The History of Bordeaux Wine



The region of Bordeaux in Aquitaine lies around the confluence of the Rivers Garonne and Dordogne. This confluence gives rise to the Gironde estuary, the largest estuary in Europe, which flows northwest for some 65km (40m) before merging into the Bay of Biscay.

The Romans first carried the vine to Bordeaux, as attested by the 1st century naturalist Pliny the Elder and the 4th century rhetorician Ausonius, who is still remembered by Château Ausone in Saint- Emilion. In 1152, Henry II of England married the formidable Eleanor of Aquitaine: the region came under English rule and ‘claret’ (Bordeaux red wine) under great demand. By the end of the Hundred Years’ War in 1453, France had regained control of the Bordelais; but, despite heavy export duties, the British Isles remained an important market for claret.

In the course of the 17th century, Dutch traders drained the marshland around the Médoc, which soon outclassed the Graves as the pre-eminent viticultural area of the Bordelais. Pierre de Rauzan, a grand bourgeois and manager of Château Latour until his death in 1692, accumulated the land that later became Châteaux Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande, Pichon Longueville Baron, Rauzan-Ségla, and Rauzan-Gassies. Later, Nicolas Alexandre, marquis de Ségur acquired the epithet Prince des Vignes after coming into possession of the Médoc properties of Châteaux Lafite, Latour, Mouton, and Calon-Ségur. He turned some pebbles of Pauillac into buttons for his coat, which Louis XV once mistook for diamonds.

In 1855, Napoleon III ordered a classification of the top châteaux of Bordeaux for the Exposition Universelle de Paris. Bordeaux brokers ranked 61 châteaux into five crus or ‘growths’ based on a savant mélange of price and reputation. All of the 61 châteaux that made it into their classification are in the Haut Médoc, bar one—Haut Brion in the Graves.

Starting in the late 19th century, the Bordelais began to suffer from a succession of American imports, first oidium (powdery mildew) and then phylloxera. In the wake of phylloxera, the vineyards had to be replanted onto American rootstock, and the grape varieties that tolerated this best such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot became dominant. But then came downy mildew and black rot, followed by war, economic depression, more war, the severe frost of 1956, and an oil crisis. In the late 20th century, many châteaux found themselves in a state of utter disrepair and in dire need of the restoration and regeneration that is still under way.

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

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The History of Burgundy Wine


The Celts were already making wine in Burgundy when the Romans conquered Gaul in 51 BC. To supply their soldiers and colonists, the Romans propagated the vine all along the east-facing slopes of the Saône river valley. After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the monasteries moved in and, through the gradual accretion of land, became the dominant force in wine making. Already in 591, Gregory, bishop of Tours and author of the History of the Franks, thought it apt to compare burgundy to the Roman Grand Cru Falernian.

Middle Ages

The Benedictines, who founded the Abbey of Cluny in 910, and the Cistercians, who founded the Abbey of Cîteaux in 1098, became especially implicated in wine making. These brothers in God soon developed a subtle consciousness of the influences of terroir on quality and character, and began to document vineyard and vintage variations with the utmost care. In 1336, the Cistercians created the first enclosed vineyard in Burgundy, the Clos Vougeot. As their wine symbolized the blood of their Lord, they refused to dilute it, marking an important and long-lasting shift from Roman and ancient practices.

The proud monks invested so much time, effort, and skill into their wine that the Avignon popes soon began to take notice, purchasing vast quantities to ease the pangs of their Babylonian captivity. So as to hold on to papal custom and preserve the quality and reputation of burgundian wines, Philip II the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, banned the cultivation of the ‘vile and disloyal’ Gamay grape. He also banned the use of manure as fertilizer, which by increasing yields decreased concentration. Thenceforth, red Burgundy could only be made from Pinot Noir or, as it was then known, Noirien. As for white Burgundy, it was being made not from Chardonnay as today but, most likely, from Fromenteau, an ancestor of or the same thing as Pinot Gris.

Modern Age

In the 18th century, roads improved significantly, facilitating the export of wine out of landlocked Burgundy. The wines of Burgundy began to vie with those of Champagne—which were then predominantly still and red—for the lucrative Paris market. They acquired such a reputation that, in 1760, the Prince de Conti felt privileged to acquire the Domaine de la Romanée, appending his name to the already famous estate.

After the absorption of the duchy of Burgundy into the French crown in the late 15th century, the church began to lose ground, and in the case of its vineyard holdings, quite literally so. In the wake of the French Revolution, the church’s remaining lands were confiscated and auctioned off as state property. Over the course of several generations, these new, laical holdings became increasingly subdivided as a result of the Code Napoléon, which stipulates that any inheritance is to be shared equally amongst every child. As a consequence, the Clos Vougeot counts over 80 separate proprietors, some of whom own no more than a few rows of vines. One important effect of this parcellation was to encourage the development of négociant houses, the first of which were established as early as the 1720s and 1730s.

In 1847, King Louis-Philippe of France gave the village of Gevrey the right to append to its name that of its most famous Grand Cru vineyard, Chambertin. Not to be outdone, other villages quickly followed suit, whence all the double-barrelled—pun intended—names lining the Route des Grands Crus (the N5 and N6 roads).

In 1855, the same year of the famous or, rather, infamous Bordeaux Classification, one Dr Jules Lavalle published an influential book with the snappy title of Histoire et Statistique de la Vigne de Grands Vins de la Côte-d’Or. Dr Lavalle’s book comprised an unofficial classification of the vineyards of Burgundy that formed the basis of the official classification adopted by the Beaune Committee of Agriculture in 1861. After the introduction of the French AOC system in 1936, most of the vineyards in the top tier of this 1861 classification acceded to Grand Cru status.

Like other wine growing regions, Burgundy then started to suffer, first from the phylloxera epidemic (which arrived in Meursault in 1878), then from the Great Depression, and more recently from the Second World War. Upon returning to their land after the Second World War, the growers began to enrich their devastated vineyards with chemical fertilizers. This worked well at first, but over the years the potassium contained in the fertilizers accumulated in the soil, leading to a fall in the quality of the harvest. From the mid 1980s, the assiduous application of modern vineyard management techniques has, by and large, put an end to this tragic trend.

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

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Jura Wines in a Glass


With fewer than 2000ha, the Jura is a small yet diverse wine region. The vineyards sit in the foothills of the Jura, ~80km (50mi) east of Burgundy and not far from Switzerland. The climate is cooler than in Burgundy, although the summers are fairly hot and sunny. The soils, which are rich in fossils, are clay and limestone with outcrops of marl. Five grape varieties are planted: Chardonnay and Savagnin for whites, and Poulsard, Trousseau (which thrives in the gravelly vineyards around Arbois), and Pinot Noir for reds—which, though vinified as reds, tend to be rather more salmon than actually red.

The relative isolation of the Jura has led to the preservation of a number of distinctive wine styles. Most notable is Vin Jaune made from very ripe Savagnin, which is left to mature under a flor-like strain of yeast for six or more years before being bottled in a 62cl clavelin. This process leads to oxidative nutty aromas similar to those of sherry— although, unlike sherry, Vin Jaune is not fortified. Other aromas include walnuts, honey, and “curry”. Vin Jaune can be produced under the Arbois, Etoile, and Côtes du Jura appellations, but the richest examples are produced under the exclusive Château-Chalon appellation, which is home to top producers Jean Macle and Domaine Berthet-Bondet. Vin Jaune can potentially last for decades, if not centuries.

Also notable is a straw wine, Vin de Paille, which, like Vin Jaune, can be produced under the Arbois, Etoile, and Côtes du Jura appellations. This blend of Chardonnay, Poulsard, and Savagnin is pressed, normally in January, from dried grapes and aged in oak for at least three years. It is rich and complex with high alcohol and dominant notes of honey and dried or confected fruits.

Macvin du Jura AOC, which can be white (Chardonnay and Savagnin) or red (Poulsard, Trousseau, and Pinot Noir), is a vin de liqueur or mistelle made from the must of late harvest grapes. The must is oak-aged for 12 months without prior fermentation. Marc du Jura is then added in a ratio of 1:2, thereby halting fermentation and preserving the natural sugars. Further oak ageing finishes the process by harmonizing the flavours.

To round up on the six Jura appellations: any style of wine can be made under the Arbois and Côtes du Jura appellations, which are the most quantitatively important. In contrast, only white wines (including Vin Jaune and Vin de Paille) can be made under the Etoile appellation, and only Vin Jaune under the Château-Chalon appellation. Macvin du Jura is a regional appellation, as is Crémant du Jura AOC. This sparkling wine is made by the traditional method, most commonly from 100% Chardonnay.

Of the still ‘regular’ wines, the whites enjoy a greater reputation than the reds. These whites, which can be very terroir driven, are made from Chardonnay and/or Savagnin, either by the classic method (employed in other regions) or by the more oxidative regional and traditional method whereby the barrels are not topped up to compensate for evaporation. This oxidative style has long been the signature of this beautiful but isolated and often neglected wine region.

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

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The Physiology and Psychology of Wine Tasting

Our sense of taste arises from specialized sensory cells in taste buds on the tongue, 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.


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 receptor 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 100 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 of cardboard.

Higher processing

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. 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.

The lingo

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. 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.’


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.

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

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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!

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 
  • 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
  • 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)




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.


  • 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


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.

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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.


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.


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.


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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