Saturday, October 28, 2006

How to Taste Wine Part III: Tasting the Wine

If you're one of the six people who regularly read this column (including my editor - though I'm not sure that he reads it either), then you know that for the past several weeks I've been dragging you through the excruciating ritual of tasting wine.

Today, we’re going finally to put an end to your suffering and get around to tasting the wine.

Interestingly enough, something like 80% of our sense of taste is actually smell. You’ve probably experienced this when you’ve had a really bad cold and everything you ate tasted like oatmeal. With our sense of smell cut off, our taste buds only provide us with five basic taste sensations: salty, sour, sweet, bitter, and umami. Umami?? What’s that? Aren’t they those salty soybeans you get at a Japanese restaurant? No, that’s edamame, you chimp. Umami is a Japanese word that roughly translates as “savory”, and is an honest to God basic taste triggered by – of all things – glutamates like MSG.

The rest of the enjoyment we get from the flavor of food and wine comes from our sense of smell, and the “taste” of a wine is the interaction of the basic tastes that our taste buds pick up and the aromas traveling through our nasal passages.

There are a couple of approved techniques to tasting wine. Both of them are weird and potentially disgusting to some degree.

The first, and most technically correct, method of tasting the wine is to take a large sip of wine, slosh it around a bit and then – while the wine is still in your mouth – act like you’re taking a big hit off a huge spliff of ganja. I’m not kidding. The idea here is to draw air into your mouth across the wine in order to evaporate volatile compounds that will be drawn into your nasal passages and enhance the flavor of the wine.

This is a fun technique, both because it makes a really loud slurping sound and because there’s a high probability that you’ll end up spraying wine over everyone within six feet of you – or at least dribbling it all over your clothes. I’d suggest practicing this technique frequently before going out in public. But, cross my heart and hope to die, this is the technique that the pros use. If you want to look like a real wine snob, this is the way to go.

The other technique is what I call the Listerine approach. As it’s name implies, you take a large sip of wine and “chew” on it; slosh it around vigorously in your mouth as you would a fine French mouth wash. The point is to get the wine into contact with all the taste bud nooks and crannies in your mouth. The only difference is that you don’t gargle. Gargling is just crude.

So what are you looking for when you taste a wine? Pretty much the same things you did when smelling the wine: a balance of flavors. In addition, there are a couple of other sensations to look out for.

In white wines in particular, be on the lookout for a sense of tartness in the wine. This tartness – which can be pleasant or too strong – is caused by the level of acidity in the wine. Many good wines use acidity to give the wine a “crispness” that can be quite refreshing.

In red wines look for an astringent sensation after you swallow (or spit) the wine. This dry feeling in your mouth is caused by tannins – components of the seeds and skins. Tannins are what make red wines age well. However, young or poorly made wines can have strong, bitter tannins that make the wine unenjoyable.

So, now you’ve done it! You’ve officially tasted a wine using approved wine snob techniques! I sure hope you didn’t swallow that wine, though. Real snobs spit.

Wine of the Week

Creekside Cellars has really been hitting some home runs lately with their wine selections. We recently tasted the Amador Foothill Winery 2004 Katie's Cote at their weekly tasting. Located just a couple of hours from here, Amador County is turning into a serious wine producing region, and this wine shows it. A French Rhone-style blend of syrah and grenache grapes, this wine has earthly aromas, dense dark fruit flavors, with a touch of a milk and dark mocha on the finish. Great with lamb or pork. This wine will only improve over the next few years, if you want to hold on to it. A great bargain for $15.99 at Creekside Cellars. Four stars.

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