Sunday February 24, 2013
By EDWIN SOON
What separates wine experts from novice wine drinkers is their ability to taste wine and their wine vocabulary.
TASTING wine relates to sight, smell, and recognising basic tastes and textures in the mouth. When one is able to do this, one will be able to assess the quality of the wine.
In previous columns, we introduced the evaluation of wine by sight alone (Sept 16, 2012), and learnt to identify aromas of wine by just sniffing the wine (Oct 21, 2012).
Today, we will finally get to “taste the wine” and learn how to recognise basic tastes and textures.
Let’s look at basic tastes: sweet, sour, salty and bitter. Because saltiness is not usually found in wine, we will concentrate on the other three basic tastes.
Most wines come in two versions – sweet or dry (not sweet). Wines are sweet or dry depending on how they are fermented. Most wines are fermented “dry”, meaning that all the sugar in the grape juice is turned into alcohol. If, after the fermentation process, there is residual sugar (leftover grape sugar), the wine will taste sweet. Very sweet wines like Trockenbeerenauslese, Ice wine, Sauternes and Tokaji will have high amounts of residual sugar.
Acid is a natural occurring substance in grape juice and hence wine. Acidity gives wine that “tangy and crisp” taste that is similar to what you taste when you suck on a slice of lemon. The proportion of acidity in wine to the sugar in it determines how sweet or tart a wine is. This is because sugar and acid are “opposites” in taste.
Imagine that you have a glass of pure lime juice that tastes incredibly tart. Add some sugar to it and the juice tastes less tart – even though the “acidity” level in the juice has not been altered.
Bitterness in wine comes from the tannins of grape seeds and skins and also oak ageing. Wines with a high level of bitterness are unpleasant. This is an indication of poor winemaking or a fault in the wine.
Sweetness and acidity
Let’s try an exercise that will heighten your ability to detect sweetness and acidity.
Fill three cups with warm water and stir one of the following into each cup:
a. ¼ teaspoon sugar
b. 1 teaspoon sugar
c. 1/10 teaspoon of citric acid (obtainable in the baking section of supermarkets)
Now get the help of an assistant and blindfold yourself.
Get your assistant to lift one of the cups to your mouth for tasting, so that you can describe which of the samples is tart (dry), sweet and sweeter.
Remove the blindfold and blend the contents of cup “c” with cup “b”. Taste the blend and you will note that the concoction tastes less tart and also less sweet. This is the interaction between the sugar and the acid.
What to do with the leftover citric acid: Citric acid can be used in cooking as an alternative to lemon juice. In addition, citric acid mixed with water (1:20) is good for removing hard water stains from your glasses.
(For some descriptors of sweetness and dryness in wine and how they are related to certain wine types, see table: Sweet and dry.)
Substance and texture
Our mouths are also adept at interpreting the substance and texture of wine.
This means that we can describe the body of the wine. Think of it as how the wine presents itself in the mouth (see table: Body). Is it “thin” (like lime juice), “light” (like unsweetened green tea), “moderate” (like black tea with milk) or “full and heavy” (like kopi susu)?
You might notice that in the mouth, you can also sense the texture of the wine. Some wines are smooth as silk whilst others are chewy. In essence, texture descriptors usually refer to the tannin in wine (see table: Texture).
Intensity of flavour
You can also describe the intensity of flavour of wine. Some wines are light in flavour, while others have a strong flavour. Although wine processing can enhance flavour, the intensity of flavour in wine is usually closely associated with the variety of grape.
Viscosity or the liquid consistency of wine is another description you can use. This is the visual condition of the wine that is confirmed with taste. Some wine connoisseurs like to highlight the “church window effect” of the wine sliding down the glass. While the wine sliding slowly down the glass is an indication of the wine style, it is certainly not an indication of the quality of the wine. (For descriptions of viscosity, see table: Viscosity.)
In the next Uncorked, we will cover structure, balance and the finish of the wine.
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.