Andrew Polmear

Learning to appreciate wine

Andrew Polmear writes for the love of wine…

How is it that some people can tell an enormous amount about a wine from one sip while others just know they like red more than white? I’m sure that some people are born with a greater sensitivity to flavours than others, but most of the ability comes from practice. And to learn from practice you have to be able to describe what you taste; without words the brain can’t learn from experience. And here comes the problem for the amateur. A description like “chewy ripeness with plenty of structure, limpid in the mouth and a fine zest on the finish” may mean something to the person who wrote it but it doesn’t mean much to the rest of us.

I have, therefore, developed a way of describing wine that works for me and I’d like to share it with you. But first there’s some basic stuff to make clear. The activity is usually called wine tasting. In fact taste is only part of the activity, since taste refers to the four sensations perceived by the tongue: sweet, sour, salt and bitter. In fact, saltiness is rare in wines so we are down to three. Yet when people talk about tasting they are mainly referring to the hundreds of odours that we can smell. Then there is a difference between the smell of the wine in the glass (the odour, sometimes called the bouquet), and the smell of the wine when it’s in your mouth (the flavour).

Appearance. There’s not much room for error here: describing colour is fairly unambiguous and the wine should be clear not cloudy. It’s fun to roll the wine round the glass and look at the ‘legs’ – the clear wet liquid left behind on the glass when you put the glass upright again. But it doesn’t tell you anything you can’t get from the label – it’s due to the alcohol. A wine that’s 14% will have good legs, a wine of 9% not much in the way of legs at all. This said, I’m going to ignore appearance because experiments show that it adds nothing to people’s enjoyment of wine.

Smell in the glass, also called “the nose”. This is where you meet the most volatile of the wine’s odours. Swill the wine around a bit in the glass and they’ll become more apparent. Incidentally, sniff the wine in the glass once and then not again, at least not for 30 seconds. The sense of smell fatigues very quickly – the second sniff is never as good.

Taste. Sweet is easy, though experiments have shown that we vary hugely in what we call sweet. Sour is harder. It means “tart” or “acid”. Vinegar, for instance, is sour. Some acidity is good, without it a wine can seem “flat”, but if the sourness is unpleasant, then there’s too much acid. Bitter is harder still. Again, some bitterness makes for an interesting taste, as in bitter chocolate, but if it’s strong enough for us to notice it as being bitter then it’s too much.

Feel. Wine doesn’t feel like water in the mouth. Most of what we feel is due to viscosity and that in turn is due to alcohol. The more alcohol the more it will feel smooth and full (until the alcohol is over 20% then it starts to sting). There are two other sensations we may notice: a “puckery” feeling, as though the tongue has gone furry. This is due to tannins and is associated especially with red Bordeaux. It’s not good or bad, just interesting to note. And finally there is the prickling feeling in a wine with too much carbon dioxide in it. The French call it pétillant. It’s meant to be there in sparkling wine but usually not in a red!

Smell in the mouth. This is what most people, but not all, mean by flavour. It can be very different from the smell in the glass; the warmth of the mouth causes different chemicals to vaporise. A wine with great smell in the glass can be disappointing in the mouth and visa versa.

Aftertaste. This is the flavour left after you have swallowed the wine (or spat it out). It probably comes from chemicals which have low volatility – the opposite of those you smell in the glass. A wine without aftertaste is said to ‘finish short’.

Now there are two general words that describe the whole experience. Balance can mean that the acidity, bitterness and feel of the wine in the mouth are in proportion, meaning that before you get on to the flavour, you feel you’ve got a mouthful of something worthwhile without anything unpleasant. Balance can also include the flavour, meaning that the sensation in the mouth marries up with the flavour you perceive in the nose. Body refers to the full feeling in the mouth that comes from the right balance of the three tastes, or it can mean strength of flavour, as in full-bodied.

As for flavours, a wine can be complex or simple, rich or thin. But what about all those more complex descriptions, as in “a nose of jam, mocha, mint, plum and cherry”? I find that the next expert might describe the same wine as having “a nose of cassis, tobacco, sous-bois, leather and earth”!

“It’s a naïve domestic Burgundy without any breeding, but I think you’ll be amused by its presumption.”

So I stick to a few, deliberately non-specific words: “fruity” (rather than bramble, blackcurrant etc), “floral” (like the smell of flowers), “herbal” (like herbs) and “spicy (like cinnamon or other true spices)”. The only other flavour I’m sure I can identify is vanilla and this comes not from the grapes but from the oak barrel. Beyond this things get difficult. I can tell some white grapes by their typical flavours, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc for instance, but with red varieties I’m as often wrong as right. So I no longer say “Ah, typical Bordeaux-style Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot” because too often I’ve then looked at the label and found it’s pure Tempranillo or something else. There are other flavours I think I can recognise reliably – for instance the flinty taste of Chablis and Champagne and the old leather of a good mature Bordeaux – but I can’t be sure that someone else means the same thing by those words so I don’t say them out loud. Flint is a rock, it doesn’t taste of anything, and if a Bordeaux really tasted of old leather I’d throw it away, so those two words are a shorthand for flavours for which we have no words. Which is the crux of the problem.

I can already hear more experienced tasters than me crying out that I’ve oversimplified things. I’m sure I have. But what I know is that, using this approach, I can write down what I think of a wine and then, some time later, find that I’ve written down the same thing again. But as soon as I start getting fancy, I start to drift into the realms of make-believe.

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