Maximizing Your Wine Tasting Experience - Pt. 1

All in the Eyes of the Beholder

When tackling such a vast subject as wine, and all the mythos surrounding it, finding a starting point can be rather daunting. I figure tasting wine is a good start as that is where every past and future cork dork starts. To the casual observer, the process of evaluating and tasting wines can seem needlessly complex and, at times, confusing. Here I hope to demystify some of the processes involved with tasting wines both at home and in a public tasting setting.

The way we perceive wine starts long before the glass touches our lips. The first conscious impact a wine has on somebody is determined by sight. There is a surprising amount of information that can be gained by taking the time to look at a wine in the glass. With the wine in the glass, grip the stem and tilt the glass at about 45 degrees, preferably over a white background. The wine will be very shallow on side closest to the lip of the glass. It is here that we want to focus our eyes.

Avoid holding the glass by the bowl. I know this may feel awkward at first (at least it did to me), but you will get used to it quickly and there are several good reasons to avoid palming the bowl of the glass. Unless you are a ghost, seeing through your hand to observe the contents may prove to be laborious. Secondly, this practice leaves fingerprints on the bowl, making further optical observations more difficult. Gripping the glass by the bowl also transfers the heat from your hand into the wine raising the temperature beyond the ideal serving temperature (55F for whites 65F for reds). Lastly, it is much easier to swirl the wine in the glass when holding by the stem (more on this next week).

A basic rule of thumb to follow is that the more concentrated the color is, the more opulent the wine will be. The color of a wine can also indicate approximately how old a wine is. As wines age in bottle, small amounts of oxygen enter around the cork and begin to oxidize the wine. As wine oxidizes, it loses its fresh fruit aromas and begins to take on tertiary aromas of butterscotch, tobacco and leather. Along with the change in aromas and flavors, oxidation will make wines appear increasingly brown in color.

In white wines I’m looking for a range of colors from pale green through a rich golden color, depending on varietal and age. With red wines, the color shift is a little less obvious, but there are definite cues that indicate where they are in style and their evolution. In fresh reds, the color spectrum can vary between semi-transparent red through inky purple. In white wines the colors will increasingly deepen as the wine becomes increasingly browns. As red wine ages, the color drops out and shifts to shades of brick red. Once a wine is completely brown, it has reached the end of its evolution and has spoiled.

Once I’ve learned what I can from a wines color, I look at the clarity of the wine. Wine clarity is judged from a range of brilliant (clear) to cloudy. Most modern wines fall in the brilliant category. In fine, aged wines some cloudiness can occur if the wine was not decanted properly. This is due to the polymerization of tannins and other polyphenols that occurs over time. This is normal and can be expected.

A cloudy wine that was made in the last few years will most likely have an instability of some sort. Wine bottled with a protein instability can also cause haziness or sediment. It’s harmless and does not effect the taste of the wine, but is a visual detractor. An unfiltered wine may also contain some haziness. Usually the sediment in wine is allowed to drop out naturally over time. Improper racking (moving the wine off the sediment ) or rushing a wine to bottle can be a source of cloudiness.

The other cause of cloudy wine is microbial instability. If yeast make it to the bottle in the presence of sugar the yeast will consume the sugar. The result will be higher alcohol and less sugar than the winemaker intended. There is also the possibility of a malolactic fermentation, where bacteria metabolize malic acid and convert it to lactic acid. There are several bacteria species that are capable of doing this in wine. Most are considered spoilage organisms, except Oenococcus oeni, which can impart fruitiness, butter aromas, or add complexity to the wine. Regardless of the species, a malolactic fermentation inside the bottle is considered a flaw. Luckily for us, malolactic bacteria are very sensitive to sulfites, which is one of the reasons they are added to wine throughout the winemaking process.

As you can see (see what I did there), just taking the time to consciously look at the wines you’re drinking can tell you a fair amount about them. Next week we will delve in to the many aromas that are found in wine. If you have any questions on wine, please post them to our Facebook page. Your question might just get answered in one of our blogs.

Key Points

  • Always hold the glass by the stem to avoid fingerprints on the bowl as well as heating the wine
  • Generally, the deeper the color of a wine, the bolder it will be
  • As wines age, whites will gain color and reds will lose color
  • As wine ages the color will become increasingly brown, a sign of oxidation
  • Cloudy or hazy wine, in most cases, is flawed

Written by Jason Jenkins, Fox Valley Winery Winemaker

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