I enjoyed drinking wine for several years before learning how to taste it. Unraveling the complexities of wine not only helps enjoy it more but allows us to communicate what we experience with others. By using our senses in a three-step process, we are seeing, smelling, and tasting our way to a better understanding not only of what we like or don’t like in wine, but why we like or dislike it.
The enjoyment of wine should be like listening to your favorite song, eating your favorite meal, or watching your favorite movie. You enjoy it because of who you and what you bring to the experience rather than the object of your attention. It’s more about you than the wine. To each his own.
It’s easy to say you like it or you don’t, but it requires some knowledge and effort to communicate why. The most useful wine reviews provide the information you need to decide if you will like it before you purchase it. What grape varietals does it contain and where does it come from? Do you prefer the aroma and flavor of black currant over melon? Do you enjoy earthiness and vegetal elements? Over time, the wine drinker appreciates its finer points.
It’s helpful to understand a wine’s faults as well as its achievements. Does it smell like vinegar or taste like bacon? Winemaking is a complex process where a lot of things can go wrong. Improper storage or a faulty cork can kill a bottle of wine.
Sometimes the stars align perfectly to give you a great wine drinking experience. You’re in a villa in Tuscany sipping Brunello, or a chateau in France tasting Bordeaux. These are times when the event is center stage and wine is playing the musical accompaniment in the orchestra pit. My concentration is at its best when tasing wine at home without distractions.
We usually have a few cases of various, mostly red wines on hand at any given time. Conventional wine wisdom tells us to choose a wine that will pair well with dinner. For us, it’s a consideration but not necessarily the driving force for the wine selection. Our wine of choice reflects our mood. Is it a special occasion, or the middle of the workweek? Are we feeling adventurous to try something new or needing comfort from an old familiar friend?
Our wine drinking decisions don’t end with picking the bottle. We use the decanter for a better bottle, or one that is aged and showing some sediment. The hand-wash-only crystal wine glasses will come out of the cabinet if the wine is worthy, or we may use the dishwasher-safe glass ones for the weekday wine.
The first pour begins to whisper to you with aromas of fruits and berries, followed by herbs, vanilla, and spices. You take a sip and let the wine envelop your tongue, allowing all your taste buds to get in on the action. Where the aromas leave off, the palate picks up all the wonderful fruit, flower, herb, spice, mineral, and oak. After you swallow your sip, a well-balanced finish lingers, mellow and smooth.
Each wine has its own voice and sings to you in its particular style. In an older wine, the fruits may be soft and mellow, singing sotto voce, like a grandmother humming a childhood melody to her grandbaby. A Zinfandel from California may be bold and fruit forward, thrashing around like a bombastic heavy metal front man on a strobe-lit stage. A wine that’s like a jazz ensemble is the most complex, offering sophisticated harmonic structure, syncopated rhythms, and melodic improvisation. The experiences within the glass are all so different, yet all enjoyable just the same.
Wine tasting at home
Grape varietals show different colors and hues but if the wine is bright and sparkly, it’s a good sign. An older wine that may be past its prime or a wine that has been oxidized, looks tawny or brown (for a white wine) or orange or rusty brick (for a red wine).
In 2015 we were gifted a couple of cases of various California red wines going back to late 1990’s vintages. These old reds provided the perfect opportunity for exploring aged wines since we tend to drink everything we buy within a few years. Consistent with the commonly held belief that red wine improves with age, some of our friends buy and cellar their wine. However, there are many dissenting views on aging. Some suggest that only a few wines are good candidates for decades of cellaring and that most wines should be consumed young. New methods of viticulture and enology have contributed to making the tannins in young wines more drinkable and thus eliminated the need for aging in many instances.
The gift of wine came from my sister-in-law and her husband who were moving from Connecticut back to his hometown of New Orleans. They had made numerous trips to California wine country, combining winery visits with family visits to our brother in San Francisco. Every trip would include several souvenier bottles of reds and whites, with the whites being consumed on a regular basis, and the reds getting stored for a special occasion (that never came). There they sat collecting dust in a beautiful oak rack above a wet bar in a sunny nook with sliding glass doors off the family room.
We opened one of the gifted wines, a sediment-laden 1998 Rombauer Merlot from Napa Valley, California, and decanted it to reduce the sediment. Now 17 years old, the age of the wine was first noted by the color. The deep crimson typical of a young Merlot had evolved into a more brick-red with a rim of orange. On the palate, it tasted earthy and muted, without any individual fruit, spice, or barrel flavors asserting themselves. The wine was well past its prime and the experience of tasting it proved disappointing. Thinking about the sunny nook where the bottle was stored, we wondered, was it possible this Rombauer Merlot had overheated or suffered from sun exposure over the many years it languished in the wine rack?
A few months later we had the opportunity to answer this very question during a visit to the Rombauer winery in Napa, California. We recalled our recent observations of the 1998 vintage to the staff member and our concern that the wine was improperly stored. We were quite surprised when he produced a 1998 Merlot for us to evaluate. It had the same brick color, loss of fruit, and lots of sediment as the bottle we tasted at home. Assuming that bottles are carefully stored at the winery, we conclude that it was probably age that led to our wine’s demise. Regardless, it’s still best to store wine in a cool, dark place rather than a sunny wine nook.
Souvenier wines past their prime
There are those wines you drink that give you absolute pleasure. Others are tolerable and for happy hour pricing, or free, you’ll settle. Then there is wine that you must simply pour down the drain while gently humming “Taps”.
Our first sign of trouble was struggling with a dried-out cork in a bottle of California Syrah. The brick-colored pour smelled like a musty basement. It’s the result of a wine folly known as cork taint, the presence of chemical compounds that usually come from the cork. In the interests of science, I want to know first-hand what it tastes like. The Internet says corked wine isn’t harmful to ingest and since everything on the Internet is true, I’m game to try it. I bravely take a small sip and notice a very astringent taste, almost like vinegar. The fruit flavors are gone and in their place is an alcoholic heat similar to a distilled spirit. Sadly, this bottle went down the drain instead of down the hatch.