Updated: Jan 8, 2022
Despite the optics, good wine tasters aren’t just pulling stuff out of the air when they taste wines. They know what they’re tasting, and they know what it’s supposed to taste like. Even in blind tasting, there is a rigorous and systematic approach to understand exactly what they’re tasting. So using your mind to set-up your wine tasting is your first step to becoming a better and more confident wine taster.
Remember from Part 1 what Brenda’s mom said, “If you don’t know what you’re looking for, it’s harder to find it.”
We started Wine Tasting Hacks by focusing on wine “whats and where”. What is it? Where is it from? What do people say about it?
In Part 2 - The Topper - we’re going to share some hacks about the “hows” of the winemaking process. Once again you don’t have to remember all the hacks, but using just a few of these will make a big difference. And it’s really not that complicated. Let’s jump into it!
Wine Tasting Hack #6 - Skins or juice
Skin contact is an easy and defining wine tasting hack. White wines, generally, have no or minimal skin contact. Juice is separated from the skins early and so the wine is white - well actually yellowish. If white wines do have skin contact, that’s a big Wine Tasting Hack clue. Expect a fuller wine with more intense fruit aromas. By the way, skin contact is also the secret behind trendy Orange wines.
Red wines are fermented with the skin so they will have a darker color. But in addition to color, the skins in grapes are also big contributors to the flavor. The pulp of the grape is mainly water and sugar, so a lot of the aroma and flavor forming compounds come from the skins and the pulp right below the skin.
One of the things you might hear about a wine is how the winemaker prepares the fruit for fermentation and how the fruit is fermented. The more skin contact, the more complexity in the flavor profile and the higher the quantity of tannin.
Wine Tasting Hack #7 - Steel or Wood
The reason that wine doesn’t just taste like grapes is because it isn’t grape juice anymore, it’s fermented. It’s chemically transformed, and that transformation is also affected by the material and amount of exposure to oxygen during the fermentation.
Information about the type of fermentation vessel is becoming more commonplace, and even chic. The natural wine movement makes some noise about their fermentation vessel of choice - concrete. Stainless steel is a mainstream in most wineries, but it's now a trend for cleaner, leaner Chardonnays and other whites. And oak is still the winemaker's most used tool to introduce oxygen and the impact of wood during the fermentation process. Knowing about the fermentation vessels used in making the wine is a top Wine Tasting Hack.
Wine Tasting Hack #8 - Malolactic
Remember when we spoke about acidity earlier in the Wine Tasting Hacks? The major acid in wine is tartaric acid. It is also found in apples, pears, papaya, mangos and other fruit. The other common acid in wine is malic acid. Also found in fruit like green apples. After the primary alcoholic fermentation which is based on yeast converting sugar to alcohol, there can be a secondary conversion that is caused by bacteria. What happens here is that malic acid is converted to lactic acid. Yes, like what’s in milk. This conversion makes the wine less acidic. In white wines you also note a buttery, creamy quality while in red wines it mostly seems to enhance the fruitiness.
Since this conversion could happen at any time because of bacteria present in the wine making process, winemakers usually force it or take active steps to stop it - like introducing sulfites and filtering - in order to ensure stability in the wine. Most red wines will undergo “malo”, but in whites it’s a stylistic choice. If it’s there, in white wine expect buttery, creamy characteristics. And if it’s there along with oak aging in a white, you’ve got yourself a potential butter bomb.
Wine Tasting Hack #9 - Know your oak
There isn’t just one type of oak used in barrel aging wine. Noooo, that would be too easy. There are several types of oak used, of various ages and often in combination. For Wine Tasting Hacks purposes oak does two things to wine: it imparts flavors and it adds and reacts with tannin.
The aromas and flavors from oak include cedar, clove and baking spice. Because oak barrels are heated or toasted to bend the staves and seal the barrels, there can also be toasted aromas of coffee, tobacco and smoke. As mentioned earlier, oak also has tannins so it can increase tannin in a wine, but oak tannins combine with grape tannin to form longer chain molecules that seem smoother or rounder. Here are the key Wine Tasting Hacks that will get you through it.
Wine Tasting Hack #10 - Age
There’s an Italian proverb: Old friends and wine improve with age. That may be true for friends, but not for wine, despite the common myth. Once a wine enters the bottle, it starts to degrade due to oxidation. What happens during that time is what Wine Tasting Hackers need to know.
But first, let’s put a stake in the heart of the aging wine myth. If it isn’t great wine to start with, it’s not going to get any better. For a wine to age well it needs a couple things. First, it needs to have intensity of aromas and flavors, because those fruit flavors will become less fresh and more subdued. Think fresh fruit becoming more like cooked or dried fruit. Second, it needs acidity to prevent spoilage and retain some amount of brightness. Red wines also benefit from high tannins to help protect the wine and develop complex flavor compounds. And certain sweet wines can retain flavor with age because of the combination of high acidity with residual sugar.
So not all wines are made to age well, but for wines that mature in bottle:
Adopt even two or three of these Wine Tasting Hacks and you’ll see your confidence in tasting wines take off like a rocket. In my opinion, wine tasting is about identifying what we like or don’t like about a wine, and sharing that with our friends and family. It helps us decide what wines we want to drink and discover the wines we can share with others.
It’s not supposed to be a death-defying skill, nor a blood thirsty competition. It should be fun and contribute to the overall enjoyment of the wine. So have at it with confidence, because it’s a whole lot easier to find something when you know what you’re looking for.
And my final bit of advice. You get to decide what you’re tasting. No two people taste the same thing. So be comfortable with your perceptions. Cheers!