Moving beyond Strawberries and Tobacco

A friend of mine recently signed up for a wine tasting class. She contacted me and said she was having a good time but felt hopeless, as she couldn’t tell her “tobacco and leather notes from her vanilla and blackcurrant notes.” It’s easy to see her frustration as we are often bombarded with wine writers’ tasting notes that wax on with eloquent descriptions that make it seem as if we are eating a fruit salad or smoking a Cuban cigar, rather than tasting wine. I fell into that trap, too, to be honest. I worked in the wine industry for a number of years, and for the longest time, I was trying to pinpoint my strawberries, distinguish my blackberries from my olallieberries, my allspice from my cloves. It took me a long time to realize that tasting wine is about so much more than distinguishing flavor characteristics. In fact, if you look at any standard tasting chart for a reputable sommelier’s certifying board, you will find that flavor components are a very small portion of the overall picture. To begin with, before you even stick your nose in a wine, you can tell a lot about it just by looking at it. Beyond red, white, or rose, is it a deep purplish red, or a brownish brick red? Is it a bright pink rose or a salmon colored rose? Is your white wine pale, lemon yellow, or is it deep golden amber? A wine’s appearance can indicate faults, age, and grape varietal. It may even give you hints as to its production methods. When you smell the wine, yes, you are looking for different types of flavors, but also the intensity of the nose. Does it punch you in the face, or can you barely smell anything going on in the glass? Does it smell like wet dog or nail polish remover? Hopefully not, as this indicates a faulty wine! When we taste the wine, we are looking for more than strawberries and tobacco. We taste for mouthfeel—the weight of the wine. As Karen MacNeil famously described it, mouthfeel can be like the difference in texture between skim milk and half and half. Acid, tannin, alcohol, sweetness—these things are arguably more important than distinguishing blueberries from blackberries, for these are the components that ultimately make up the balance of the wine, and creating an enjoyable balanced wine is really the goal of most winemakers. But if you’re still trying to figure out the difference in flavor between a blackberry and a boysenberry, my advice to you is to go to the farmer’s market. Smell and taste everything. Try something you’ve never tried before…Red currants? Go for it. Gooseberries? They say that they are a dead ringer for some Sauvignon Blancs. The more you expose yourself to different aromas and flavors, the easier it will be to find them in wine.



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