Wine Tasting - The Sense of Smell
There are a few very important things to note when we "nose" a wine. It is suggested to first smell the wine before swirling, noticing the delicate aromas. Next, swirl the wine and smell again after it is at rest. Depending on the bouquet, you may then notice a profound difference in the odors emerging. Aroma is a smell that originates from the actual grape, with very clear cut characteristics. Aroma is most prevalent in young wines. The bouquet of a wine refers to smells generated as a result of aging; smells found particularly in mature wines that were aged in a bottle. The bouquet generally has much softer and complex characteristics than aromas. Identifying what you smell is usually the most challenging part in wine tasting. Although there are many smell categories used to describe characteristics of wine, none have been exclusively agreed upon.
Wine Tasting - The Sense of Taste
After observing your wine using the sense of sight and smell, it is then time to use your palate to identify tastes. This is far more detailed than simply tasting as we would any other beverage. We must remember to note the characteristics of the wine on all sensory areas of the tongue. Sweetness is detected on the very tip of the tongue, while bitter tastes are sensed in the extreme rear. Saltiness is sensed on the front, upper sides of the tongue, and the acidity-sour taste is sensed mainly on the sides. Some suggest focusing your attention on one sensation at a time in order to be more efficient in your taste. Try taking a sip of wine and swallowing immediately. Then try another sip, this time letting the wine work well around the palate into these sensory areas before swallowing. You will recognize a noticeable difference in the intensity of flavors!
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Wine Tasting - The Sense of Sight
Wine tasting basics begin with knowing how to use your senses to understand, interpret, and enjoy the wine. The ability to recognize what you see, and furthermore describe it in clear terms, is a very important wine tasting skill.
Although some may say the appearance of the wine is the least important aspect with regard to the senses, it is still worth noting. When examining appearance, we are looking for clarity and color. We want the wine to be free of any sediment, leaving it clear and brilliant. Red wines tend to lose their color as they mature, while white wines tend to grow darker with age. A good quality wine generally will be intense in color. The "legs" seen running down the sides of a glass after being swirled, are an indication of flavor density. It is best to use a plain white background, and tilt the glass slightly as you observe clarity and color.
Wine Tasting - The Sense of Touch
Touch is an important category of taste sensation. This is where we try to feel the wine on the palate. Here we seek to find impressions of such things as texture, body, temperature, and astringency. The aftertaste, finish, and length of a wine are all things we feel on our palate. We are looking for how the wine feels in weight (light, medium, full) and texture (silky, coarse, velvety). Try to observe how long the sensations last in your mouth. Most will tell you the longer it lasts, the better the wine!
Basics of Winemaking
Fine wines are often vinified in smaller lots than are tables wines produced for mass consumption. Thus, the fine
wine producer works with smaller batches of grapes and processes and ages them in smaller fermentation, storage,
and aging vessels. This allows the winemaker to lavish greater care and attention on the wines and utilize techniques
to promote quality that would be impractical or cost-inefficient for modestly-priced wines produced in larger quantities.
Listed below are the standard steps in the vinification process for white and red wines, with a brief discussion
of how fine wine techniques may differ from standard vinification protocols.
White Wine Vinification
Crush & Destem
After the grapes arrive at the winery, they are mechanically crushed and de-stemmed. This releases some free run
juice, and separates the fruit from the stems, which can impart bitter tannins to the juice. Some wineries forgo
the crush/destem step and send the grapes immediately to tank presses, which gently squeeze the juice from the skins
and minimize the extraction of tannins from skins and seeds. In general, the fine wine objective is to maintain the
integrity of the free run juice, minimizing the extraction of bitter phenolic compounds from the skins, stems and
In white wine processing, after crushing and destemming the grapes, the must (the mass of unfermented juice, skins,
and seeds) is immediately pressed, in one of a variety of mechanical presses, to separate the juice from the skins.
Some winemakers, wishing to extract more flavor and body, may allow the juice to remain in contact with the skins
for a few hours, but this runs the risk of imparting astringent tannins to the juice as well as other unwanted elements,
such as sulfur dust from the vineyard. The quality of the press and the degree to which it “macerates” the
skins and juice, will affect the quality of the resulting wine. The best presses rely on gentle pressure to extract
the juice from the skins.
Primary (Alcoholic) Fermentation
During the primary fermentation, the natural sugars of the grape juice are converted to alcohol and carbon dioxide
through the action of either cultured or native yeasts. The former are bred in a laboratory to accentuate certain
positive attributes while the latter grow wild in the vineyard on the skins of wine grapes. Although most winemakers
employ cultured yeasts, which more reliably produce “clean” fermentations and desired aromas and flavors,
some fine wine producers rely on natural yeasts, believing they promote more complex characteristics in the wine.
Most white wines, including inexpensive chardonnays, ferment in stainless steel tanks, which are inert,
easy to clean, and facilitate control of the fermentation temperature. These wines ferment at cool temperatures – usually
around 55o F. – to best extract their fresh, fruity qualities. However, many fine wine producers ferment chardonnay
in small oak barrels, a technique long practiced in the Burgundy region of France. Fermentation of white wine in
barrels (normally French oak for chardonnay), because it occurs at higher temperatures, allows air to reach the wine,
and imparts phenolic and flavor extracts from the barrel, alters the aroma, texture, and flavor of the wine, in the
direction of greater richness and complexity.
Secondary (Malolactic) Fermentation
Winemakers who barrel-ferment their white wines often put them through a secondary fermentation, common to virtually
all red wines, in which the malic acid naturally occurring in wine grapes is converted into lactic acid. This occurs
naturally or through inoculation of the wine with malolactic bacteria, which require a relatively high-temperature,
high-pH, and low-sulfur environment in which to grow. Because malic acid is a “hard” acid and lactic
acid a “soft” acid, the conversion creates a softening of the wine’s texture. It also produces
a chemical called diacetyl, which expresses itself as the buttery aroma and flavor many chardonnay lovers treasure.
The purpose of aging is to allow a wine’s aromas and flavors to develop before it is bottled. Aging in stainless
steel tends to preserve a white wine’s fresh, fruity characteristics, while aging in barrel promotes the development
of secondary characteristics through slow oxidation and the extraction of barrel tannins, aromas and flavors, such
as spice, toast, and vanillin. Fine wine producers who ferment white wines (usually chardonnay) in barrels (usually
French), and put them through a secondary, malolactic fermentation, sometimes also age those wines sur lie (French
for “on the lees”), meaning the wine is allowed to remain in contact with the yeast cells that die during
fermentation and settle to the bottom of a tank or barrel. This contact with the dead yeast cells imparts a “bready” aroma
and creamy texture to the wine, an effect accentuated by periodically stirring the dead yeast cells to circulate
them throughout the wine.
Virtually all winemakers want their wines to be cosmetically appealing – i.e., clear of any haziness that may
be caused by residual particulate matter. Several techniques are used to accomplish this: racking (removing the wine
from the sediment that settles at the bottom of an aging vessel and transferring it to another container); fining
(introducing an agent such as egg white, gelatin, bentonite, isinglass or casein, which adheres to particulate matter
in the wine and carries it to the bottom of a tank or barrel); and filtration (running the wine through a pad, diatomaceous
earth, or membrane filter to remove suspended particles). Both fining and filtration, which are also used to remove
unwanted microorganisms and reduce tannin levels, can strip aroma and flavor from a wine, so fine wine producers
normally opt for natural clarification (racking), when possible, or minimal fining or filtration, when necessary.
The winemaker’s greatest concern during bottling is to protect the wine from oxidation. Toward this end, modern
bottling lines purge oxygen from the empty bottles prior to filling and automatically calibrate fill levels to minimize
the head space in the bottle between the wine and the cork.
Red Wine Vinification
The production of red wine differs from that of white wine in the following ways:
Unlike white wines, the juice of red wine grapes ferment in contact with their skins. (The skins impart a red wine’s
color and tannin.) After crushing and destemming, the must – juice, skins and seeds – is inoculated with
a cultured yeast and fermentation ensues, for a shorter duration (7-10 days) and at appreciably higher temperatures
(75-85o F) than for white wines, to efficiently extract color, tannin and alcohol. During the fermentation, the release
of carbon dioxide pushes a “cap” of skins and seeds to the top of the fermenter, and the winemaker has
several methods available to continue macerating (mixing) the juice with it. Conventionally, this is done by periodically
pumping juice from the bottom of the tank over the cap. However, fine wine producers, to enhance the extraction of
color, flavor, and tannin from the skins, often prefer to punch down the cap in order to submerge it in the juice,
or even to drain the juice from the tank and then splash it back over the cap to encourage greater circulation of
the cap throughout the juice (a technique known as “rack and return”). Whatever method is chosen, fine
wine producers often extend the maceration period beyond the end of fermentation to foster the full extraction of
color, flavor and tannin. Once this process is complete, the new wine is pressed off the skins and moved to wood
containers, usually small oak barrels, to commence the aging process.
Red wines normally spend a longer time aging in wood – anywhere from a few months to several years - than do
whites, because they take a longer time to develop. In particular, extended barrel aging allows the tannins of red
wines to soften and the fruit in the wine to emerge in response to the gradual oxidation allowed by barrel aging.
As with white wines, extracts from the wood itself contribute to the aroma, flavor and texture of the wine, with
newer and smaller wood containers (50 or 60 gallon oak barrels) imparting more wood character (and thus dictating
a shorter wood-aging period) than older and larger containers (135 gallon puncheons or larger upright tanks). The
winemaker must also match the type of wood and its “toast” level to the varietal; in general, fine wine
producers prefer French oak for French varietals like cabernet sauvignon, merlot and pinot noir, while American oak
works well with zinfandel. The former imparts a toastier, spicier character to the wine, while the latter is associated
with a sweet vanilla aroma.