Basic Wine Tasting Competence

wine tastingWine tasting is difficult, especially for beginners, because the basic components of wine are a jumble that seemingly have no structure. To appreciate wine you have to unravel the flavors and textures, and you do that by discovering a basic structure that allows you to organize them. That structure is a three-dimensional field plus force, although recognizing these dimensions requires some metaphorical extension.

The most important dimension is time. The wine has initial aromas, an introduction or initial attack on the palate, a mid palate that follows the attack and then a finish, each temporal aspect shading off into the other. Flavors and textures evolve over this temporal dimension and their relative duration is important to note. The complexity of this evolution is what gives a wine finesse.

The spatial dimension is in part about where in the mouth the flavors and textures are focused. Fruit and sugar are sensed mostly on the tongue, tannins give a drying sensation on the roof and sides of the mouth and gums, and in the throat, acidity is a prickly sensation felt throughout the mouth, alcohol a burning sensation in the back of the throat. But there is a more metaphorical aspect to the spatial dimension as well. Some flavors seem to be top notes and others bottom notes. They are not literally above or below but they suggest this continuum perhaps on an implicit analogy with music, with some flavors and textures being broad and foundational like bass notes while others more fleeting and esoteric like highlights and upper register flourishes. Also wines can seem round or angular. These are also metaphors. The wine is not literally round but gives an impression of roundness or angularity in the way it feels on the palate largely because of the viscosity or lack of it.

The third dimension is depth. Some wines have flavors that appear in layers and some wines have a rich assortment of vaguely discernable flavors that seem highly integrated—not distinct or separate–giving the wine an impression of great depth.

Finally, a wine has weight which strictly speaking is not a dimension but a gravitational force. This has to do with the amount of sugar or phenolic compounds in the wine that make it seem heavy or light.

As the tasting experience proceeds you direct your attention to each of these dimensions giving your mind a pattern to latch on to that helps you grasp what a wine is about. Knowing what to look for and having the experience and perceptiveness to sense the content of these dimensions constitutes basic wine tasting competence.  Although picking out various aromas is important up to a point, wine quality is much more about how the wine expresses this structure.

But there is more to wine evaluation that this. There are aesthetic properties to attend to. More about that perhaps next week.


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