Wine Blind Tasting Quiz

We thought we’d cap our six-part series on blind tasting with a fun blind tasting quiz.

This is the very same quiz that we recently published in The Drinks Business. But this time, we include the answers at the bottom of the page.

Bonne chance!

blind

1. On average, how many taste buds are there on the human tongue?

A. 500

B. 1,000

C. 5,000

D. 15,000

E. 25,000

 

2. The olfactory bulb is part of which area of the brain?

A. Limbic system

B. Frontal cortex

C. Thalamus

D. Hypothalamus

E. Pituitary gland

 

3. Which of these wines might be expected to be the most aromatic?

A. Riesling Kabinett from the Mosel

B. Alsatian Pinot Gris

C. Alsatian Gewurztraminer

D. Chablis

E. Savennières

 

4. Which of the following class of volatile compounds could be responsible for an aroma of soap?

A. Fusel oils

B. Short-chain esters

C. Long-chain esters

D. Aldehydes

E. Pyrazines

 

5. Which of these acids can make a wine smell of rancid butter or baby vomit?

A. Lactic acid

B. Butyric acid

C. Acetic acid

D. Malic acid

E. Succinic acid

 

6. Which of these beverages might be expected to contain the least amount of residual sugar?

A. Sauternes

B. Sweet (‘Doux’) Champagne

C. Coca Cola

D. Cream Sherry

E. Tokaj, 4 Puttonyos

 

7. Which of these wines is often aged in American oak?

A. Hermitage

B. Chianti

C. Taurasi

D. Priorat

E. Barossa Shiraz

 

8. Which of these descriptors is not associated with Brettanomyces?

A. Sweaty saddle

B. Nail varnish

C. Sticking plaster

D. Rancid cheese

E. A metallic note

 

9. All of these denominations sit in a natural south-facing amphitheatre except

A. Cornas

B. Piesporter Goldtröpfchen

C. Château-Grillet

D. Hermitage

E. Quarts-de-Chaume

 

10. Who said, ‘The limits of my language mean the limits of my world’?

A. Noam Chomsky

B. Cicero

C. Ludwig Wittgenstein

D. Sir Winston Churchill

E. Aunt Lily (Lily Bollinger)

 

11. Name one wine that fits the following tasting note. Suggest its age.

  • Deep gold and intense in colour.
  • Dense, concentrated nose with a complex bouquet of mushroom, leather, honey, butterscotch, confected pear, peach, nutmeg, and white 
pepper.
  • Intensely sweet on the palate with notes of peach, fig, date, and butterscotch.
  • Full-bodied with moderate alcohol and moderate-to-low acidity.
  • High residual sugar.
  • Very long and tapered savoury finish that echoes the earlier aromas and flavours.
  • A wonderfully complex sweet wine. The sweetness fades to a savoury,
dry finish. The one slight damper is that the moderate-to-low acidity does not quite stand up to the high residual sugar.

 

12. Name one wine that fits the following tasting note. Suggest its age.

  • In colour, medium-deep purple in the centre and brick-red at the rim.
  • Moderately aromatic with jammy blackcurrant and mulberry fruit,
meaty notes, and a hint of menthol, coconut, and sweet spice.
  • Dry and full-bodied with high alcohol and low acidity.
  • Intense jammy black fruit flavours with coconut and milk chocolate.
  • Tannins moderate in quantity, with a soft and velvety quality.
  • Moderate length with a finish dominated by fruit flavours and
alcohol.
  • Overall, a complex wine with clear development, but let down by low 
acidity relative to full body and high alcohol.

 

13. Assuming they are typical, how might one distinguish a red wine from Ribera del Duero from one from Priorat? (Up to 100 words)

 

14. Do women make better blind tasters than men? Explain your reasoning. (Up to 100 words)

 

15. Wine is not about the objectivity of taste, but about the subjectivity of experience. By removing a wine from its context, blind tasting turns it into a mere commodity. What do you think? (Up to 200 words)

 

 

 

 

Answers:

1C, 2A, 3C, 4C, 5B, 6B, 7E, 8B, 9D, 10C

11. 30-year-old Pinot Gris SGN from Alsace

12. 8-year old Cabernet Sauvignon from Calif

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Wine Blind Tasting Guide Part 6: Setting Up a Blind Tasting

It’s now time to put what you’ve learnt into practice. So in this final article, I provide a ‘recipe’ for setting up and conducting a blind tasting.

Materials

  • Six to twelve different wines
  • Standardized unmarked bottles or receptacles in which to decant the wines (or bottle sleeves with which to mask the original wine bottles)
  • A corkscrew
  • A funnel
  • Metal foil wine pourers
  • ISO wine tasting glasses, one per wine in each flight
  • Spittoons
  • Tasting sheets
  • Crib sheets
  • Some spare pens

Note: Tasting sheets and crib sheets can be downloaded from the Oxford Wine Academy website at www.oxfordwineacademy.com.

Process

A typical blind tasting involves six to twelve different wines. The wines ought to be decanted into standardized unmarked bottles or receptacles. This is preferable to using bottle sleeves, which betray the shapes of the original bottles. In the absence of unmarked receptacles and bottle sleeves, the guests need to leave the room while the wine is poured into their glasses, which is quite a palaver.

It is important to pour the right amount of wine into the glass: too little and it is difficult to smell and taste all the components; too much and the wine cannot breathe in the glass. A finger’s breadth is a good rule of thumb (no pun intended). At most, a bottle of wine can serve 18-20 portions, which equates to ~40cl per portion. Ideally, white, rosé, and sparkling wines ought to be served at 8-10°C and red wines at 14-18°C, even if the wines will quickly warm up in the glass. If there are twelve different wines, they may be presented in two flights of six, typically a flight of white wines followed by a flight of red wines. This has a number of advantages, including dividing up the evening and limiting the number of glasses required to just six per person. If there are six wines, they can be presented as a flight of six or two flights of three, and so on. The wines within a flight may or may not have a common theme, for example, grape variety, country or region of origin, or vintage. Remind guests that they need not progress systematically from the first to the last wine in the flight; encourage them instead to start with the lightest wine in the flight and work their way up to the heaviest wine, which, if tasted first, could interfere with their ability to taste the lighter wines. Each wine calls for five to ten minutes of analysis and ten minutes of discussion. So if there are, for example, six wines presented in two flights of three, allocate thirty minutes for assessing the first flight, thirty minutes for discussing the first flight, thirty minutes for assessing the second flight, and thirty minutes for discussing the second flight. Don’t be too rigid about time allocation: if everyone has stopped writing, move on to discussing the wines. Wine is also about bringing people together, so remember to make time for guests to socialize. If at all possible, sit everyone around a single table: this is more convivial and also facilitates the discussion of the wines. Sit beginners next to more experienced tasters who can encourage and guide them through the tasting process described in Chapter 4. Some people prefer to assess the wines in silence, but complete silence can be intimidating to beginners and restricting to more gregarious or talkative types.

Upon discussing a wine, it is customary to call for one or two tasting notes before taking guesses and opening up the table to a more open-ended discussion of the wine. Once the discussion has been exhausted, the identity of the wine can be revealed. In some cases, particularly if there is a common theme to the flight, it may be more politic to delay the guessing and/or revealing until all the wines in the flight have been discussed. With the tasting at a close, consider asking the guests to dinner with whatever remains of the wines.

Neel Burton is co-author, together with James Flewellen, of The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting.

ConciseWineCover
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Wine Blind Tasting Guide Part 5: Interpreting Your Findings

This is the penultimate part of our series on wine blind tasting.

You have dissected and analysed the various features of the wine as best as you could. The next step is to interpret your data and make an educated guess as to the grape variety or blend; the country, region, and appellation of origin; the vintage; and the quality and approximate price. In competitions and exams, most (and sometimes all) available marks are for interpretation rather than analysis, although you can still score very highly for ‘getting it wrong for the right reasons’—particularly if the judges or examiners came to the same conclusions as you did.

Appearance

Spritz is indicative of anaerobic wine making in sealed stainless steel vessels. It is a common feature of white wines such as Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling, which are made reductively so as to emphasize freshness and fruitiness.

White wines that are fermented or matured in oak barrels are often deeper in colour than those fermented in inert vessels. In contrast, red wines fermented in oak tend to be paler or softer in colour, and red rather than purple. As they age, white wines become deeper in colour and red wines paler. Indeed, with increasing age, both white and red wines tend towards the same shade of orange-brown. A pronounced colour gradient from core to rim (typically red and darker in the core, and bronze and lighter at the rim) is a particular feature of red wines with significant bottle age. In forming conclusions about oak treatment or bottle age, do not rely solely on colour; seek to confirm your initial impressions on the nose and palate. Never fall into the trap of shoe-horning a wine into an initial impression: if something doesn’t quite add up, you have probably got it wrong.

With young red wines and rosés, depth of colour is a function of duration of skin contact and thickness of the skins. Thin-skinned grape varieties such as Pinot Noir, Gamay, and Tempranillo impart relatively little colour compared to thick-skinned grape varieties such as Tannat, Malbec, and Corvina. Apart from providing a clue about grape variety, depth of colour also provides a clue about climate and, by extension, origin. High sunshine hours bring out deeper, purpler hues in a wine.

Thus, Pinot Noir from Central Otago is typically darker than that from Beaune; and whereas Malbec from Cahors is deep purple, Malbec from Mendoza is inky black.

Nose

Some grape varieties are more aromatic than others and tend to leap out of the glass. Red wines, which derive much of their aromatic content from prolonged skin contact, are invariably aromatic. By contrast, white wines, which receive little or no skin contact, vary more widely in their aromatic intensity. Some of the most aromatic white grape varieties include Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Muscat, Albariño, Torrontes, and Viognier. More neutral white grape varieties include Chardonnay (in cool climate styles), Melon de Bourgogne, Pinot Blanc, Sémillon, and Trebbiano. With excessive heat, the vine starts to shut down, inhibiting the development of aromatic compounds. Thus, wines from excessively hot climates or vintages can fail to reach their full aromatic potential.

The primary aromas on the nose provide the biggest clues as to grape variety (or in the case of a blend, grape varieties). Some grape varieties, for example, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Gewurztraminer, and Viognier are referred to in blind tasting circles as ‘bankers’ (wines with which you bank points) on account of their very distinctive aromatic profiles. A neutral wine may pose more of a conundrum, but at least you know what it is not! Blends too can complicate matters, although some classic blends, such as Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon from Bordeaux, are relatively easy to recognize.

Primary aromas are also indicative of growing conditions. Cool climate white wines tend towards citrus and white fruit (such as apple and pear) aromas, whereas warm climate white wines tend towards stone fruit (such as peach and apricot) and tropical fruit aromas. Cool climate red wines tend towards fresh fruit aromas, whereas warm climate red wines tend towards baked or jammy notes and, at the hotter end of the scale, even raisins and dried fruit. Notes of raisins and dried fruit may also indicate a wine that has been made from dried grapes, for example, Amarone. Herbaceous notes, which can be pleasant in small degrees, are often a sign of unripeness. Botrytis or noble rot has a characteristic smell of honeysuckle and honey, sometimes accompanied by a faint antiseptic or musty note. The intensity of these aromas indicates the degree of botrytization. Note that botrytized wines are invariably white wines.

Primary aromas originating from the grape itself may be obscured by secondary aromas from the winemaking or tertiary aromas from bottle maturation. Autolytic notes such as yeast, rising bread dough, brioche, and biscuit (especially if accompanied by a certain creaminess on the palate) suggest that that the wine has been aged on its lees. The classic example of a still wine with prominent lees character is Muscadet Sur Lie. Skin contact usually masks autolytic notes, which is why they are much more prominent in white than red wines.

Evidence of oak on the nose (and, later, on the palate) speaks volumes about the wine, and more particularly about the winemaking, grape variety (as some grape varieties are never or rarely oaked), and origin. Oak is either old or new, French or American, which again can provide further clues. For example, Riesling is never oaked, Chianti is typically aged in old oak, and Rioja is typically aged in American oak. A wine with pronounced new French oak, which is very expensive, suggests a wine with pretensions. Oak can sometimes dominate a wine, but softens and ‘integrates’ with the passing years.

Tertiary aromas such as mushroom, truffle, wet leaves, leather, coffee, and butterscotch are indicative of bottle age. A mature fine wine dominated by tertiary aromas but still with a core of sweet and juicy fruit is a true wonder. But if left for too long, the wine starts to dry out, lose its fruit aromas, and develop oxidative notes reminiscent of Madeira or overcooked vegetables.

Palate

The nose normally anticipates the palate, which in turn confirms the nose. This is especially true for grape variety, winemaking techniques, complexity, and maturity. In addition, the palate enables an assessment of the structural components of the wine. Part of the pleasure of drinking wine is to take your time over it and let the nose ‘whet the palate’. A disconnect between nose and palate could reflect on poor winemaking or over-maturation.

Acidity is an indicator of the climate in which the grapes were grown. Grapes grown in cooler climates tend to be higher in acidity. That said, early harvesting results in a more acidic profile, and some grape varieties are naturally high in acidity. In white wines, notes of green apples suggest high levels of malic acid and, by extension, suppression of malolactic fermentation. On the other hand, notes of dairy or yoghurt suggest higher levels of lactic acid, which is less sharp than malic acid. A sour ‘tug’ on the palate, experienced once the flavours have died back, is indicative of added tartaric acid. Citrus notes are unrelated to citric acid, which in wine is found in only minute concentrations.

Alcohol too is an indicator of ripeness at harvest and, therefore, of climate. Alcohol ought to be considered alongside residual sugar to provide an indication of total pre-fermentation sugar level in the grapes. A dry wine with high alcohol and a sweet wine with low alcohol can, at least in principle, have been made from the same crop of grapes. Wine identification ought to be guided by knowledge of regional terroirs and grape varieties. For instance, the banks of the River Mosel in Germany see some of the coolest average temperatures of any wine region; however, the long dry autumns combined with late harvesting enable the grapes to achieve high sugar levels. Conversely, the Hunter Valley in Australia, while very warm, is frequently clouded over: the heat promotes phenolic ripeness but the lack of sunshine restricts sugar accumulation, leading to wines with a relatively low alcohol. With regards to grape varieties, some, such as Merlot and Sémillon, accumulate sugars rapidly, while others, such as Cabernet Franc, Nebbiolo, and Riesling, are slower to ripen.

In red wines, tannin levels are related to the thickness of the grape skins and so to the grape variety. The blind taster is often tempted to correlate depth of colour with tannin levels. However, colour can be extracted from the skins, for instance, through cold maceration, without imparting much tannin to the wine. And some grape varieties, most notably Nebbiolo, are relatively light in colour but very heavy in tannins. The character or quality of the tannins reflects on grape variety, growing conditions, and winemaking. For example, harsh tannins suggest a crude, mechanized method of tannin extraction that damages pips and enables bitter compounds to leach into the wine.

Quality assessment

Wine professionals are usually more interested in assessing a wine’s quality than in identifying it for sport, tallying price and quality in search of ‘value for money’. Of course quality is in large part subjective, even if most wine amateurs do wind up developing a taste for more complex or refined wines. Owing to their growing knowledge and tasting skills, this need not mean ever more expensive labels. Top wines from unfashionable regions usually offer much more ‘bang for your buck’, and even fashionable regions are sure to hide some great bargains for those with a discerning palate. It is certainly possible to enjoy great wine at under £10/$15/€12 a bottle.

There are five criteria by which to assess the quality of a wine: balance, length, intensity, complexity, and typicity. If the wine is balanced or harmonious or integrated, the flavours complement one another like musical instruments in an orchestra, the palate is faithful to the promises of the nose, and none of the structural elements protrudes or dominates in the mouth. Length refers to the progression of flavours as the wine crosses the palate, triggering taste buds on the tongue, the roof of the mouth, and the throat. In the best of cases, the flavours and structure of the wine linger long after the wine has been spat or swallowed. Intensity refers to the apparent concentration of flavour and impact of the wine in the mouth—the fireworks, if you will. Intensity is related to length in that there cannot be length without intensity. Intensity and length are highly sought after in balanced wines, but in unbalanced wines serve only to prolong the torture. Again, it is just as with music—or speaking, or acting, or anything. Complexity refers to the number of players in the orchestra, and, by extension, the strands and textures in the music. As with other markers of quality, complexity begins with high quality, healthy grapes, preferably of a so-called noble grape variety. The role of the winemaker is then to conserve and craft what nature has given him, looking not only to complexity but also to balance, length, and intensity. Additional complexity can be imparted in the winery through blending, lees stirring, oaking, and ageing. Some styles are complex mostly for having been made from dried grapes or grapes affected by noble rot. A wine ought to reflect the style that it is associated with, most obviously by being faithful to its terroir: the soil, climate, and viticultural and winemaking traditions of its area and region of origin. This European concept of typicity is being adopted by an increasing number of New World producers bent on quality and authenticity. Unlike balance, length, intensity, and complexity, typicity is not an essential ingredient of greatness. There are many iconic wines, such as the original Super Tuscans, that defy the traditions of their region and, in time, even come to alter them. As Winston Churchill once said, ‘Without tradition, art is a flock of sheep without a shepherd. Without innovation, it is a corpse.’

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Wine Blind Tasting Guide Part 4: An Approach to Blind Tasting

Welcome to the fourth instalment in our six-part series on wine blind tasting.

As a blind taster gathers increasing experience, he or she develops a memory bank of wine styles that makes identification faster and more instinctive. Even then, the blind taster needs a framework to fall back upon to confirm an initial impression or come to grips with an unfamiliar wine style. Even the most experienced blind taster can stumble upon terra incognita, and the sheer number and diversity of ever-changing (and evolving) wines is one of the many fascinations of blind tasting.

Preparing the tasting

Broadly speaking, a blind tasting can be horizontal, vertical, or a combination of horizontal and vertical. In a horizontal tasting, different wines (sometimes although not necessarily from the same vintage) are tasted, whereas in a vertical tasting different vintages of the same wine are tasted. Horizontal tastings in which grape varieties and regions and terroirs are compared are much more common than vertical tastings. A typical tasting consists of between six and twelve white and red wines, sometimes with a focus or theme such as ‘Italy’, ‘the Rhône’, or ‘Oak’. The white wines are served first, to be followed by the red wines. This reduces the number of glasses required (and the washing up!), while still enabling white wines to be compared with white wines and red wines to be compared with red wines. Obviously, if the theme is ‘Chardonnay’, then only white wines can be served, so maybe choose a theme such as ‘Chardonnay and Pinot Noir’.

The best glasses for tasting are long-stemmed and tulip-shaped. The long stem ensures that the wine does not warm up through contact with the hand. The tulip-shape concentrates volatile compounds inside the glass. As the bowl is wider than the rim, the wine can be swirled without fear of spillage, and the glass and its contents can be tilted to near horizontal for a proper inspection of colour. The ideal shape of the tulip varies according to the wine style, hence the Bordeaux glass, the red Burgundy glass, and so on. However, when blind tasting, it is best to use the same style of glass for all wines, thereby establishing a standard for making comparisons. The style of glass that is used in most blind tasting societies and blind tasting competitions is the International Standards Organisation (ISO) glass, which is cheap, sturdy, portable, and suitable for most purposes.

When conducting a blind tasting, the wines ought to be decanted into neutral, clear bottles or decanters. Bottle sleeves, which are available commercially, may be adequate for beginners’ classes or if there is no variation in shape or type of closure among the selected bottles. Alternatively, wines may be poured into glasses by the organiser or a non-participating person. It is important to pour the right amount of wine into the glass: too little and it is difficult to smell or taste all the components; too much and the wine cannot breathe in the glass. A fingerbreadth in an ISO glass is ideal. At most, a bottle of wine can serve 18-20 portions.

The temperature of a wine influences the perception of its aromas and structure. At higher temperatures, there is more energy in the wine, such that more and larger molecules can escape the surface of the liquid. On the other hand, if the temperature is too high, much of the aromatic subtlety is lost and the wine becomes much less enjoyable. In practical terms, this means that most white, rosé, and sparkling wines ought to be served at around 8-10°C (46-50°F), sometimes referred to as ‘fridge door temperature’. Highly aromatic sweet wines such as Sauternes are best served slightly cooler, while full-bodied, oaky white wines such as Meursault are best served slightly warmer. Red wines ought to be served at around 14-18°C (57-64°F). Pinot Noir and other light-bodied red wines with delicate bouquets are best served slightly cooler, while full-bodied red wines such as Australian Shiraz are (usually) best served at the warmer end of the quoted range. Eventually, the blind taster develops a feel for the temperature of a wine and the temperature range at which it ought to be served. If in doubt, err on the side of cool, as a wine that is too cool can easily be warmed up by cupping the glass in the hand. If the wine is still in the bottle, it can be cooled or kept cool with a thermic bag, frozen sleeve, or ice bucket. Depending on the weather, it might be possible to put the wine outside on a windowsill or even in a river or stream.

Other than glasses and bottles, you will need a foil cutter, a corkscrew, a pourer to minimize dripping (this is most commonly a metallic disc that is rolled into the neck of the bottle), a spittoon for spitting the wine (almost any receptacle will do), tasting sheets, writing materials, and someone to do the washing up! For further details on setting up a blind tasting, see Appendix A.

Assessing the wine: in the glass

Immediately after the wine has been poured, inspect it for any bubbles or ‘spritz’. Spritz is carbon dioxide coming out of solution, and is indicative of reductive wine making. Obviously, sparkling wine releases a stream of carbon dioxide bubbles, the volume and rate of which can be suggestive of the method of winemaking (see Chapter 11).

On a white background (for example, a sheet of paper), examine the colour of the wine. Look at the wine from above to assess the depth of colour, which can be gauged from the visibility of the stem of the glass. Then gently tilt the glass and inspect the liquid to confirm its colour and clarity. Especially with red wines, the colour at the centre or ‘core’ may differ from that at the edge or ‘rim’. Finally, note any deposits of tannin or tartrate crystals. Some people like to swirl the wine to generate legs or tears on the side of the glass. These tears are a marker of the density or viscosity of the wine, and, by extension, of its level of sugar, alcohol, and/or extract. However, these parameters are best assessed on the palate.

White wines range in colour from watery-white through to green, lemon, straw, golden, and even coppery-orange in the case of certain dessert wines. Wines at the ‘greener’ end of the spectrum are usually paler and vice versa. Red wines range in colour from orange-red through to brick-red, ruby, violet, and indigo—or even ‘black’ for the inkiest wines. However pale or opaque, red wines almost invariably start off as ‘red’ or ‘purple’; with age, the colour softens, leading to more orange hues. Rosés are typically described as orange, salmon, or pink.

Assessing the wine: on the nose

The next step is to smell the aromas or bouquet of the wine by bringing the glass very close to the nose. Now swirl the wine to bring out the heavier volatile compounds and take another sniff. The terms ‘aromas’ and ‘bouquet’ are more or less synonymous, although, properly speaking, ‘bouquet’ refers more specifically to the tertiary aromas on a mature wine. The first thing to note is the intensity of the aromas: in other words, how easy is it to smell the wine? Certain wine styles such as New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc and Alsatian Gewurztraminer are intensely aromatic, others, such as Chablis or Muscadet, much less so. Consider also the complexity of the wine. If you cannot immediately come to grips with the wine, this may be a sign of complexity.

It can be difficult to find adequate descriptors with which to express and convey your subjective experience of a wine. The descriptors that you choose are but metaphors that aim to evoke your impressions of the wine. Although original descriptors, particularly if accurate, are to be welcomed, there is already an established lexicon of ‘wine words’ that are used repeatedly and that have come to be associated with, and therefore to connote, certain ideas. For example, ‘apples’ or ‘lemons’ suggests a cooler climate, ‘vanilla’ or ‘butterscotch’ suggests French oak, ‘coconut’ suggests American oak, ‘cedar wood’ suggests Cabernet Sauvignon, and ‘undergrowth’ and ‘old books’ suggest a mature wine. These ‘wine words’ are deeply rooted in European culture and experiences, which can make them especially challenging for people from other cultures.

Returning to the wine, begin by identifying the fruit aromas. Most fruit aromas originate in the grape itself; for beginners, such ‘primary aromas’ are generally easiest to identify. For white wines, there is an aroma spectrum that ranges from cool climate fruits such as apple, pears, lemons, and grapefruit, to tropical fruits such as passion fruit, pineapple, mango, and papaya. This reflects the ripeness of the grapes at harvest and, to a lesser extent, the grape variety. For red wines, the aromas can, broadly speaking, be grouped into red fruits (such as strawberries, raspberries, and redcurrants) and black fruits (such as blackberries, plums, and blackcurrants). The ripeness of the grapes is reflected in the quality of the fruit, for example, fresh, jammy, stewed, or dried.

Fruit aromas are one thing, but there are also many other, non-fruit aromas that originate in the grape itself. However, most other aromas are an expression of the winemaking processes (‘secondary aromas’) or bottle maturation (‘tertiary aromas’). Non-fruit aromas can fall into one of several categories: floral (for example, lily, elderflower, rose, violet); vegetal (asparagus, grass, green pepper, tobacco leaf); mineral (slate, earth, petrichor); animal (meat, wool, leather, manure); spice (pepper, cinnamon, clove, vanilla); nutty (almond, hazelnut, walnut, coconut); autolytic (yeast, bread, brioche, toast); lactic (milk, yoghurt, cream); and ‘other’ (coffee, chocolate, honey, resin, rubber). Some particularly colourful non-fruit descriptors include ‘wet dog’ (suggesting aged Loire Chenin Blanc) and ‘cat’s pee on a gooseberry bush’ (suggesting Loire Sauvignon Blanc).

Assessing the wine: on the palate

Take a sip of wine large enough to coat your mouth, but small enough that you can swish it around with your tongue. Don’t drink the wine as you would water or milk. Instead, hold it in the mouth so that it can express itself. Assess the intensity of flavour together with its character. The flavours are not so much tasted by the tongue as sensed by the nose through retronasal olfaction, and ought to be very similar to the aromas that you identified by smelling the wine. Some aromas and flavours might be more forthcoming on the palate than on the nose, which can be helpful in confirming, developing, or rejecting some of your initial impressions.

Having ascertained the flavour of the wine, consider its structural elements, of which there are seven: acidity, alcohol, residual sugar, body, tannin, oak, and finish. Human beings are not calibrated scientific machines and cannot accurately assess structural elements such as acidity and alcohol content. A wine may be high in acidity or alcohol, but not seem so, for example, if acidity and alcohol are masked by high residual sugar, or if all structural elements are in near perfect harmony. Describing structural elements such as acidity or alcohol in such simple terms as ‘high’, ‘medium’, or ‘low’ may seem rather crude, but suffices for the purposes of blind tasting.

Acidity is primarily experienced as a tingling on the sides of the tongue. High acidity is also accompanied by a sharp taste. High residual sugar and/or a full body can mask acidity, such that luscious dessert wines are much more acidic than they appear. Acid stimulates the secretion of saliva from the parotid glands and other salivary glands. For a more objective assessment of acidity, try to gauge the saliva response. After spitting or swallowing the wine, tilt your head forward and note the flow of saliva into the front of the mouth.

Assess the level of alcohol by holding a small amount of wine in the mouth and gently breathing in through the lips. The degree of heat or ‘burn’ at the back of the throat is more or less proportional to the alcohol level. If alcohol level is markedly high, a similar burning sensation is produced in the nose upon sniffing the wine. Overly alcoholic wines tend to lack flavour intensity. Even when bone dry, they can produce a sensation of sweetness on the tongue. On the other hand, wines that are lacking in alcohol may come across as thin or insipid, unless, as with Mosel Riesling, the low alcohol is balanced by high residual sugar and intensity of flavour.

Wines with detectable residual sugar range from off-dry to medium-dry, medium-sweet, and sweet. Some wine styles, most notably Champagne, have prescribed terms for defined levels of residual sweetness (see Chapter 11). Assessing sugar levels can be quite challenging, especially with sweeter wines, which saturate sweetness receptors in the taste buds. Wines with high sugar levels call for high acidity to flush the sweetness receptors and balance the cloying sweetness with a sensation of freshness. However, this freshness can create the impression that the wine is less sweet than it actually is. In such cases, the wine’s body provides a clue as to its actual sugar content. An accurate assessment of residual sugar in grams per litre is quite unnecessary; focus instead on whether the sugar is in balance with the other components of the wine and, in particular, with acidity. Assessing sugar and alcohol in tandem can hint at the ripeness of the grapes at the time of harvest and at the winemaking methods employed. Fortunately for us, most wines are dry!

Body refers to the overall feel of the liquid in the mouth. It is in large part a measure of density and viscosity, and related to levels of sugar, alcohol, and extract in the wine. A light-bodied wine may feel like water in the mouth, whereas a full-bodied wine feels more like milk. Full-bodied wines require higher levels of acidity to complement their weight. Conversely, light-bodied wines with excessive acidity come across as sharp. A certain creaminess to the body, especially if accompanied by a bread-like or floral aroma, suggests that the wine has spent time ageing on its lees (dead yeast cells). Lees ageing is much more noticeable on white wines than on red wines.

Oak enables the wine to ‘breathe’ through micro-oxygenation, facilitating a more harmonious integration of fruit flavours with the body of the wine. Much more than old oak, new oak leeches flavour compounds into the wine. Depending on such factors as the provenance of the oak, the age and toast level of the barrel, and the time spent in barrel and in bottle, oak ageing can contribute notes of vanilla, butter, toast, chocolate, coffee, roasted nuts, nutmeg, cedar, tobacco, and smoke. American oak is ‘sweeter’ than French oak, and less subtle, with dominant notes of coconut and white chocolate. Oak ageing promotes polymerization of tannins, which is experienced as a ‘softening’ of the wine. At the same time, heavily toasted barrels can introduce tannins that are harsher and more astringent than those already present. Finally, by promoting the malolactic conversion (see Chapter 3), contact with oak can alter the character of the acids in the wine. Oak staves, chips, or powder aim to replicate at least some of the influence of oak ageing.

Discussion of tannins is usually restricted to red wines. However, there are some white wines that are fermented or matured in oak, or that undergo significant skin contact, that contain discernible tannins. Tannins are usually experienced as astringency and/or a certain textural mouthfeel, together with a drying or puckering sensation on the gums and inner surfaces of the cheeks and lips. In assessing a red wine, you ought to consider both the quality and quantity of the tannins. Quality of tannins can be described in terms of size, texture (smooth, coarse, jagged), and flavour (ripe, bitter, green). Determining the quantity of tannins can be tricky, since coarse-grained tannins initially overwhelm the palate, leading to a false impression of high tannins; conversely, fine-grained tannins are only fully revealed in the delayed tannic ‘grip’ of the wine.

The finish of a wine describes the sensations that remain in the mouth after the wine has been spat or swallowed. Fine wines with a certain degree of flavour intensity will continue to resonate for seconds, sometimes minutes. Flavour compounds titillate the taste receptors in the throat and volatile compounds continue to rise to the olfactory bulb. Finish however is not just a question of duration, but also of character or quality and, perhaps most importantly, of harmony with what went before.

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Wine Blind Tasting Guide Part 3: The Perception of Wine

Welcome to the third instalment in our six-part series on wine blind tasting.

In case you missed them, here are the first and second instalments:

Why Blind Taste Wine?

The Components of Wine

The mouth

Our sense of taste arises from specialized sensory cells in taste buds on the tongue, hard palate, soft palate, and in the throat.

There are around 5,000 taste buds in the mouth, each with 50-100 sensory cells or chemoreceptors. These sensory cells are responsive to one of five groups of chemicals, with each chemical within a group interpreted as one of the five fundamental tastes: alkaloids as bitterness, sugars as sweetness, ionic salts as saltiness, acids as sourness, and amino acids as umami or savouriness. Although some parts of the tongue are more sensitive to certain tastes than others, the ‘tongue map’ that divides the tongue into discrete tasting areas very much overstates the case.

Chemical sense of taste is supported by the physical and chemical sensation of the liquid in the mouth.The physical sense of touch, which is responsive to dissolved particles as small as three microns, transmits the temperature and texture (or ‘mouthfeel’) of the wine. The prickle of dissolved carbon dioxide is transmitted by chemesthesis, the same sense or sensibility by which chemical irritants such as chilli or mustard register their fieriness.

The nose

Sense of smell, or olfaction, is triggered by airborne chemicals acting on receptor cells in the olfactory bulb behind the nose. There are ~500 types of olfactory receptors which, through a form of combinatorial processing, are capable of discerning several thousand aromas. Sensitivity to aromas can differ significantly, both from one aroma to another and from one individual to the next. Indeed, some aromas are detectable in concentrations one hundred million times smaller than others!

Receptor cells in the olfactory bulb may be triggered orthonasally, through the nostrils, or retronasally, from within the mouth. Much ‘tasting’ actually takes place retronasally, which explains why a runny or blocked nose can leave our food tasting bland.

The brain

The ‘flavour’ of a wine is an integrated interpretation by the brain of all the various sensory stimuli detailed above. Upon tasting the wine, the brain experiences something of a sensory overload, whence the frequent difficulty in pinpointing individual flavours and aromas.

To make its job easier, the brain relies heavily on preconceptions, context, and memory to inform its interpretation of the sensory stimuli. For example, if a white wine with an aroma of lemons and apples is dyed red with food colourings, most people will describe red berry aromas; and if a table wine is served in a bottle labelled ‘Grand Cru’, most people will describe it as ‘complex’, ‘balanced’, and such-like.

The olfactory bulb is part of the limbic system, an area of the brain closely associated with emotions and memories. Thus, smells and tastes can trigger strong emotions and vivid memories that colour the brain’s interpretation of those smells and tastes and thereby ‘bias’ our perception of the wine. Similarly, our emotional state affects our appreciation of sensory stimuli, which explains, for example, why wine tastes better in good company.

Blind tasting

Fortunately blind tasting can help us overcome these biases, first, by removing a certain number of their sources, and, second, by encouraging us to hyper-focus on sensory stimuli, tease them apart, and assess and evaluate them.

In engaging intellectually with a wine, blind tasters activate not only their limbic system, but also parts of the brain responsible for cognition, which is a conscious, higher-order function.

Blind tasting lexicon

This process can be assisted and developed by writing tasting notes that seek to accurately describe the sensations produced by the wine. Given the limitations of language in accurately describing our sensations, this is no mean feat. Nonetheless, language is by far the best tool at our disposal for communicating our experiences to others and, indeed, to ourselves. The act of consciously describing the sensations produced by the wine alters the makeup of our brain, forging neural connections that, over time, affirm, develop, and refine our ability to taste and think about taste. As Wittgenstein famously remarked, ‘the limits of my language are the limits of my world.’

Is there such a thing as a ‘super taster’?

Although some people do have a higher density of taste buds, this does not make them ‘super tasters’. Tasting is not so much a function of the hardware (the nose and palate) as it is of the software (the mind or brain). Indeed, regardless of the sensitivity of their tasting apparatus, untutored tasters find it difficult to ‘get their head round’ more complex wines, and, as a result, derive greater enjoyment from simpler, more accessible wines. To them, it can seem as though the more experienced tasters are talking mumbo jumbo.

But with enough experience and training, almost anyone can turn into a wine expert.

Next week, we will be outlining an approach to blind tasting.

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Wine Blind Tasting Guide Part 2: The Components of Wine

Welcome to the second instalment in our six-part series on wine blind tasting.

(In case you missed it, here is the first instalment: Why Blind Taste Wine?)

Wine is estimated to contain over one thousand different flavour compounds, half of which are made by yeasts during the process of fermentation.

Some aromas leap out of the glass while others need to be coaxed out by stirring—a reflection of their relative volatility in solution.

Over time, some compounds bind to one another, become insoluble, and precipitate out of solution, resulting in tannin sediment or tartrate crystals.

Ethanol

Apart from water, the most important component of any wine is ethyl alcohol, or ethanol, which is formed by the fermentation of sugars by yeast cells.

Although ethanol does not taste of much, it does provide body or density to the wine and also alters the perception of other compounds. For example, a wine with a modest alcohol can come across as more savoury than a similar wine with a higher alcohol, while excessively high alcohol can obscure fruit flavours and aromas.

Alcohol ought to be in balance with the other components of the wine, in which case it is perceived as unobtrusive or ‘integrated’.

Organic acids

Next come organic acids. Wine grapes contain malic and tartaric acid and also a small amount of citric acid.

Tartaric acid stabilizes the finished wine, but some of it may precipitate out in the form of tartrate crystals resembling shards of broken glass.

Malic acid, named after the Latin for ‘apple’, gives green apples their characteristic bite.

During the winemaking process, malic acid may be converted to lactic acid through a decarboxylation reaction variously referred to as secondary fermentation, malolactic fermentation, or malolactic conversion. This can occur naturally, but is often initiated by an inoculation of desirable lactic acid bacteria, usually Oenococcus oeni.

Lactic acid is also present in soured milk products, whence the name, and is softer and richer than malic acid, leading to a rounder and fuller texture.

With some fruity and floral white grape varieties, for example, Riesling and Gewurztraminer, the malolactic conversion may be inhibited to conserve a tarter and more acidic profile.

Other acids in wine include succinic acid, which is a by-product of fermentation, acetic acid or vinegar, and butyric acid.

Excessive amounts of acetic acid or butyric acid (which smells like spoiled milk or rancid butter) are bacteria-induced wine faults.

Apart from preserving it, the acids in a wine contribute to freshness and depth or contrast; balance alcohol, sugars, and flavour components; and help to dissolve fats in accompanying food.

A wine lacking in acidity can appear flat, dull, and uninteresting.

Sugars

Grapes contain near equal amounts of glucose and fructose sugars, which are converted to ethanol during the fermentation process. Sometimes, the fermentation process is inhibited so that the wine is left with a certain amount of so-called residual sugar.

During the fermentation process the yeast preferentially eats up glucose, such that most residual sugar is the sweeter tasting fructose.

Dry wines have a residual sugar of 4g/l or less, which, in general, is undetectable or only indirectly detectable as offset acidity or a slightly fuller body. At the other end of the scale, some sweet wines can contain more than 100g/l of residual sugar.

The sweetness of a wine can be masked by acidity and, to a lesser extent, tannins.

Polyphenols (Anthocyanins and Tannins)

Polyphenols are a broad group of chemicals that are principally found in the grape skins. They account for much of the taste of a wine, and, over time, interact with other chemicals in the wine to form a vast array of secondary and tertiary flavour compounds.

Anthocyanins are a class of red, blue, and purple polyphenols that leach into red wine through skin contact during fermentation. They are unstable and, in the presence of oxygen, react with tannin molecules to form larger compounds that precipitate out of the wine, leading to some colour loss. At the same time, anthocyanins are antioxidants that preserve the wine and, according to some scientists, also the drinker.

Tannins are a group of polymerized polyphenols found in grape skins, pips, and stems. The tannin levels of a wine are related to, among other things, the degree and duration of contact with the skins and other solid matter. Although tannins are mostly associated with red wines, some white wines undergo a degree of skin contact to give them a slightly astringent texture. Oak barrels can represent an additional source of tannins for both red and white wines.

Tannins are detectable as a textural or structural element together with a certain astringency and bitterness. They interact with saliva proteins to form large compounds that prevent the saliva from lubricating the mouth—experienced as a drying, puckering sensation. With increasing bottle age, they come across as softer and gentler, sometimes almost silky or velvety. The process by which this occurs is poorly understood.

Volatile compounds

The aroma and most of the flavour of a wine is perceived not on the tongue but in the nose, triggered by volatile compounds that escape the surface of the liquid and reach the olfactory bulb.

These volatile compounds originate either in the grape itself or as a by-product of chemical reactions during fermentation or maturation. They include higher alcohols (or fusel oils), esters, aldehydes, lactones, and pyrazines.

Short chain esters are responsible for fruity and floral notes, and long-chain esters for notes of perfume and soap. Aldehydes give rise to nutty, sherry, or oxidized notes; lactones to vanilla and butter notes; and pyrazines to vegetal, leafy, grassy, and green pepper notes.

Conclusion

This article has outlined the principal components of wine.

But wine is so much more than a  soup of molecules: it is the fruit of a soil, climate, and vintage, digested by a fungus through a process guided by the culture, vision, and skills of an individual man or woman.

Wine is one of the most complex and harmonious of all beverages. It speaks a language, and it has many stories to tell—if only we can read them.

Next week, we will be talking about the perception of wine, covering both the physiology and the psychology of wine tasting.

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Wine Blind Tasting Guide Part 1: Why Blind Taste Wine?

James Flewellen, my co-author on The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting, has kindly invited me to write a series of blog posts on wine blind tasting.

As you may be aware, James and I are keen to promote blind tasting, and to encourage and support those who are taking their first steps into the sometimes intimidating and obscurantist world of wine.

James and I met at the University of Oxford, which, for historical reasons, has a very strong culture of wine. Every constituent college has a wine cellar (although claret and port may no longer be the staples) and a wine steward, and the university as a whole even has a dedicated blind tasting coach!

Simply turning up to almost daily tastings enabled us to acquire, as if by osmosis, the knowledge and skills which are required to blind taste, and which we now wish to impart—one of the major motivators for writing our book.

But first, you might be asking yourself, why bother at all with blind tasting? This is the subject of this, first, post.

Future posts in this six-part series, to be published every Monday, will cover: the components of wine; the perception of wine; an approach to blind tasting; interpreting your findings; and, finally, setting up a blind tasting.

Taken together, the posts should enable you to make a strong start with blind tasting, and even to set up your own blind tasting club.

So without much further ado, let’s get on with that first post: Why blind taste wine?

Wine is a complex combination of acids, alcohols, sugars, phenolics, and other biochemicals suspended in an aqueous solution. These biochemicals may be experienced as colour, aromas, and flavours; structure and mouthfeel; and by their effects—either pleasant or unpleasant, depending on the amount consumed—on the mind and body.

Parameters such as grape variety, soil, climate, winemaking, and ageing express themselves through the ever-changing makeup of the liquid in the glass and can be analysed and interpreted by the attentive or inspired taster.

Unfortunately, unconscious bias and suggestion are all too easily introduced into this process of identification and appreciation. Ideally, a wine ought to be evaluated objectively, with only an afterthought for such factors as price or prestige, the reputation of the region or producer, the shape of the bottle, the type of closure used, and the design on the label.

The only way to control for these factors is for the evaluator to be blinded to everything but the liquid itself, which is served naked in a standard wine glass. The wine may be tasted either on its own or in a flight, in which case it may also be compared with the other wines in the flight. The wines within a flight may or may not have certain things in common, for example, grape variety, country or region of origin, and/or vintage. If these commonalities are revealed prior to tasting, the wines are presented ‘semi-blind’. The precise identity of a wine is only revealed once it has been thoroughly assessed and, for more advanced tasters, an attempt at identification has been made.

Aside from setting a standard of objectivity, there is much pleasure to be taken from this process, in

• Testing, stretching, and developing our senses
• Applying our judgement
• Relying upon and recalling old memories
• Comparing our analysis with that of our peers
• Getting it more or less right (or ‘wrong for the right reasons’)
• Discussing the wine and learning about it, and about wine in general
• Imbibing the wine with the respect and consideration that it deserves.

In refining their senses and aesthetic judgement, blind tasters become much more conscious of the richness not only of wine but also of other potentially complex beverages such as tea, coffee, and spirits, and, by extension, the flavours in food, the scents in the air, and the play of light in the world. For life is consciousness, and consciousness is life.

The less romantically inclined among you may rest assured that blind tasting also has some more practical purposes: winemakers need to taste their wine as they are making it; wine buyers before adding it to their lists; journalists, critics, and sommeliers before recommending it to their readers or customers; and you, the drinker, before deciding to buy it. Especially as a student, you can enter into a growing number of national and international blind tasting competitions. You can also pursue more formal qualifications and give yourself the option of entering the wine trade, which is perhaps more life affirming than many other trades.

Next Monday: The Components of Wine

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