What am I tasting? I’ve never had black currant and what is a lychee?

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Image: Heidi Butzine

When you hear descriptions of wines, sometimes the words sound anything but wine-like.  Some wines are spicy, earthy, fruity, vegetal, and have flavors like tobacco, chocolate, citrus, and even diesel!  Nearly anything you can think of.  This doesn’t actually have anything to do with what is in the wine.  A wine with nuances of chocolate doesn’t have any chocolate in it and thankfully a wine with notes of tobacco does not mean the wine has been aged with cigars in the vats.  These descriptions really represent what the aroma and flavor of a wine reminds you of.

This is also very helpful when you’re choosing a wine.  You are relying upon the tasting notes or descriptions of the wine to know if this is something that you would enjoy or may complement your food.

Do some homework

The best way to get better acquainted with wine descriptions is to practice.  (Now this is good homework!)  Buy a red wine and a white wine.  This will give you a good enough distinction between the wines to pick up on the differences in body, aroma and flavor.  You don’t need to spend a lot of money on the wine, just pick something that is within your budget.  You can find a good wine for under $20 at your local wine store.  A Sauvignon Blanc or a Chardonnay are good choices for a white wine.  For the red, pick a Syrah or Merlot.

Be sure your wine is at the right temperature.  This is not so much to do with the color but the body of the wine.  Lighter bodied wines should be slightly chilled.  More full bodied wines should be served closer to room temperature.  A happy medium is between 55 and 60 degrees.  You can put a bottle of wine in the fridge for about a half hour and up to an hour for wines that need to be more chilled.   (If the bottles aren’t already chilled, I would put the Syrah, Merlot and Chardonnay in for about a half hour and an hour for the Sauvignon Blanc.)

Pour yourself no more than about a quarter of a cup of each wine in a stemmed wine glass.  Now for the practice…first take a quick smell of the wine.  Nothing too long, just one or two quick short sniffs.  You may start picking up on some of the aroma already.  Now swirl the wine in the glass a couple of times (this may also take a little practice too).   Swirling will introduce air into the wine which increases the intensity of the aromas and can be different from your first smell.  Now smell the wine again.  Put your nose deep enough in the glass that you get a good smell but still have a dry nose!  Again, take about three quick short sniffs.  (I find I can concentrate more on the aromas when I close my eyes.)  Take your time to let the aromas or “bouquet” register in your mind.  If this takes a couple of tries, that’s fine…we’re practicing after all.  If you do not smell anything, then you may want to take a break or make sure that there are no other powerful smells in the room you’re tasting in.  Also, the wine could be too chilled which you can quickly warm up by holding the bowl of the glass in your hands and swirl to let the warmth from your hands warm up the wine a bit.  Then try again.  (Don’t worry, it will come to you.)

Now what do you smell, taste & how does it feel?

Can you pick up certain smells that you are able to describe?  If you are at a loss for words, you can also look up references for wine aromas or an aroma wheel.  But the rules of thumb are generally that lighter-bodied white wines tend to have aromas like apples, melons, oranges, or grapefruit.  Cut grass is also a favorite term used for these wines.  (Certain Gewürztraminers may even smell like the diesel gas that the lawnmower used to cut the grass!)  If the wine has been aged in oak (like many Chardonnays), it may have a buttery or fig-like aroma.

Red wines usually have berries, plums or cherry aromas.  Some may have a woody smell, like pine needles or cedar.  Syrah can smell like a bouquet of flowers.  The aroma of Zinfandel is often somewhat spicy, like black pepper.

Once you have finished analyzing the smell, it’s time to take a taste.  Take a small mouthful, and roll the wine around in your mouth.  This is to let all of your taste buds have a chance at it.  Without dribbling, take in a little air in your mouth.  (If this makes a gurgling noise, you’re doing it right.) This helps release more of the aromas for you to detect.  Hold the wine in your mouth for a moment while you consider what it tastes like.  The flavor of wine is an extension of its aroma, but you may notice flavors that weren’t present in the aromas of the wine.  You may notice the flavor of orange blossoms or peach in your white wine.  The red wine may have added elements such as blackberries and strawberry jam, or coffee and tobacco.

After you swallow the wine (or spit if you’re driving or doing multiple tastings), keep focusing.  Many wines leave an impression in the mouth after the wine has left.  This is called “finish”.  If the flavors continue to be balanced or have a long “hang time” on the tongue – provided these are pleasing flavors – this is often the sign of a good quality wine.  You will also want to think about the texture of the wine.  It may have felt soft, like velvet, or be crisp or zesty.  How does the wine leave your mouth feeling?

Learning more

Once you have identified the aromas, flavors or the wine’s “personality”, you may want to see how others have described the wine as well either from the tasting notes on the back of the bottle or online reviews.  Also you can expand your vocabulary and wine tasting skills by actually getting acquainted with new aromas or flavors.  A friend of mine was tasting wine and saw that black currant was a term used to describe wines but he had never eaten or even smelled one so he couldn’t really place what this meant in terms of wine taste.  Some people may have never had any experience with lychees either and this is used often to describe certain white wines.  I suggest that you purchase these at your store or you can ask your local bartender if they have any lychee based mixers to get an impression of the smell or flavor.

Keep in mind that there really are no wrong answers as each person’s palate is unique.  It’s all about what the taste reminds you of and if you like it.   Now you can go out and describe wine with the best of them!

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