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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About Neel Burton

Neel Burton is a psychiatrist, philosopher, writer, and wine-lover who lives and teaches in Oxford, England. He is the author of several books, including The Meaning of Madness and The Art of Failure: The Anti Self-Help Guide. You can find Neel on Twitter and Facebook, and at www.neelburton.com
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