s finest white grape variety. It produces a large range of styles from bone-dry and flinty lemony/limey wonders to dessert wines so sweet and sticky you can stand a spoon in them. Most Rieslings are capable of long aging, longer than most other white wines. Despite this it is very difficult to sell commercially.
A cool climate grape, Rielsing’s natural home is in Northern Europe, particularly Germany and Alsace. Like Chardonnay, it is found in New World areas, but never in anything like the same volumes.
Confusingly, outside of the EU there are a number of grapes called Riesling, so to differentiate it is sold variously as Rhine Riesling, White
Riesling, Weisser Riesling, Hunter Riesling and Johannesberg Riesling.
Critics refer to Chenin Blanc as smelling like lanolin or wet wool. However, in certain areas (notably the Loire Valley) it can make some of the world’s greatest dessert wines.
Most famously grown in France for dessert wines in Sauternes, as it is prone to ‘Noble Rot’ – an important part of the dessert-wine making process. However, when grown and made into a dry wine (normally in Australia but also in France’s Bergerac region), the Semillon does a very strange thing: when young it is zesty, lemony, limey and full of bite – a great match to seafood like oysters. Then after about 18 months it ‘closes up’ i.e. tastes of very little for anything from five to seven years before remerging as a beautiful wine; all hot buttered toast and honey (often mistaken for oak, which it is not) and orange flavours. Well worth trying a bottle.
The signature grape of Alsace that you can detect a mile away. If a wine smells and tastes of lychee or rose petals and has a rich, spicy flavour then there is every chance that it is Gewrütz. One of the few wines to go well with Thai curries.
One of the strongest tasting grapes – so strong in fact that it even brings grapey flavours though to the final finished wine. Can be fermented dry but most frequently used for sweet wines, e.g. Muscat Beaumes-de-Venise or Moscatel in Spain.
The only grape of red in Burgundy wines as well as being the principle grape of Champagne. This variety has a very thin skin which is important in a number of ways as it means the wines are lighter in colour and flavour, softer as they have fewer tannins, and finally expensive...! As the grapes are prone to almost any disease and heat stress production costs are high.
Common descriptors of Pinot Noir: Beetroot, blackberry, black cherry, blackcurrant, cinnamon, cranberry.
The red grape of Beaujolais that is often given an unfairly hard time given that it is capable of making good, if not great, wines. Often (quite legally) sneaks into Bourgogne rouge blends unannounced. Relatively thin skinned, it is Gamay that gives Beaujolais its light colour and fruity character.
Merlot is the principle grape of the ‘right-bank’ districts of Bordeaux and gives St-Emilion its smooth plummy character as it is less tannic than Cabernet Sauvignon, which is more commonly grown on the ‘right-bank’. Carmenére is a close relative of Merlot, that up to very recently the Chileans believed to be Merlot and it was marketed as such. The mix up was eventually traced back to the French (needless to say) who had sold the Chileans Carménere vines saying that they were Merlot. Carménere shares Merlot’s smooth character but tends to be fuller bodied and often has a ‘roasted-pepper’ flavour to it.
If any grape variety can be referred to as international it is Cabernet Sauvignon, grown as it is in almost every wine producing country (even Brazil now!).
The Cabernet Sauvignon has small, thick-skinned berries, giving deep coloured dark and tannic wines if left unblended. Fermentation temperatures tend to be low as the colour is easy to extract – this results in stronger aromas normally of blackcurrants. If a wine tastes of Ribena with alcohol then it is probably Cabernet.
Common descriptors of Cabernet Sauvignon Berries, Blackberry, Blackcurrant, Black Olive, Cinnamon, Eucalyptus, Menthol
Syrah or Shiraz
Syrah or Shiraz may well have the longest history of any black grape variety still cultivated, with a history that can be traced back to its Middle Eastern origins, via the Phoenicians. Syrah has huge levels of colour (and tannin) so it is relatively easy to make very deep-coloured wines. In the northern Rhone these have generally been made for long-term aging, but there is a trend towards techniques that extract the colour only and hence produce earlier-drinking wines. Generally speaking Shiraz was defined as an extra-ripe style of wine i.e. fruit which has reached a very high level of ripeness and hence has a lot of sugar in it and therefore produces wine which is a) very fruity b) high in alcohol (min 13% for shiraz) and c) moderately sweet. However, the French have managed to further complicate things by insisting that Shiraz cannot be made in France.
Common descriptors of Shiraz / Syrah Aniseed, Blackberry, Black Pepper, Cinnamon, Clove, Herbs, Liquorice, Pepper, Raisin, Spicy. With some barrel ageing it takes on the extra dimensions of Cedar, Coconut, Nutty, Pencil Shavings, Sawdust, Toast, Vanilla.