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Tasting and Understanding Wine

When one reads tasting notes from the likes of Robert Parker, James Molesworth, James Suckling or many of the professional wine tasters whose publications we can buy or subscribe to on the internet, it can be quite intimidating, even while oftentimes being reasonably accurate and informative. The ability to discern specific flavours is definitely an acquired skill that comes from years of practice and often specific training. I know people who can tell you grape type, country of origin and even tell the percentages of a blend consisting of four to five grape types. Yes, such people do exist and their skill is often quite profound.

For the vast majority of wine drinkers, wine appreciation often goes no further than “I like it” or “I don’t like it.” There is absolutely no shame in that and the best wine in the world is the one you like best, regardless of its price or what some ‘expert’ or ‘connoisseur’ thinks of it.

For regular wine drinkers—those who may have some wine with their dinner every evening or several times a week, we do develop preferences and with experience comes a degree of discernment. We may find that we like drier wines or sweeter wines, wines with more or less tannin, or more or less oak. We also develop likings for specific grape types, such as Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot, Syrah or Pinot Noir, Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc, etc, etc. The wines we prefer today may not be the same a year or two from now or those we preferred a year or two ago. We may even develop preferences for certain styles of wine or wines from certain countries or regions.

I spent several years quite fixated on Italian wines, trying as many different ones as I could find. I even once explained to a friend who asked about my obsession with all those Italian wines that it was like learning about Italy through the different wines from the different regions. You can taste the differences in soil, climate and even culture. Even today when I sip a glass of Morellino I can recall the scents and smells of the region, which is located on the western coast of Tuscany.

I have never been able to develop much of a skill of identifying specific flavours in wine—at least not past the very basic elements of citrus or berries, etc—even after 30 years of wine tasting. My daughter is far better at it with almost no experience. She can separate raspberries from strawberries, peaches from apricots and even identify different floral scents. I think there must be some in-born talent for that skill (and she clearly did not inherit it from me). Robert Parker is perhaps the most renowned for it—when you read a note such as, “with sweet mulberry, black currant and cherry notes intermixed with tobacco leaf, cedar, resin, and licorice,” you can understand what I mean. He can also recall any of the over 10,000 wines he has tasted with a photographic memory. No wonder his sense of smell is insured for millions of dollars. It is one thing to be able to detect different flavours but quite another to be able to say precisely what they are.

For my own part, having tasted thousands of wines from all over the world for over 30 years I have developed my own system for evaluating wines and one I think is very useful and accessible to us ‘normal’ people. I think it is a reliable guide to the intrinsic quality of wine—regardless of whether one happens to like the particular flavours or not.

The system applies to all the steps of wine tasting and evaluation, from the initial smelling to the aftertaste. The elements of the system consist of ‘complexity’, ‘balance’ and ‘finesse’. Of these, balance is the most vital as it is the first and foremost characteristic of well-made wine. Balance refers to fruit, alcohol and tannin and how these three essential characteristics come together. When evaluating a wine we are usually looking for obvious flaws. Once there are no obvious flaws we can move on to other characteristics.

On the nose wines differ in the complexity of their smell. If you can detect several scents as opposed to just one it suggests the wine has some depth of character. Likewise on the palate. There is nothing wrong with a straightforward wine—in fact that may be exactly what you are looking for when choosing a wine to go with simple food like pizza or pasta or stewed chicken. However, straightforward wines should not command big bucks. When you spend ample dollars on a wine you expect the wine to have some complexity, something to keep your interest and make you want to sip it again and again.

Complexity however cannot stand by itself. It is only a marker of quality when it also has finesse, which is when the multiple flavours make up a satisfying whole.

When these characteristics come together in a wine it is usually accompanied by a long and delicious finish, an aftertaste that is pleasant and satisfying and one which appeals as much to one’s intellect and emotions as to one’s taste buds.

So without getting too technical or academic, those are my markers of a fine wine. When I refer to a wine as sexy, ‘luxurious’ or ’emotional’, you can be sure it has touched more than my taste buds. Such wines are not for drinking every day but they can and do make special occasions very special indeed.

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