Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Devil in the Details – More about the Method

In a prior post, we discussed the deductive method of determining the identity of a wine that is being tasted blind. This entry provides an overview of some of the more detailed sensory information that an individual would attempt to discern while tasting a wine.

The color of a wine can provide clues regarding, not only the grape varietal, but also the age of a wine. A dark purple, opaque wine could indicate a varietal such as Petite Sirah, Malbec, or Syrah, while a light ruby color could indicate a wine made from Grenache or Pinot Noir. Additionally, a golden colored wine could be a Chardonnay, while a pale, straw-colored wine with a hint of green could be a Riesling. As wines age, the compounds responsible for the colors change. Red wines generally become lighter over time, and often take on a brick red or orangeish tinge, while white wines generally become darker. Understanding the rates at which these changes occur can yield significant information to the taster as to the age of the wine.

Aromas can also play a significant role in determining the grape varietal as well as the origin of a wine. The Method typically requires the taster to identify three (3) fruit and three (3) non-fruit aromas. Fruit aromas such as cherry, strawberry, cassis (black currant), raspberry, and blackberry are common descriptors for red wines, while apple, pear, peach, pineapple, and guava are common descriptors for white wines. Non-fruit aromas can be in the form of floral scents, spices, minerality (e.g., the smell of wet stones or freshly turned earth) and the like. Scents such as vanilla or coconut (or lack thereof) can provide clues as to whether the wines were aged in barrels and, perhaps, the origin of the barrels (certain wine regions are known for using only French oak barrels, or only American oak barrels, and this knowledge can further fine-tune the taster’s assessment of the wine).

The flavors in a wine often, but not always, mimic the aromas. The taster using the Method should attempt to identify three (3) fruit flavors and three (3) non-fruit flavors. The ripeness of the flavors can assist in narrowing the area of origin. Under-ripe flavors such as green apple or sour cherry can be presumed to be associated with regions subject to cooler temperatures, whereas ripe flavors in a wine may indicate a warmer climate.

The taster will also assess the level of acid, alcohol, and tannins in the wine, grading from low to high. White wines and lighter red varietals tend to have higher acid levels, as do grapes grown in cooler climate areas. If the wines are vinified to dryness (all of the sugar is converted to alcohol), wines made from grapes grown in warmer regions where higher sugar levels are possible tend to have higher alcohol levels.

All of these details are brought together in determining the balance of the wine - are the fruit, acid, tannin, and alcohol present in a harmonious fashion, or does the wine taste somewhat disjointed because one or more of the components are either too high or too low. The harmony and the presence of each of these components can also lead an individual to guess as to the relative quality of the wine, and to its ageability.

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