I haven’t done a Wino Wednesday post in a while due to my travel schedule, so today I thought we could do a little basic crash course. These small bits of information will help you at a tasting, at a restaurant, learning your own palate, and purchasing at a grocery store.
Let’s start with a little basic terminology. Just learning these few words will help you in feeling more confident with the wine vernacular in multiple settings.
Acidity — Acidity refers to potency of the acids used in the fermenting process. A good wine will have a balanced acidity; balanced with the other aspects of the wine such as the tannins. Acidity is generally that “bite” you feel in the back of the mouth which is followed by the stimulation of the saliva glands. I personally find that white wines have a higher acidity to recognize, especially when I was beginning my wine journey.
Body — The body of the wine is the “weight” of the wine. Is it light? watery? medium? full? or any combination of those? A lighter wine may have the effect of cleansing or awakening the palate, whereas a full-bodied wine will have the feeling of coating or deadening the palate.
Old World vs. New World — When people refer to “Old World” wines, they are generally referring to wines made in Europe; whereas “New World” refers to wines made in the United States, South America, New Zealand, Australia, or South Africa. Old and New World wines have distinct characteristics simply based on their geographic locations and wine-making styles.
Oxidation — When a wine is exposed to oxygen during the wine-making process, any phase of production, in storage, and once opened, a chemical reaction occurs that can ruin the wine.
Tannins — Tannins are present in a wine because they come from the polymers found in the seeds, stems, and skins of the grapes which are transferred into the wine during the wine-making process. They lend richness and density, and are necessary for proper aging, especially in red wines. On your palate, tannins give you that “tongue sticking to the top of your mouth” feel, much like when you feed your dog a tablespoon of peanut butter.
Terroir — This is a French word that refers to the complex relationship between the climate and the soil type in which the grape(s) is grown. The specific and unique relationship between climate, soil type, hydration, drainage, etc. is what gives each wine from a specific location its unique character.
Varietal — A varietal is simply a specific type of grape. For example, Chardonnay is a single grape grown to make Chardonnay wine, so this would also be an example of a single varietal. Thus, a blend, will feature many different varietals.
Varietal Character — This is the term given to the unique characteristics commonly found in a single varietal, and encompasses odor, taste, and viscosity.
Vintage — The year the grape was harvested.
Everyone’s palate is different, but the nasal passages and the taste buds are very interconnected. The best advice I’ve ever received about tasting wine was this:
- Practice. You’ll always get better with practice, and your palate will learn to differentiate between minute details in wine over time. So, that’s basically an invitation for me to drink more wine. Cool!
- Test yourself. Open your spice cabinet and blindfold yourself. Smell what spices you have on hand and see if you can identify them blindfolded. This will help you distinguish certain aromas that are characteristic of specific wines, so that when you are tasting, for example, you’ll be able to easily distinguish between Old World and New World wines.
Appearance — how a wine appears in the glass should be a clue as to its quality and taste. It should be true to the varietal and inviting.
Smell/Aroma — Smell the wine before and after you swirl it in the glass. Swirl it gently to bring oxygen into the wine to “open” it up, this is called “aerating” the wine. Take deep breaths and make notes as to what you smell. There are no right and wrong terms, but there are common terms used. For example, a Chardonnay may smell like green apples, whereas a Pinot Noir will smell of bright red berries; and a Sauvignon Blanc will smell of green herbs and minerals. The great distinction in smell alone between Old World and New World wines is that Old World wines, especially red ones, tend to smell like wet mud on first sniff.
Aroma vs. Bouquet — Aroma generally refers to the primary smell of a young wine, whereas the Bouquet refers to the tertiary smell of an aged wine after the alcohol, enzymes, and acids within the wine have had time to “mingle” in both the cask and after bottling.
The initial taste of the wine is commonly called “the attack,” and is usually what you taste for the first three to five seconds of the sip. It encompasses how powerful the wine is, and its first impression, so to speak. Then, as the wine stays longer in the mouth, it moves to the “middle palate” where the wine’s complexity begins to showcase itself and the senses begin to become more obvious to the taster. The last part is called “the finish,” which refers to the aftertaste of the wine and how long certain flavors linger and/or disappear.
THE TASTING EXPERIENCE
Wine tasting is a purely sensory experience, so isolating your senses of smell, taste, and feel is helpful in wine tasting scenarios. Sometimes, isolating these and identifying them separately can be hard, but it just takes practice.
At a tasting you should expect the following:
- good lighting (day time is preferable), comfortable temperature, and a well-ventilated space free from distracting smells/aromas
- Clean, clear glassware specific to each wine you will be tasting. If you are provided one glass for a tasting of six wines, it is perfectly acceptable to ask for a clean glass, especially when going between champagne, rosé, white, and red wines.
- Spittoons are very common, and can range from large buckets to individual paper cups. The more you drink, the less your palate functions for the next wine. Therefore, in formal tasting spitting is very common and encouraged.
- Water for clearing the palate between wines.
- Proper service, which includes well educated servers, cork screws, white napkins, etc.
- Tasting Mats and/or Note Sheets are almost often provided. In a more formal tasting, you will expect a tasting mat, which showcases small circles corresponding to each wine you will be tasting. A separate sheet of paper to make your notes on aroma, taste, feel, and overall impression of the wine is almost always provided. I think the only time I have not been provided a tasting sheet is as a walk-in (or non-private tasting) at a tasting room at a vineyard and/or winery.
- Sometimes you will also receive promotional materials describing each wine and its retail price should you decide to purchase.
- Bread and/or crackers with little seasoning to aid in cleansing the palate between each wine.
MAJOR WHITE VARIETALS
- Chardonnay — grows all over the world
- Sauvignon Blanc — grows in France, United States (California), New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, and Chile
- Riesling – grows in Germany, France, Austria, United States (California and Washington), Australia
- Gewurtzraminer — grows in France, Germany, Austria, Italy, United States (California), and Canada
- Pinot Gris/Pinot Grigio — grows in Italy, France, Germany, United States (Oregon and California), Australia, and New Zealand
- Viogner — grows in France, United States, Australia, New Zealand, Chile, and South Africa
MAJOR RED VARIETALS
- Cabernet Sauvignon — grows all over the world
- Merlot — grows in France, Italy, Austria, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Moldoova, Switzerland, United States (California and Washington), Australia, and New Zealand
- Pinot Noir — grows in France (Burgundy and Champagne), Germany, Austria, Italy (Pinot Nero), Switzerland, United States (California, Oregon, and New York), Chile, New Zealand, Australia
- Syrah/Shiraz — Syrah is the Old World name for this varietal, and Shiraz is the New World name for it. Grows in Australia, France (Rhone Valley and Languedoc), Switzerland, Greece, Spain, United States (Washington and California)
- Zinfandel — grows in the United States (California), Italy
- Grenache — grows in France (Rhone Valley), Australia, United States (California)
- Cabernet Franc — grows in France
- Sangiovese — Grows in Italy (the grape used to compose the majority of Chianti)
- Tempranillo — grows in Spain, Portugal (Tinto Roriz), California, and Australia
- Malbec — grows in France, Argentina
I hope you have enjoyed this little basics run down. I would love to hear your thoughts on which are your favorites! I’m a Pinot Noir girl at heart, and I cannot get enough of it no matter where it’s grown! My favorites tend to come from Burgundy, France; California, and the Willamette Valley in Oregon. But, I’ve been on a Tempranillo kick lately!!
If you’re interested in a specific varietal spotlight, let me know in the comments!!
Stay Glittery, Winos!