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Swirl, Sniff, Sip, Savor

Author: Tim Carl
October, 2013 Issue

Learning to appreciate wine can be educational as well as fun.

Beyond being a delicious beverage, wine is also an excellent metaphor for our lives. Like each of us, a wine changes over time. It can be profound at times and then go through difficult stages. It can go bad. Each bottle is a capsule of time that contains within it the entire history that created it, and within the life of each wine are moments that speak volumes about where it came from, how it was made and the quality of its ingredients.
To truly understand wine, you must approach tasting it like any other serious craft. Understanding a wine deeply will take time and effort, and the results can be wonderful, frustrating, enlightening and challenging. Starting out with knowledge of the science behind it can lead to even greater appreciation and understanding.

Getting started

When I give wine tasting presentations, I’m often asked where some of the flavors come from. On one hand, as winemakers, we most often haven’t included anything but grape juice and perhaps some yeast. On the other hand, because grapes are complex and have so many flavor profiles packed within them, in essence, it’s true that flavors like blackberry or lavender were “added” to the wine—but by the grape itself.
Aromatic and flavor compounds fall into three categories: primary, secondary and tertiary. Primary compounds come from the grape itself, secondary are produced during fermentation and tertiary develop during the aging process. Within each category are two broad chemical groups, called esters and phenols, which account for the smells and tastes we encounter. And although these chemical groups have similar properties, the molecules that make up each odor or taste are unique. The odor of blackberry comes from an ester called ethyl 2-hydroxy-4-methylpentanoate (or ethyl leucate). This ester is found in blackberries themselves, but it is also found in wine. So “blackberry” is actually in some wines.
Another common aroma in many wines is ethyl vanillate (the smell of vanilla), a slightly larger molecule with a different vapor point from blackberry that requires different conditions for your senses to have access to it. So each smell and taste in a wine are only accessible within certain conditions.
Beyond the differences in the chemicals themselves, each of our bodies perceives different compounds in different ways. Human senses need a minimum number of any one chemical molecule before they trigger a response. “Super tasters” are individuals said to have either special or extra taste buds that can discern wine “better” than the rest of us. The truth, however, is more nuanced. We’re all “super tasters” for something. The trick is to figure out your own sensitivity or, as I like to call it, your talent. You can train your senses to better distinguish smells and flavors over time. When I was just starting out tasting wine, I’d carry a small piece of oak in my pocket and bring it out every once in a while to give it a sniff. After only a few weeks, I had a much better sense of what oak smelled like.
Because different chemicals respond differently to different conditions, and each person has different abilities to sense various flavors and aromatics, tasting wine is subjective. Nevertheless, expert tasters who know the science and history of wine can be inspiring and a wonderful resource. But I can guarantee that, as you hone your own wine-tasting craft, you’ll find there’s no single expert with whom you’ll agree even most of the time.
The proper setting
Before you start examining a particular wine, first consider both your state of being and your environment. If you’re going to be getting to know a wine deeply, how you approach the tasting process is important. Are you stressed out? Have you already had a glass or two of wine? Have you had a big meal or rich food? If so, try this tomorrow.
Find a room that has modest light (think library, not doctor’s office). If possible, sit at a table with a white tablecloth or use a sheet of white paper as a background against which to judge the wine color. Make sure there are no odors that could be distracting, such as strong-smelling flower arrangements, heavy perfumes or intense cooking odors.
Take a deep, slow breath. Are your sinuses open? Do you have lingering flavors from an earlier meal or coffee on your palate? If so, drink some warm water with a squeeze of lemon in it. Assemble a note pad and a pen to jot down some notes, some water and a few water crackers. Now you’re ready.
First impressions
Use any wine with which you’re unfamiliar, but it would be helpful to have two or three bottles so you can come back to it over time. The temperature should be around 65° F for red and 55° F for white.
Start by examining the packaging. You can learn a lot by just taking a close look at the bottle. Consider the weight of the glass, the depth of the punt and any printing or design. Is the capsule metal, lead or synthetic? Does it have a design printed on it or is it unadorned? What about the label: Is the paper thin or thick, textured or smooth? Each one of these elements has been thoughtfully considered by the vintner and is trying to tell you something about the wine inside. What’s your impression, based solely on the exterior presentation?
A lot of information is captured on both the front and back labels of the bottle. On the front, you’ll normally learn about the producer, varietal and vintage. You might also find out about the appellation or subappellation, which will provide information into exactly where this wine was grown.
The front label will also provide the level of alcohol, but this number is typically only moderately useful for most wines because a producer can legally use a range of up to 1 percent. Winemakers create labels at a time when they may not yet know the level of alcohol. This is because as the wine ages, alcohol levels can change. So take the stated alcohol level with a grain of salt.
On the back label, you might find a story and some information about the varietal, blend, winemaking techniques or the vintner’s philosophy. Sometimes the stories can be interesting and entertaining, but often, they don’t provide much insight. When I taste a wine for the first time, I often avoid reading the back label to make sure it doesn’t influence my opinion.
Now consider the closure. Is it a natural cork, synthetic cork or screwcap? Each winemaker has his or her reasons why one is preferred over the other. Cork closures are controversial, but I prefer them. First of all, cork is a natural, sustainable product. It’s also been time-tested, is naturally porous and allows for a certain amount of gas flow between the bottle and the outside, which seems to have an impact on the way the wine ages.
The issues with cork include the dreaded cork taint. This is a broad term that refers to a fault in wine that results in off aromas and muted flavors. The main cause is the presence of 2,4,6 trichloroanisole (TCA) and/or 2,4,6-tribromoanisole (TBA). Wines containing these chemicals have a characteristic odor; often described as resembling a moldy newspaper, wet dog, sour cloth or damp basement. When present in levels above a person’s threshold, the wine is unpalatable—although harmless. Everyone’s threshold is different. Some people argue that TCA and TBA taint isn’t possible in closures other than cork, but I beg to differ. These chemicals are produced by a fungus that can find its way into wine from a variety of sources that include the barrel, other storage containers or materials such as hoses. I’ve even tasted “corked” orange juice from a plastic container before.
Take a look
Now it’s time to get the wine into your glass and let it start opening up. A lot of people profess that you should decant or aerate wine to get it to present its “true” potential. Almost every aspect of tasting wine is controversial, and decanting is no exception. Does it help improve a wine’s taste and aroma? We shall see, but for your first tasting, pour the wine right into a glass. Later, once you understand the wine, you may decide to decant.
Pour only about an inch of wine into a glass that’s been cleaned properly and has no soap residue. Give the glass a quick swirl and place it on the table. Note its color: Does the color seem to hang from the glass? What’s the density? Are there any aromatics you can smell without sticking your nose too close to it?
Once you’ve made your observations, swirl it more and see how it interacts with the sides of the glass. Tilt the glass so you can see an elongated oval of wine. This is when you really get a clear sense of color density. Peer through the wine to see if you can clearly make out the tablecloth detail on the other side. Red wine is often so dense you’ll be unable to see through it. This tells you about the varietal and how much extraction has occurred during the winemaking process. It also gives you some idea of the wine’s age. For most reds, a more ruby-colored wine is typically young, where as a brick-colored wine is typically older. The color is influenced by both the skin of the grape and vinification techniques, including how long the fermenting grape juice (called “must”) is in contact with the skins in a process called maceration. Ultimately, many things, including flaws such as excessive oxidation, which can cause browning, can also influence color.
Examining the color will provide you insight into the varietal and age. For example, Sauvignon Blanc is normally light in color, whereas a Chardonnay will have varying levels of gold, often a reflection of the type and/or amount of oak used during winemaking. A brown-golden color can indicate age—a slight brownness to Chardonnay will often indicate it’s more than 10 years old. A red wine like Malbec, on the other hand, will have a purple tinge when young and shift to an almost black-purple over time.
While you still have the wine slightly tilted against a white background, examine whether or not its color goes out to its very edge. This, again, is going to give you insight into the wine’s intensity or density and a hint to its personality.
Get nosy
Now take the wine and swirl it in the glass. Give it a lot of air to release the aromatics trapped within the liquid. Wine is a very complicated beverage, and its aromatic profile is probably the most complex part. If you think about aroma in terms of molecules, you’ll start to understand why it’s so important to get air and temperature circulating in the wine. Wine is a mass collection of different-sized molecules, each volatilizing at a particular temperature and agitation. If you could see aroma as different-colored smoke, you’d see one color of smoke floating up out of the glass and another hovering near the surface of the wine.
When you swirl your glass, you’re activating these various molecules, with both air and temperature. Breathe in slowly through your nose. Breathe out slowly. Open your mouth slightly when you smell to help create flow. Now, position your nose about an inch or two above the glass and sniff lightly. Take your time. Tilt the glass toward you as if you’re ready to take a drink, but hold off. The angling of the glass lets the heavier molecules settle toward the bottom, whereas the lighter molecules will rise to the top.
Now you can start to explore the range of aromas. Make different patterns with your nose above the tilted glass, and look for subtleties. You might be amazed at what you find at the top of the glass compared to what you find at the bottom. For example, in many Cabernets, I find floral aromatics such as dried lavender and violets at the top of the glass, while at the bottom, I might smell things like chocolate and dark cherry. Even the middle will provide some interesting nuances; you might be able to find some oak influences, such as vanilla, spice or smoke. 
In white wines, I follow the same pattern of smelling, but I often find a wide range of floral aromas at the top of the glass. Some Chardonnays, for example, will show the beautiful linden flower element at the top of the glass, smoky sweet crème caramel at the center and rich, ripe tropical flavors at the bottom. You might be amazed at the number and subtlety of smells you can find while using this method.
Now you’re truly building a relationship with the wine. You’re starting to understand the nuances of its aromatics and some of the key elements you’ll be able to explore more deeply when you actually taste the wine.
While you’re smelling the wine, look for any flaws (unappealing aromas). These could include TCA, vinegar, sulfur, chemical or other unattractive qualities. Some people enjoy modest amounts of some of these aromatics, but anything that makes you recoil or doesn’t smell as though you’d like to put it in your mouth is considered a flaw. Don’t be afraid to dislike an element of any wine that doesn’t appeal to you.
Now put your nose deep into the glass and take a big whiff. What you’ll find, most likely, is that a lot of the subtlety has disappeared and some of the more dominant aromatics have taken over. This is why I encourage everyone to start smelling outside the glass and work their way in. When you drop your nose directly into the glass, the dominant elements take over and it’s difficult to go back and gain the subtlety.
After you breathe in, take the glass away from your nose and think about the aromatics. What do they tell you about the wine? Is it young? Was it grown in a warm or cool region? A cooler region might produce aromatics of a slightly greener nature. In a hot region, you might get elements of fruitcake, prune or canned fruit that’s been in syrup. Some Chardonnays that come from warm to hot regions might give off elements of canned lychee nuts or canned pineapple, whereas Chardonnays grown in cooler regions might give more crisp green apple and nice citrus elements. Work to untangle the aromas.
Explore the taste
Swirl the glass again, lift the wine to your lips and take a very small drink, maybe a tablespoon. Bring it into your mouth and swish it around. At this point, don’t think too much about it. Just let it coat your mouth and then trickle down your throat. Think about how the wine came into your palate. What was the first sensation you had? Did it feel sharp or soft? Did it coat your mouth and tongue? Or is this a wine that really cleans your palate?
Now take another drink, but this time, fill your mouth with a couple tablespoons and swish it around again. Try to bring some aeration into the wine by sucking a little through your lips. This can be a little bit tricky and will take some practice. Just like in the glass, getting the aromatic molecules moving in your mouth will help gain access to your retro nasal cavity at the back of your throat. Having the wine in your mouth also warms it up, releasing even more aromatics and flavor.
First, focus on the sensations at the front of your palate. When the wine enters your mouth, what’s the first thing you taste, feel and smell? Then, when it passes over your mid-palate, pay attention to how it spreads across your entire mouth and tongue. Does it seem to linger? Does it feel smooth or rough? Is there a flavor or sensation that seems to appear above the others, or is this wine seamlessly integrated? Does it seem balanced? Now you can either swallow the wine or spit it out so as to keep your senses sharp.
The three goals at this stage are to further assess aromatics and flavors, evaluate the balance and explore the texture. Think about the elements you already gathered from smelling the wine. Do any new flavors become apparent? Are any particular aromatic components heightened or lessened? When a wine is said to be “in balance,” the acid blends smoothly with sweetness and astringency to form a melodic whole without any sharp or flat notes. If the wine is acidic, it might result in a sour or bright sensation that causes your mouth to water (acidity here refers to the bright, tart and sour elements of your wine’s profile).
Is the wine sweet? Alcohol can cause a sweet sensation as can residual sugar. Does it create other sensations? Some wines can make your tongue tingle as if there are bubbles on it. Some are sharp or bitter on the edge of the tongue. Explore texture. Is it bitter or astringent? Is it drying your mouth out? If so, you’re noticing tannins.
What elements are you curious about? Perhaps there’s the pungent smell of nail polish (an ester called ethyl acetate, which is very common). Or maybe there’s a bitter catechin element. As in any relationship, there are going to be some things you like and some you don’t. A great wine is one you’ll want to continue to explore, sip after sip.
An attractive wine enters your front palate, spreads over the mid-palate and then finishes in a long tail of lingering flavors and aromas as it slips down your throat. Through each phase of tasting, ask questions and look for the wine to give you some answers. But intriguing wines likely have something hidden below the initial impression, providing an aspect of mystery, too, that will make you want to learn more.
Reflect on what you’ve learned
It’s time to put all the pieces together. Ask yourself what elements you enjoyed. What aromatic stuck out? How about the key flavors? How would you describe this wine to a person who hadn’t had it before?
Now write up your tasting notes. You may have been jotting down a few descriptor words along the way, but it’s useful to really get your head around the wine before you start taking detailed notes on it.
Now that you have a clear understanding of how this wine tastes just out of the bottle, you’ll also want to explore how it changes over time in the glass. Consider buying some scientific “watch glasses,” which are concave glass disks that can go over the top of glassware to keep out dust and other debris. Put one over a glass of wine and let it sit. Come back to it over the course of the next few hours—or even days—to get a sense of how it’s changing. Some people say a wine that tastes better on the third day is of higher quality than a wine that tastes best on the first day. Once you know your wine well and have a relationship with it, you’ll know when to drink it after it’s been opened.
Using the watch-glass technique, you’ll also know if you should be decanting this wine the next time you serve it. Play around with different temperatures to get insight into what would be best for this wine. Think about what foods might go well with it. You know the aromatic and flavor elements that are prominent and those that are subtle, allowing you to better pair this wine with food. You also know if this is a wine you’d be comfortable sharing with others and how best to share it. You know it might have a flaw that could be bottle-specific or it may be indicative of the wine itself. You’ll need to have another bottle to find out if you’re interested in exploring this one further.

Extend the relationship

The logical next step is to learn more about the wine’s style, varietal, region and producer. If it’s one you truly love, then it’s worth exploring those who are producing similar wines nearby. The ultimate way to understand a wine is to contact the vintner or winemaker and go to the vineyard to see where the grapes are grown and to better understand the soil profiles, vineyard practices, aspect, grape clones used and vine spacing. Of course you can’t do this with every wine, but it’s a good path to take if there’s one that strikes you as particularly profound. It will give you a deep understanding of why it’s spoken to you, and that’s the entire point of this exercise. You’re defining the aspects that speak to you, finding valued elements. You’re opening yourself up to the mysteries of wine and taking the time to build a deep relationship with it. 
Tim Carl is co-founder of Knights Bridge Winery and Vineyards in Knights Valley. He grew up in St. Helena and traces his California grape-growing roots back to the 1800s. He’s a Navy veteran, has been a professional chef, obtained a Ph.D. in science and has been a business consultant. Presently, he manages the winery and vineyards, conducts tasting seminars and writes for various publications.



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