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Stew Cues: Learning to taste wine

The ritual of wine service onboard includes the presentation of the bottle to the host, opening the bottle, wiping the neck of the bottle, pouring a small amount of wine into the host’s glass, and then waiting expectantly while the guest examines, smells and tastes the wine before declaring it acceptable. Or not.

But what exactly is the process of tasting, and what is the host tasting for? 

First and foremost, the wine is tasted to make sure it is suitable for guests, and specifically if it is flawed. The most common flaw is a “corked” wine, which results from a chemical reaction between the cork and cleaning agents used in producing it. It can be subtle, and odds are we have all had a glass of corked wine in our lifetime. It happens in 2-5% of bottles with corks, and of course, never in bottles with screw tops.

Other than looking for flaws, the specific steps to tasting wine are to look, smell, taste and evaluate.

Look at the wine to check the color, clarity and viscosity, also known as “legs”. White wines are not actually white, but various shades of green to yellow to straw. Red wines range from bright red to deep purple, magenta or brick. The color depends on the grape variety, growing region, winemaking processes, and aging techniques. White wines get darker with age; red wines get lighter.

Smelling the wine is where the action starts. Swirling the wine in the glass releases primary, secondary and tertiary aromas. Primary aromas fall in a fruit spectrum. White wines can have notes of citrus, apples and other pomaceous tree fruits, including pears, quince, peaches, nectarines, and on to tropical fruits such as mango, pineapple and banana. For reds, think of the berry section at the supermarket. The red primary aromas include red fruits, blue fruits or black fruits. There are also herbal and floral primary notes in red and white wines, such as eucalyptus, grass, honeysuckle, violet and rose, to name a few.

Secondary and tertiary aromas come from winemaking practices and aging. Yeast-derivative aromas are common and smell like — you guessed it — yeast. Aging, especially in oak, creates savory aromas. Toasted nuts, coconut, baking spices, cedar, tobacco and leather are common aromas from aging in oak.

The best way to learn to smell wine is to practice and create memory associations for the nose to detect. The molecules of scent go to the limbic system in the brain, which is also where memories are stored. Maybe that’s why so much of the fun of tasting wine comes from recalling who you were with, when, and where you were.

Smell and taste are related. The mouth does all the work in a tasting, but the nose delivers the results. Aromas can change when we swallow wine because the scent molecules reach the brain through the back of the throat and rise to the nasal cavity and then to the brain.

Tasting happens on the tongue. It is how the tongue “observes” the wine. The taste buds can detect sweet, salty, sour and bitter components. Most wines do not have salty aspects, but sweet is a reaction to the amount of sugar in the wine, sour refers to the acid, and bitter refers to the amount of tannin in a wine.

The tongue also detects body and texture as well as the drying sensation from tannin. The length or finish of a wine is based on how long the sensation of the wine stays on the palate from beginning to end.

The final step is evaluating the wine. The acid, alcohol, tannin and sweetness determine its balance. Unique or memorable qualities affect the assessment. 

There are many characteristics to learn to expand one’s wine knowledge and vocabulary. However, wine is subjective, and any wine you like is a good wine. Everyone has different perceptions and opinions, and we shall honor that.

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