Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Wine Tasting

Wine tasting is something we in the trade do very regularly and with no illusions of grandeur.  There is an implicit understanding that we in the trade have, a rudimentary understanding that it's not so much an exercise in accomplishment like sommelier training so much as just information gathering for the purpose of exploiting a product.  We are not aspiring to a loftier reality than the realistic station we know.

When we taste we look for value compared to similarly priced wines.  We use accepted standards for types which may include norms for those regions known to be exemplary.  While we may compare our immediate tastes to the ideal wine example, we may also look to eccentric wine making styles that could result in the next Cabernet/Syrah, a blend popularized by Australia a generation ago and now accepted everywhere.  It is a commercial industry after all.

Wine tasting includes four basic steps: appearance, aroma, taste, and finish.  These steps should be done slowly with pauses for reflection.  For us in the trade, it's about deductive deliberation; we're comparing our immediate tasting experience with what is already on file in the old memory banks.  Fortunately (and unfortunately) for us small market retailers, those memory banks also store our memories of impulsively-made bad wine choices which continue to haunt us.

Here is my understanding of how wine tasting works:

1.  Appearance - Using a white background and tilting the tasting stem at an angle reveals not only the basic color of the wine but also its clarity or opacity, all of which lend clues as to grape types, age, filtering, and barrel-aging.  It also reveals the wine's viscosity, an essential quality in most serious wines.

2.  Aroma - This is the most important step in wine tasting.  By immersing one's nose into a just swirled wine stem and slowly inhaling, one can discern the most basic of wine information; that it's good and nothing is tainted, oxidized, or otherwise contaminated.  Because we in the trade know the dark side of the industry, that wines are potentially abused at any point between the winery and the retailer, our nose will tell us whether a recent vintage is actually as pristine as advertised or if it is prematurely aged or damaged through abuse.  Finally, our nose informs us of both the basic fruit flavors of the wine along with secondary flavors like flowers, earth, spices, wood, and more.  As much as 85% of wine tasting is done with the nose which then informs the palate of what to expect.

3.  Taste -  When the wine enters the mouth it is warmed, releasing aromatics retro-nasally to olfactory receptor sites in the brain, an actual continuation of what came previously solely through the nose.  By allowing the wine to sit in the mouth we feel its weight, texture, and structure before tapping those memory banks for reflections on complexity and character.  Complexity may be summed up as the breadth of harmonious flavors while character, or expressiveness, projects well-defined flavors.  To take it all one step further, "connectedness" would show that a bond exists through taste between the wine in the glass and its origins in the terroir where the grapes were grown.

 4.  Finish - This is what we are left with after swallowing and exhaling.  It is both overblown and underestimated.  What it should be is a memorable lengthy pleasant reflection of everything that came before.  "Wininess" is my own descriptor for the continuation of lengthy flavors throughout the entire tasting experience and one only recognizes this quality at the finish.

So who remembers Psychology 101 and the term, gestalt?  Basically gestalt means an integrated whole thing.  Stephen Tanzer is the best widely read American wine critic and has said that when he tastes he doesn't break the tasting into parts to score each and then compile those for a final numerical judgment.  He judges a wine in its gestalt, the entire tasting experience as a whole.  And that's good enough for me too.      

Please join us this Friday after 5 when we taste examples of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir, Italian Pinot Bianco, French Gamay, California Merlot, and Argentine Malbec.  New cheeses from the New York importer will be on the tasting table also.  We ask for a ten dollar charge to taste which is applicable to a fifty dollar purchase.

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