Sunday September 16, 2012
By EDWIN SOON
Anyone can taste wine – here’s a primer.
OCCASIONALLY, I come across friends who confide in me, “I just cannot taste wine – what’s your secret?”
Truth be told, if you can taste food, you can taste wine.
Case in point: I ordered my favourite comfort food the other day – a plate of wantan mee. As I waited for it to arrive, I imagined what it would taste like. The anticipation was utterly pleasurable and gratification came soon after.
The noodles arrived, accompanied by a bowl of steaming soup. I could smell the garlic-soya-sesame sauce and the vinegar of the pickled green chillies. Here, before me, was a mouth-watering dish of egg noodles in a clear dark sauce topped with bright green vegetables, red-brown BBQ pork slices and creamy beige glistening dumplings.
As I ate, I savoured the dish’s flavours and textures. Somehow, slurping the noodles increased the intensity of tastes. There were sweet and sour flavours, nutty and salty tastes and of course, the piquant chilli that added yet another dimension. Soft and silky wantan skins contained plump, tender and sweet prawns and minced pork. The noodles were al dente, the char siew was tender-chewy, with little morsels of fat, and there was the contrast of crunchy green vegetables. Yummy!
Indeed, enjoying wine is no different to enjoying food.
After ordering a wine, one often anticipates its arrival at the table. The sound of the wine being uncorked and poured further increases the expectation. And when one tastes the wine, one looks at its colour, admires its intensity, marvels at its aromas, sips and slurps it to savour its flavours. One finally drinks it and relishes its aftertaste.
So, if you can appraise or have an appreciation for food, you too can easily taste and appreciate wine.
That said, here is some vocabulary to describe wine. Learn this methodical way of assessment and soon you will be describing wine like an expert.
Clarity – clear, limpid or crystal-clear, cloudy or hazy (e.g. suggesting spoilage in young wines).
Brightness – brilliant/dazzling and reflects light, bright, dull, flat or murky.
Intensity – deep, medium intensity or pale.
Colour and tint –
White wines: White-gold, green-gold, pale-gold, golden, pale yellow, light yellow, canary yellow, green-yellow, gold-green, grey-yellow, water-green, amber-yellow, straw, old gold, rose.
Red wines: Violet, purple, scarlet, garnet red, peony, deep purple, cherry red, dark cherry, bright cherry, ruby, bright red, brick red, orange-red, brown, mahogany, tile red.
Rosé wines: Light scarlet, raspberry, light claret, orange tint, salmon, apricot. Quality rosé wines often show a purple edge when the glass is tilted.
Sparkling wines (depending on colour, as per above). Also include a description of the size of bubble, quantity, rate and duration (the bubbles characteristics determine texture).
For all wines, note that wines that are unusually brown (white wine) or too light coloured (red wine) for their “age” may have been adversely affected by premature oxidation or by improper storage (heat, light, etc).
Here are general guidelines as to what a wine should look like given its age.
Colourless to Green – Young wine of less than 2 years.
Yellow-Gold – Wine with a few years maturation.
Violet-Red – Youthful wines of 1-3 years.
Ruby red – Wines with 2-4 years bottle maturation.
Whitish pink – Wines of less than 2 years old.
Pinkish grey – Wines with 2-4 years bottle maturation.
Of course, there are many other factors that affect the colour of wine. I asked my friend, Dr Alan Young, author and president of the International Wine Academy about what affects a wine’s colour and he outlined the reasons as follows:
Grape variety: For example, the thick skins of Zinfandel grapes provide more intense colour; conversely, the thin skins of Pinot Noir provide less colour. Hence Pinot Noir wines are never as dark coloured as Zinfandel.
Maturity of fruit: Colour builds up as the fruit approaches optimum ripeness. Hence, fruit picked ripe results in deeper coloured wine.
Soils: Vineyard soils rich in iron leads to more scarlet colour in wine.
The growing temperature: Cool-climate fruit have relatively thicker skins and provide more pigments and colour. Warm dry summers produce more scarlet colour.
Extraction: The extraction of phenolic compounds, including anthocyanins, from grape skins during fermentation and maceration provides the colour in wine. Higher fermentation temperatures extract more colour.
Oxidation: This is the brown discolouration that appears with contact of grape juice or wine to air. Ageing of wines in oak barrels is an oxidative process and thus such wines are often darker coloured.
Maturation: As the wine matures, colours change due to slow oxidation in the bottle. Red wines turn from red to ruby, brick red to mahogany and then tawny or amber brown. As tannins fall out in the sediment, so do the anthocyanins and colours.
White wines turn a darker shade that change from straw to gold and then to brown.
Stability of wine: The pH and its reactions with sulphur dioxide in wine affect colour.
There you have it – a wine tasting vocabulary for “looking at wine”. Remember it and I know you’ll do just fine.
Edwin Soon is a qualified oenologist and has run wine shops and worked as a winemaker in various countries. He now writes and teaches about wine around Asia.