Wine & Spirits
May 3, 2009

Wine & spirits: Taste like a pro

By: Konrad Ejbich

Wine & spirits: Taste like a pro Author: Style At Home

Wine & Spirits
May 3, 2009

Wine & spirits: Taste like a pro

By: Konrad Ejbich
Everyone who drinks wine tastes something. When pros taste wine, we taste everything. It's shocking just how little we think about what we put into our mouths. Tasting isn't a talent but a discipline. With a quick, focused lesson and lots of practice, anyone can learn to taste confidently and competently. This skill is guaranteed to increase your drinking safety, your pleasure and your satisfaction. However, to taste like a pro, you have to think like a pro. Tasting like a professional means having a mental checklist every time. It's straightforward: 1. Look at the wine. 2. Smell it. 3. Taste it.

1 Look  
Start by looking for a bright, natural colour and pristine clarity. Clarity is a sign of health. Any wine that doesn't look fresh, but is dull or hazy, is likely sick and undrinkable. Nothing should be floating, sinking or swimming in your glass.

Colour provides clues to the age, style and flavour of the wine. Concentration, or depth of colour, indicates intensity of flavours and, in the case of red wines, of tannins, which taste bitter when the wine is young but give it the potential to age. Light reds often taste like strawberry, raspberry and red cherries; purple black wines usually have stronger currant, blackberry and plum flavours, full-bodied texture, and bitter oak and smoke notes in the finish. Pale, silvery green wines tend to be fresh, bright, crisp and lemony. Yellow gold wines with a hint of amber may have been aged in oak for rich vanilla-caramel or tropical fruit notes. Appearance is a key tool in assessing wine.

2 Smell
You'd think that tasting was the most important part of, well, tasting, but it's the smell of wine that's most critical. As the eyes are the windows to a person's soul, so do the aroma and bouquet tell all about the wine. Aroma and bouquet are different, no matter what the thesaurus says. Aroma is the scent that distinguishes each grape variety. It never changes, regardless of where the grapes were grown. Chardonnay from Ontario smells like Chardonnay from France. Bouquet, on the other hand, doesn't even exist until after fermentation is complete. Aging in various types of oak barrels will affect the bouquet—Chardonnay aged in American oak smells fruitier than the same wine aged in French or Hungarian casks.

2 Smell (continued)
For most novice tasters, the greatest challenge is not in recognizing scents and odours in wine but in finding the words to describe them. We all know what freshly cut grass smells like, or the thick aroma of rich chocolate, or the slightly irksome reek of rancid butter, but we never expect to find those things in a glass of wine.

Let's start at a basic level. Does the wine smell naturally fruity, floral, spicy, woody, nutty, earthy, vegetal, or chemical and processed? Break down each category. Fruity can mean citrusy, such as lemon, lime, orange or grapefruit. It could be berrylike, which could suggest blackberry, currant, cherry, strawberry or raspberry. Every category can and should be "dissected." The faintest scent of rot, vinegar, mould, sewage or chemicals is a clear indicator a wine is seriously flawed. And it's the main reason that we smell so carefully before we taste.

3 Taste (& touch)
The final test confirms the nose was right. If we've smelled everything there is to smell, then the taste should provide no surprises. Our tongue has only a few talents but performs them exceptionally well. It instantly differentiates sour, sweet, salty and bitter flavours. It recognizes heat that comes from spice as well as from temperature. It's sensitive to texture like nobody's business (ever had a hair on your tongue?). That's it, but with those few assets, it can sense harmony and balance in all the things we taste.

Gather up some samples of the following wines and look for these characteristics in the individual varieties.

White wines
Rich, smooth and full bodied: flavours can remind you of lemons, apples or pears, a tropical fruit cocktail, smoke, oak, roasted coffee, or vanilla cookies, French pastry or Scottish caramel candies.

Spicy, aromatic and unctuous, with notes of honey, lychee fruit and lanolin.

Pinot Gris/Pinot Grigio
Honeyed lemon fruit nuances with some bitter grapefruit notes in the finish. French Gris has more depth and honey; Italian Grigio is lighter, crisper and more lemony.

Lively white peachy fruit flavours with racy acidity and gripping lemon, lime or grapefruit aftertaste. Alsace produces dry wines, Germany makes a sweeter version, while Ontario generates both styles.

Sauvignon Blanc
Fresh, often grassy, with light fruit flavours.

Smooth and aromatic, with notes of honey and English wine gums.

Red wines
Cabernet Franc
Lean, delicately scented like black raspberry and cassis.

Cabernet Sauvignon
Leaner, more structured wine than Cabernet Franc or Merlot, with aromas of rose and flavours like plum, black cherry and cassis.

Fresh, juicy, candied flavours of strawberry and cherry; the best are from Beaujolais.

Soft, silky flavours of blueberry and plum; lush texture and soft plummy finish. 

Pinot Noir
Soft, velvety, strawberry-cherry flavours, often with undertones
of mushrooms, earth and smoked meat. The best Pinots hail from France, Ontario, Oregon and New Zealand.

Australians turn Shiraz into monster wines that explode with the fragrance of blackberry, vanilla, spice, pepper and smoke. French Syrah (same grape) tends to exhibit rich, earthy stewed fruit, soy sauce and smoked meat flavours.

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Wine & spirits: Taste like a pro