We’re often asked how do you taste wine, like, properly? What’s the point anyway, surely you either like it or you don’t? It’s a gut reaction! And the short but not very satisfying answer is “Sort of.” We’ll go into more detail about things like levels of sweetness, acid, tannin, alcohol etc in another post but let’s have a look at why a wine tastes like it does.
There is definitely an instant reaction with a wine when you first taste it, you initially think either “Wow”, “Meh” or occasionally “Eurgh”. This is a pretty good measure of a wine to be honest but sometimes you want to know why? Why was that wine not as tasty as the other one? A lot of the time it is personal preference, some people prefer sauvignon blanc to chardonnay, fruity notes rather than vanilla and toast, the list goes on. It is important to understand WHY you like certain wines in order to make sure you buy what you like!
A classic misunderstanding would be chardonnay. A much-maligned grape but the second most planted white grape in the world, it makes the world’s most expensive whites from Burgundy, France. During the late 80’s early 90’s Australian chardonnay was incredibly popular and demand was high, as a result, winemakers rushed to fill the demand and flooded that market with poor quality oaky chardonnay. Oaking a wine takes time, months if not years sitting inside oak barrels, which themselves cost thousands of pounds. So, what were the winemakers going to do? Sit around and tell their customers that they had to wait 12 months while they make some more and spend loads of money on barrels? Nope! They started adding oak chips to the wine, a quick method of adding that sought-after flavour. But the quality of the wine suffered enormously, some producers were even using oak essence to flavour the wine. Mixing in a drop or two of this oaky liquid added flavour but in reality, it’s the difference between freshly squeezed orange juice and orange squash! As a result, the market was soon turned off of this witch’s brew and still suffers to this day. Many people say, ‘I don’t drink chardonnay, but have you got any Chablis?” An easy mistake to make but of course Chablis is chardonnay! What they don’t like is oaky chardonnay, or more likely badly oaked chardonnay.
This is where you can get a bit nerdy. Fermentation Vessels! Stainless steel and oak barrels are the two main ones, but they produce very different wines. Using stainless steel allows the winemaker to control much more of the process. They can control the temperature, length and oxygenation of the fermentation. Fermentation is an exothermic reaction, which is to say it produces heat. This heat will change the flavour of the finished wine. As a general rule the cooler the fermentation the fruitier the wine will be. Length of fermentation is important too. Think of it like the difference between flash frying and slow roasting. If you have a quick fast hot fermentation, then you extract a little bit of flavour but if you have a long slow cool fermentation it extracts a lot more depth and complexity of flavour! Stainless steel is much better at reducing the amount of oxygen that the wine is exposed to. You can make it airtight at the top and its impermeable. Whereas oak barrels have little tiny holes in them that allow oxygen in and that reacts with the wine. An extreme example would be Pedro Ximenez sherry, it has flavours of caramel, nuts, dried fruit and even chocolate and a dark almost black colour. But a more common example would be white burgundy that gives us some gentle toasty oak, butter & a touch of vanilla.
Once you understand what you like and why you like it you’ll be able to get the right wine off the shelf or wine list. If you like New Zealand sauvignon blanc then words like clean, crisp, unoaked and tropical should be looked for in a tasting note. On the flip side if you like white burgundy then oak, butter, vanilla and toast are what you’re after.
This should be a two-way street however; it is unfair to insist that the customer learn the way in which wine experts communicate without first trying to understand how most people talk about wine. So that’s why we’ve really tried to use more everyday language when talking about our wines on myWINEcellar. We say ‘try’ because sometimes they just slip out, so if there is anything in the tasting notes that’s confusing or doesn’t make sense then shoot us an email at email@example.com and we’ll get right back to you and see if it needs changing!
Have you ever come across some words on a wine list, label or online and gone ‘What are they talking about?!” Comment below and we’ll give it a go at explaining what they’re on about… if we can!