Wine drinking can be divided into drinking for pleasure and drinking for evaluation. Either way, the fullest pleasure is when the wine drinker looks at the color of the wine, smells the aroma and bouquet, and then confirms the smell by tasting the wine.
The amount of attention that we, as wine drinkers, pay to the three primary parameters of wine judging – sight, smell and taste -- varies from person to person. The professional is acutely aware that he or she is judging a wine, while the consumer rarely judges a wine when the occasion is for pleasure. Understandably, wine drinkers spend the most time tasting. As important as the sense of smell is to the character of a wine and the impression that smelling leaves on the drinker, most wine consumers spend little time critically sniffing their wine. And even less time is spent looking at the wine’s color.
When we drink wine for pleasure, the occasion usually includes others, and food is involved, so the flavor of the wine becomes important if it’s noticed that the wine conflicts or compliments the food. The key to critically evaluating a wine is an understanding of how each of the tasting parameters interact. Wine professionals often make this task more enjoyable by playing Options, a wine game where an un-identified wine is served “blind” and tasters begin rounds of guessing until one person wins. There’s usually a leader that gets the game going by asking, “Is this an Old World or a New World wine?” With each round, the questions get progressively more difficult and specific: “Is this wine from France, Italy or Spain?” Using color, aroma and bouquet and the various levels of taste, the identity of the mystery wine will be revealed.
Color sells wine and it can also help you understand a wine. Some folks who spend a considerable amount of their time evaluating wine say that you can tell a wine’s origin by its color, as well as more technical questions such as whether or not the wine has spent time in oak. Such esoteric exercises may help you win a bet at a party, but they only influence the consumer’s enjoyment of a wine in an indirect way.
Nevertheless, the color of a wine can tell you many things. Every wine or type of wine has its own set of color characteristics and the differences are usually easier to identify with red wines than with whites. The Pinot Noir grape lacks a color pigment, thus a young Pinot doesn’t show the same purple hues of more color-intense varieties like Petite Sirah, or Syrah. With age, Pinot Noir color evolves into garnet tones, sometimes with a little yellow at the edges. The color of young Cabernet Sauvignon starts out as dense purple-red and evolves to garnet more slowly. Rosés have a wide range of colors, from the tell-tale red-orange color of Grenache to the medium-deep purple-red sometimes seen in Zinfandel and Syrah roses. The bright vibrant pinks, what I call “party pink,” or light reds are usually found in less-expensive but popular quaffing wines.
Scientists maintain that a dog’s sense of smell is far superior to a human’s, but dogs are not (usually) wine drinkers. It is important, though, for humans to develop a good sense of smell when tasting wine. Our brain is capable of storing unlimited odors and scents that we have encountered over time. These come rushing back at unexpected times, often while smelling a wine or certain foods. Years ago, my wife and I were dining in a restaurant in Budapest and there was a distinct food smell in the air that I couldn’t identify at first. Then, in a flash, I recalled the lard my mother used in her kitchen for cooking and the restaurant smell was identified. The use of animal lard mostly disappeared from American kitchens when vegetable shortening and olive oil became more healthy choices, so the smell of cooking lard moved to the back of my memory bank -- until I went to Budapest.
More often, though, wine tasters struggle to nail down a specific aroma or smell in a wine. The now-famous Aroma Wheel, developed at the University of California-Davis, helps but the tool is not practical when drinking wine for pleasure. Some wine smells are easy to identify and understand, like the spice in Gewurztraminer; “gewurz” is German for spice, and traminer is the grape. Other smells are more elusive, but when tasters exchange opinions, often one person will identify the smell. It’s important to remember that we don’t all process smell the same way. The distinct scent of gooseberry is sometimes used to describe the smell of certain Sauvignon Blanc wines, but many Americans have never smelled or tasted gooseberries, let alone heard of the small sour berries more often used for preserves.
When trying to identify the smell of a certain wine, finding common ground can be difficult, especially when you struggle to put that smell into words. Take the distinctive smell of banana. Everyone knows it, but when asked to describe the smell, the answer is usually a feeble: “Well, it smells like a banana.” The same is true with certain wine smells. Saying that a white wine like Chenin Blanc is “floral” is a good start, but it’s too general if you are trying to get another wine drinker to understand that smell. The scent of crushed roses or rose petals in Pinot Noir is more specific, and can be understood by most people.
The myriad scents that can be found in wine is almost unlimited. A general breakdown might include berry and fruit, floral and woody scents. Some such as blackberry and cedar are more commonly found in red wine, while apple and orange blossom show up more frequently in white wines. Rosé wines often have the unmistakable smell of strawberry, while red wine fans say that blackberry or black currant are the markers for Cabernet Sauvignon. Whatever, the challenge and fun of smelling a wine is identifying the single or multiple things that make up the wine.
Finally the good part: Tasting the wine. Although we spend more time tasting then smelling a wine, there is less to say about tasting since it is the confirmation of what you smell in a wine. Hold the glass up, check the color, then dip your nose into the glass for a good whiff. Now, take a sip and swish the wine around in your mouth a little to get the wine’s flavor. Tasting is the action used to discover the flavor. Hopefully, the flavor is a confirmation of the wine’s smell. Besides the elements of flavor in a wine (fruit, herbal notes, oak) there are components like acidity and tannins that are not only essential parts of the wine but also add a textural contribution to the totality of the wine.
At one time, wine tasters would purse their lips slightly and draw a little air into their mouth to volatilize the wine and accentuate the flavors. Without practice this little trick can get messy and it is a tad affected, especially at the dinner table. For tasting evaluation, take a sip, roll the wine around to cover all of your taste buds, then swallow or spit the wine out. Some tasters believe that to get an accurate assessment of a wine’s acidity, a small amount of the wine must be swallowed, but this is a moot point if you’re drinking wine for pleasure.
And then there’s “balance,” a word often used when describing a wine that has a number of meanings. When a wine is said to be “balanced,” it usually means that fruit, acidity and tannins (mainly for red wines) are working together and nothing is sticking out. Acidity is not sharp, tannins are not overly astringent and dominating the fruit, and the wine is not just fruit without the other two components (and others) bringing the wine into balance. This desired harmony is harder to taste when the wine is young. So the trick, then, is to decide if there is ample fruit in a red wine hiding under the aggressive tannins and if the wine will eventually “come together” and be in balance.
What it all comes down to, then, is how much time and effort you are willing to invest in learning something about the wine you are drinking. “Just drink it!” cry those who believe that you can take wine appreciation too far. But for those of us caught up in the fascination and pleasure of wine, “Just drink it!” is not enough. Learning can enhance enjoyment, and we should all be up for that.