Wine 101: A Beginner's Guide
by Tony Aspler
‘There are no standards of taste in wine, cigars, poetry, prose, etc. Each man’s own taste is the standard, and a majority vote cannot decide for him or in any lightest degree affect the supremacy of his own standard.’
These are the words of Mark Twain, written in 1895, when it seemed women didn’t drink wine or smoked cigars – but the essence of his thought holds true today. Even for the neophyte raising his or her first glass of wine the personal palate reigns supreme. What you like is what you like. But this doesn’t mean there are not some objective standards by which wine can be judged.
To understand wine you have to taste it. That might sound axiomatic but there is a technique to tasting that will enhance the sensory pleasure that a fine wine affords.
Most people want to get the wine in their mouth as soon as possible but there is much you can tell by the sight and smell before the wine even enters the mouth. First of all, study the colour. Is it bright, is it clean, is it something you want to lift up to your face? Any browning in the colour of either a white or a red wine will tell you that there has been some oxidation (like leaving a cut apple exposed to air). Swirl the wine and watch the colourless liquid that coats the side of the glass slide down to the level of the wine in a series of tears. This is a visual aspect of alcohol: the thicker and slower moving those tears, the higher the alcohol. The French call this effect ‘legs.’ The Germans call it ‘church windows’ - which speaks to a different national perspective on these matters.
Next, the nose. Your nose is your most important organ – when it comes to wine tasting. You can tell 90% about a wine by smelling it. The only thing you can’t tell is how long the flavour will last in the mouth. Your palate, by comparison, is a blunt instrument; it only records five basic tastes – sweet, sour, bitter, salt and fifth taste called umani, a Japanese term for a salty-sweet taste like soy.
To show you how powerful your nose is, you need only 400 molecules of a substance to smell it but you need 25,000 molecules dissolved in your saliva to taste it. So, if we only register five tastes on our tongues, how do we tell the difference between lobsters and, say, strawberries?
The taste buds on our tongues transmit those five basic tastes up our nasal passage to tiny hairs at the top of our nose which decode them into all the flavours we know. If your nose is blocked or if you have a cold, you won’t taste properly. (Try this yourself. Pinch both nostrils closed and take a sip of wine, swallow and hold your nose for five seconds. Then release, take a breath and you’ll find you’re only able to taste when your nose is clear.)
Next, swirl the wine in the glass to unlock the bouquet and take tiny sniffs. You will, involuntarily, begin to salivate. The glands in your mouth will secrete saliva. The acid in the wine triggers this response. A dry wine with good acidity will make you feel hungry; that’s why canny hosts will serve a dry white wine as an aperitif before a meal to stimulate your appetite.
Swirl again and take deep sniffs. To appreciate a wine you start off looking for faults. Is the wine ‘corked’ (smelling like a damp basement’) or oxidized (sherry-like smell in whites or prune-like in reds). Once you’ve established that the wine is free of off-odours you can begin to praise its virtues.
Take a small amount in your mouth and let it cover your palate because you taste different aspects of the wine on different parts of your tongue. You experience sweetness on the tip of the tongue, salt on the sides of the tongue, sourness (acid) and bitterness (tannin) at the back of the mouth and on the gums.
Because the sweet sensors are on the tip of your tongue your immediate impression of the wine will be the sweetness of the fruit but as it works its way to the back of the palate you will experience the freshness of the acidity and – in young red wines - a coarseness from the tannins. (Tannin is a natural bitter compound in the pits, stalks and skins of grapes and acts as a preservative. Red wines have more tannins than whites because they are made by macerating the skins of black grapes with the fermenting juice to extract colour.)
A great wine will be harmonious in that all its elements – fruit, acidity, alcohol and if barrel-aged, oak - are in balance. And the mark of a truly great wine is how long its flavour lingers on the palate.
Finally, here’s a tip that professional wine tasters practice: suck in air when the wine is in your mouth and you will get a more concentrated taste. Just as you get more bouquet by swirling the wine in the glass, by sucking in air you will get more flavour. But maybe this is something you should practice in the bath first.