THE BEST OF 2010 BRUNELLO

Lovely Brunello. Delicious, expensive, debonair Brunello di Montalcino.

Brunello is a red wine made from the Sangiovese grape. The best Brunellos are capable of long aging (30+ years), and can take several years of cellaring in order to be considered ready to drink.

The region has about 3,000 acres of vineyard, in the tiny and romantic Tuscan hilltop town of Montalcino, Italy. If you visit, you will get some exercise as you walk up the cobblestone walkways, under arches and past fountain squares, to arrive at one of the many chic wine boutiques.

Brunello is aged for a minimum of five years after the year the grapes are harvested (six years for Riserva wines). The time in oak barrels, and in the bottle, helps to mellow this powerful, tannic, and complex wine. If you like Pinot Noir, think of Brunello as it’s older, more powerful cousin.

Yes, a good Brunello will set you back some money. It’s not the kind of wine you pop out for and drink the same night. These bottles require a little love and patience. I’ve got a couple sitting downstairs that will be ready to drink over the next five years; I visit with them every once in a while, just to check in. That being said, if you’re splurging and see a bottle on the winelist, prepare for a sensory experience – this is a sexy, thoughtful wine that will prompt discussion!

The other thing to consider about Brunello is that not every vintage is as good as the others. Keep an eye out for these years, they are excellent vintages: 2004, 2006, 2007, & 2010.

If you want a taste of Brunello, but at a lower price point, may I humbly recommend Rosso di Montalcino. These wines are less than half the cost, made from younger vines and aged for less time. But, they are good drinking, easy to enjoy (less tannic and softer), and offer some of the same intoxicating bouquet of a Brunello. 2012 is a vintage to buy.

What to eat with your Brunello: this wine pairs best with savory, rich dishes. Think roasted or grilled meats, or aged cheeses like Pecorino.

Here are my top 5 Brunello to look out for from the 2010 vintage. These are in no particular order, but if I had to buy just one, it would be the Campogiovanni:

~ Banfi Brunello di Montalcino DOCG 2010 {sweet earthiness, plum, light cinnamon spice, vibrant & alive}

~ Campogiovanni Brunello di Montalcino DOCG 2010 {black roses, hint of vanilla, dark sour cherries, moody spice, grippy}

~ Capanna Brunello di Montalcino DOCG 2010 {violets, juicy red fruits, softer, sexy, feminine, earth, pure silk}

~ Il Grappolo Fortius Brunello di Montalcino DOCG 2010 {powerful concentration, a little savory, mineral, spicy violets}

~ Tenute Silvio Nardi Brunello di Montalcino DOCG 2010 {ripe fruit balanced with leather, earth, spice, stone, silky tannins, approachable now}

Cin Cin,

Rachel

HOW TO WIN AT A WINE FESTIVAL

Yes, I did say to wear comfortable shoes, but... no birkies please 

Yes, I did say to wear comfortable shoes, but... no birkies please 

Are you heading to a big wine tasting event?

Fight the overwhelm, check out my top 9 wine tasting tips for having an awesome time at a wine festival:

~Don’t drink everything in sight (despite the temptation), be discerning, try to read up a little on the wineries you want to check out ahead of time. I take a look at the wineries participating in the event, and make a list of 3-5 must try wines that I’m excited to sample. I head to those tables first, which helps me get oriented in the room and avoid being overwhelmed by options.

~Circle the floor once before you start tasting to get the lay of the land, plan your attack, make note of your favourite wineries.

~It’s more than OK to spit out the wine. It can be a long night, and there are many wines to try. Have a sip if it’s really delicious, but don’t be embarrassed to use ‘ye olde spit bucket’ or tip out your glass into it after you’ve had one sip – you don’t have to finish everything they pour for you. I spit out 99% of the wine – unless it’s mind blowing or 50 year old port 

~Eat a solid meal before the party. Pasta, bread, anything that will fill out the corners of your stomach. Food served at tasting events is usually of the bite-sized canape persuasion, there are lineups, and they are snacks not a substitute for a real lunch/dinner.

~Dress for success. Of course, you can wear jeans and a t-shirt, but this is a fun event to dress up a little. A cute dress, or nice blazer will really help you stand out as stylish. Leave the 3″ heels at home though, your feet will thank me. I opt for cute but comfy wedges or ballet flats.

~Be polite and friendly to the people pouring your wine, it can be a long event for them, especially as the crowd gets buzzing. Don’t forget to compliment the wines you love, you may even be talking to the person who made them!

~Once your wine glass is filled, step aside so others can reach the table. If it's busy, don't monopolize the table's host. If it's reasonably quiet, feel free to ask your questions about the wine (or grab a card from the table to look up later).

~Have a plan to get home safe. No drinkin’ and drivin’ of course. Plan your transit route, grab a cab/uber, or take advantage of the festival's hotel packages.

~If the table you want to visit is too crowded, head to the quiet booth you’ve never heard of before. I’ve tasted delicious wines and met interesting people just by being open minded about trying something totally new.

~Lastly, have fun and keep an open mind. Try a new grape, a new winery, a new region that you’ve never had before. I also challenge you to try a grape you’ve had before and not enjoyed. If you’ve completely written off Chardonnay, you could be missing out just because you had that one off-putting bottle, when another style may blow your mind!

BEST OF VANCOUVER INTERNATIONAL WINE FESTIVAL #VIWF 2015

australia.jpeg

I’m just back from the first day of tasting at Vancouver Wine Fest. The Savour Australia room is open from 230-5 for people in the trade (writers, wine buyers, restauranteurs), and it’s a nice chance to cruise the room and take advantage of the smaller crowds before the evening sessions which can get a little crazy… like 10 people deep at the table crazy.

What shocked me today is that I have more whites than reds to recommend. When you think of Aussie wine, don’t you immediately picture a juicy, jammy red? The whites were gorgeous; lively, great concentration and distinct flavours. I didn’t stick to just the Aussie’s though, I perused the entire hall, so there are wines below from Spain to New York state. The items I’ve listed below are either delicious, unique and delicious, or hard to find and delicious. 

Here, in no particular order at the whites I think you’ll enjoy:

~Mionetto Luxury Cartizze DOCG is a flagship Prosecco. It was creamy, with light mousse, apples and lemon. Not tart, overly foamy or aggressive like some Proseccos can be, this is the Champagne of Prosecco (sorry, I had to say it). $40-50.

~Mount Pleasant Lovedale Semillon 2007. I tried this, and couldn’t believe how rich and creamy the mouthfeel was. Then I learned that the wine had aged for 8 years, and yet somehow manages to taste bright and fresh. It’s a mouthful of mineral and lime goodness, but oh that texture is sexy. This wine is unlike any Semillon you’ve had before, seek it out! $50.

~McWilliams Tumbarumba Chardonnay 2013. So maybe I just love saying Tumbarumba, but this tasty Chard shows how vibrantly acidic yet balanced Aussie whites can be. A little apple and some oak, with creamy lees notes, just lovely. $20-30.

~Ladies Who Shoot Their Lunch Chardonnay 2012. My favourite Chardonnay of the day was this wild fermented beauty from the Victoria region of Oz. It had a voluptuous and silky texture, and flavours of yeast, and lots of fresh fruit. Quality doesn’t come cheap though… $40-50.

~Brotherhood Sparkling Chardonnay. This New Yorker sparkler was very tasty indeed, and hails from America’s oldest winery established in 1839 in the Hudson Valley. We hear a lot about NY wines, but don’t get a chance to taste too many. Crisp, dry but not too dry, delish. $20.

~Devil’s Lair 2012 & The Hidden Cave 2014 Margaret River Chardonnay. Here’s a pretty pair from the far West coast of Oz, perfect for tasting together. The The Hidden Cave is unoaked, fresh, vibrant Chardonnay and the Devil’s Lair has seen some goodly oaking, and is perfect for someone who loves Cali Chard but wouldn’t mind a little more refinement. No oak vs. oak – you be the judge! The Hidden Cave $20-30. Devil’s Lair $40.

Sweeter Stuff:

~Goldtropfchen Auslese Riesling 2011. For those who like a little sugar in their bowl, this Mosel Valley beauty balances tight acidity with the perfect dose of sweetness, and the Riesling aromatics we all love (a little diesel, honeysuckle, stone fruit). $30-40.

~De Bortoli Noble One Botrytis Semillon 2011. From pretty Riverina comes this botrytis (“noble rot”) affected sweetie. This is lighter and brighter than I expected, full of apricot, orange peel, whiteflower honey, and some vanilla. $30 for 1/2 bottle.

~Taylor Fladgate 1965 Very Old Single Harvest Port. What can I say about this one? I didn’t spit it out, that’s for sure. It is a gorgeous golden cinnamon brown, and smelled of sweet tobacco, brown sugar and Christmas cake. Seek this out and savour (there was no one at the stand at the beginning of the show, but by last call it was a wall of elbows). $300.

~Gonzalez Byass Apostoles VORS 30 Yr Palo Cortado. If you don’t already love Sherry, give this a try. It just sings on the palate with a luscious undercurrent of briny sea smoke, and a layer of spicy, sweet baking spices. I bought a bottle of this one to put away for a rainy day. $35 for 1/2 bottle.

Reds:

~Cleto Chiarli Grasparossa di Castelvetro Amabile Lambrusco. Call me crazy, but I wasn’t keen on tasting five Lambruscos today. But wow, am I glad I did. This table is completely unique in the tasting hall. Ranging from lighter rose style Lambrusco, to this Amabile (sweet) style, every glass was smooth, sultry, with mild rounded tannins. Just plain elegant (not in the pejorative sense). None of that grittiness that can come with the territory. The Amabile is chilled before fermentation is completed to keep some residual sugar in the bottle. It’s not overtly sugary, there’s just enough to offset the keen acids, and highlight the smooth cherry notes. $30.

~Peter Lehmann 1885 Shiraz 2013. The vines that made this wine were planted in hot Barossa Valley in 1885, and they are giving concentrated, lush, ripe wine even today. The nose on this wine was plush, spicy and had lots of brambly fruit. This is a bottle to open by the fireplace for an evening of relaxed conversation and contemplation. When I think of good quality Aussie Shiraz, this is what it should taste like. $50.

~Wolf Blass Grey Label Shiraz 2012. This is from McLaren Vale and it’s rich, ripe, with toasty mocha and plenty of black fruit and spice. Bonus, it’s ready to quaff now! $30-40.

#VIWF has got something for everyone - let me know if you have a favourite that I missed.

TOP 3 TO TRY AT VANCOUVER INTERNATIONAL WINE FEST #VIFW 2015

australia.jpeg

Hey wine fox! The public tasting nights are on now at Vancouver Wine Fest 2015.

The theme is Australia Shiraz/Syrah, and there are an incredible 170 wineries represented at the event. A little overwhelming right?

Well, you can always do what I do, and have a few “must try” wines to seek out before trying all those other incredible looking wines you’ve never heard of!

Here are my three picks for you to check out:

1) Start out your night with a sparkling from the land of the Tasmanian Devil! Tasmanian sparkling wine is so hot right now, which is a little ironic, as it hails from one of the coolest regions in Australia. The Jansz Premium Cuvee is made in the Methode Tasmanoise (a cute riff on Champenoise) on the North-Eastern corner of the island in red basalt soil. Expect creamy bubbles with a fruity hit of strawberry, honeysuckle and citrus… Yum!

2) Then, if you’re feeling up for a powerhouse red, get to the Wolf Blass table early to beat the crowds. Start with some of their delish Chard, before moving to the reds. Their Black Label Cabernet Sauvignon/Shiraz has ranked high in a blind test with some of the most expensive Bordeaux Cabs in the world. This is a great chance to taste a $100+ cult Cab and decide whether you think it’s worth all the fuss (I do!).

3) Since we’re ostensibly at VanWineFest to celebrate all things Shiraz (Australia is the focus, but wineries from all over the world are here), make sure to stop by the Yalumba table to try their Octavius Shiraz. Named for the 100L oak barrels (called ‘octaves’) made onsite by their own coopers, the grapes come from some very old vines in the hot Barossa Valley. Yalumba is the oldest family owned Aussie winery, and they make some truly delicious bottles. Also be sure to try their wild fermented Y Series Viognier, a silky little number with full body and lots of stone fruit.

PS: there are some legit old world fortified wine houses at the tasting. Before you leave, make sure to visit the Taylor-Fladgate, Fonseca, Croft & Gonzalez Byass tables for a little night cap!

Have fun! If you have a hot tip about a wine I’ve got to try at VIWF 2015, let me know below in the comments.

WSET DIPLOMA DIARY: FORTIFIED & SPARKLING

I save my peach flounced pen just for diary writing...

I save my peach flounced pen just for diary writing...

The past few weeks have been so busy, that while I still feel it’s nice to wish people Happy New Year, somehow it’s almost Spring.

Off on a plane I went, to an intensive weekend of preparing for both the Sparkling and Fortified WSET Diploma unit exams in Calgary. The days consist of sitting in quite a nice lecture hall with 20 other students, while a Master of Wine candidate reviews the study materials (fascinating, but an intimidating amount of information {memorize the villages of Champagne, the grapes they grow, the soil types etc}) and pours us many wines. The trick is that they are poured from a black sack, which handily obscures what the heck they are! Yes, if you want to cheat, you can peek to see the type of bottle, but I am steadfast in looking at only the wine as it pours into my ISO tasting glasses. I am a woman of principle. 

If you like port and sherry, you would have loved day two: tawny port, Amontillado sherry, old Madeira, vintage port, Rutherford muscat from Australia, and lots of Vins Doux Naturels (VDNs) from France. Personally, I love fortified wines and think they are some of the tastiest and most interesting wines to be had. The Sparkling unit, unfortunately, has reduced Champagne from an occasional luxurious delight, to “wine with bubbles” that I must taste repeatedly and pragmatically (LOL don't worry Champagne, I still love you). 

Don't tell the wine makers, but after a long day, one Non-Vintage Champagne can taste remarkably like a chardonnay-based Cava, and even like a NZ sparkling made with chardonnay and pinot noir. They’re all made using the same method, and feature similar grapes. It does lead to a bit of second guessing as the timer winds down, and I know I’m not alone in the class. Thank goodness for sparkling shiraz and Lambrusco, at least I can tell what they are right away! The shiraz tastes like sparkly jam, and the Lambrusco, gritty sour cherries (caveat emptor: I've had lovely Lambrusco’s, but not all are created equal). At least the vintage Champagne does taste distinctly of toasty, nutty goodness. I can’t wait till the exams are done, when I can celebrate and truly enjoy downing a glass of bubbly!

I was recently at a tasting in Seattle for Walla Walla wines, what a fun group of grapes to be drinking. The Walla Walla specialties are Syrah and Merlot, and there’s also some great Chardonnay and Riesling, but there are many, many types of grapes being grown. There were about 50 wineries pouring for an eager crowd of people “in the trade” (writers, bloggers, restaurant owners), and of course people that just wanted to drink for free. My favourites were easily Sleight of Hand Cellars, L’Ecole 41, and Watermill Winery (from the Oregon side).

One of the hazards of a tasting event is the spit buckets. Yes, spit buckets. You were probably taught as a child, like me, that spitting in a public place is not only rude, but disgusting. Against this conditioning, I am expected to spit a bright red substance a substantial distance into buckets sitting on a table, that are already quite full of other’s efforts. Yuck. Yet, if you don’t spit out the wine, you are looked at like a heathen that knows nothing about wine. And, you stand quite a chance of getting drunk (quelle horreur). Plus, people are crowding around you, sometimes jostling, and watching your technique… no pressure!

Despite the presence of spit-bucket hogs (the peeps that sidle up to the bucket, and block others access through various means), I was making a valiant effort with an inky syrah, trying in vain to keep my long locks from impeding the process, and feeling quite suave about it, when some wine splashed back up from the bucket to spray on my face. Yuck times 1000. Would it be chic or déclassé to bring my own personal spit solo-cup to the next event, I wonder?

Coming up this soon is the Vancouver Wine Fest, the largest wine festival in North America, and this year’s theme is Australian Shiraz/Syrah, where I hope to taste some delish Aussie sparkling and fortifieds too. Then, the big WSET exams loom closer. Very exciting stuff!

PS: The next enrollment for the Diploma Prep courses will begin in January 2017!

 

HOW TO BUY SPARKLING WINE AS A GIFT

A flower? How thoughtful... but I was really hoping for some Champagne

A flower? How thoughtful... but I was really hoping for some Champagne

One of the top questions I get from wine lovers is, “What wine should I buy for X occasion”? Or, they need a gift for the boss, or a wine to bring to a dinner party.This is my answer: SPARKLING WINE!

Let me enumerate my reasons:

#1 It goes with everything. From oysters to pizza, you can’t go wrong with sparkling.

#2 It’s fun! Everyone loves the bubb.

#3 There’s a wide range of pricing. From entry level, to spendy Vintage Champagne, whatever your budget, there’s a sparkling for it.

Now we’re going to talk options. We all know Champagne (which on a label denotes it’s made in the Champagne region of France). But there are some other less well known bubbles I want you to know about too. They’re not all made in the same way as “Champagne Method” (called “Traditional Method” when used outside Champagne) which greatly affects their price. For a primer on the Champagne Method, check out #Instawineschool Day 6.

Prosecco:

Made in the Veneto and Friuli-Venezia Giulia regions of Italy (the North-East corner). Often cheap, cheerful, perfect for making cocktails (Bellini anyone?), or enjoying on it’s own, Prosecco is the go-to wine to bring to a house party or as a small thank you to the neighbors for picking up your mail. Most Prosecco is made using the tank method, in which the bubbles are added to a wine while it’s in a tank (as opposed to created in the bottle via secondary fermentation) which makes it cost effective. Prosecco is made from the grape Glera, and is usually crisp, fruity and fairly dry, although sweeter versions do exist. If you’re looking for a top quality ‘Secco keep an eye out for the letters DOCG on the label.

Cava:

Made in Spain. Cavas are actually made in the same method as Champagne, so you’ll see ‘Traditional Method’ on the label. It’s often produced from a blend of local grapes that you don’t hear too much about: Macabeu, Parellada and Xarello, mainly in the Catalonia region in the North-East of Spain, although we're starting to see more made from Chardonnay too. This is a smart buy, as you'll find flavours comparable to Champagne (shhh, don’t tell them I said so) but at under half the cost. Cava is perfect for bringing to a dinner party or fancy brunch, and I love to make my favourite cocktail, the Kir Royale, with it (top your Cava with a lashing of sweet ruby Cassis liqueur).

Non-Vintage Champagne (NV):

Made in Champagne, France, this is for when quality counts. NV Champagne is usually made from a blend of three grapes: Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, and Chardonnay. The grapes can come from all over the Champagne region, and the final wine will be a blend of wine made in different years, hence the term “non-vintage”. Master blenders are responsible for recreating the house style year after year. My favourite NV Champagne is Veuve Clicquot, as I love the truly toasty brioche note it has, and I'm also partial to Taittinger and Ruinart. Expect bubbles that are fine and creamy; some people say they look like a string of pearls running from the bottom of the glass. This would be a delightful birthday present, Mother’s Day gift, or something to thank your hostess for a weekend stay. PS: if you see Blanc de Blancs on the label, it's made from Chardonnay, and Blanc de Noirs is Pinot Noir and/or Pinot Meunier.

Vintage Champagne:

OK, take your best grapes, from your best vineyards, in a great year, and you have the beginnings of a Vintage Champagne. This Champers is from a specific year: while the grapes may come from various vineyards, they were all grown in the year declared on the label. Vintage Champagne lays on its lees for even longer than the NV stuff. That’s where the bottles are resting in the caves with the yeasts (lees) still in the wine, and gives us those sought-after bready notes. Vintage Champagne can be had for sometimes just a slight premium over the NV, although you can always spend more, and it's perfect for a special celebration. I’d buy Vintage for a wedding anniversary, romantic Valentine’s Day dinner, or to celebrate a big business win!

Thanks for reading! I’d love to know what’s your go-to sparkling? Send me a shout out in the comments below.

WINE TERMS YOU SHOULD KNOW

Let’s talk about some winemaking terms that you’ve surely seen on the back of the wine bottle or heard people chatting about, but may not be entirely clear on what it is they mean. Below we’re covering five of the most used technical or 'jargony' wine words and what they mean about the flavour of a wine:

Natural Fermentation

Fermentation is the process whereby happy little yeasts eat the sugars in the grape juice (must), and in turn produce alcohol, carbon dioxide and heat. The yeasts are naturally present in the winery and on the skins of the grapes, and find their way into the wine all by themselves; you will hear this called a “natural fermentation”. Natural Fermentation is popular in the low intervention winemaking crowd and in traditional old world wineries, and many believe it can impart more complex flavours to their wines.

The other school of winemaking will inoculate their juice with a batch of commercially made yeasts, which is more commonly seen, as it allows more control over the winemaking process including the flavours produced. Sometimes, a bit of both happens, a natural ferment topped up with some help from commercial yeasts.

The fermentation process itself can be done in stainless steel tanks, which are efficient and easy to clean, barrels (called a “barrel fermentation”), or even concrete eggs, which mimic ancient clay vessels and are thought to increase circulation of the fermenting must.

Malolactic Fermentation (Malo)

Have you seen a reference to “malo” on your wine label or heard the word at a winery? Malo is a process that happens towards the end of or just after the alcoholic fermentation is done. It is caused by a bacteria which transforms the sharp tasting malic acid present in the wine, into the softer, creamier tasting lactic acid (think of a tart green apple versus a creamy dairy flavour). Most red wines undergo this process, and it won’t necessarily be mentioned in the winemaking notes. Where you will see it is on softer whites such as Chardonnay, where a creamy, buttery flavour can be desirable. Crisp, aromatic whites, such as Riesling, are not likely to go through malolactic fermentation.

Methode Champenoise/Traditional Method

The “Champagne Method” (called the “Traditional Method” when used on non-Champagne sparkling wines), is how makers get the bubbles inside the bottle. This process is a labour of love responsible for the fine creamy bubbles we’ve come to expect from Champagne. Other wines that use this method are French Cremants, Cava from Spain, Franciacorta from Italy, and many new world sparklings.

My favourite new world sparkling wines are Blue Mountain’s Reserve Brut and Summerhill’s Cipes Brut, both from British Columbia. But don't get me started!

After the initial fermentation, winemakers fill the Champagne bottles with the wine, and a mixture of extra yeast and sugar. This allows a smaller second fermentation to happen inside the bottle. As the yeasts eat the sugar within the bottle, they produce carbon dioxide that is trapped and creates pressure that will cause bubbles to form.

The yeasts eventually die, undergoing autolysis (which is where they break down within the wine and give a delicious bread dough aroma and flavour). The bottles are allowed to rest in racks for quite a while, as they are turned a fraction at a time until they are nearly fully inverted, in a process called riddling. The yeast remnants collect into the neck of the bottle, until they are dipped in a freezing solution, and the frozen plug in the bottle neck is disgorged. Extra wine and sometimes sugar, a mixture called dosage, is added to top up the bottle before the cork is applied. With all this to get the bubbles, I bet you can understand why some sparkling wines are more expensive than others!

Brett (Brettanomyces)

This is one term you won’t likely see on the label, as some wine folk think it’s a bad thing, but you will definitely come across it in your glass and hear about it from your local wine nerd. Brett is a bacteria that is commonly known by the euphemism “barnyard”. I personally love a touch of the barnyard when I smell a wine, but for some it is off-putting, especially if it's a strong presence in the bottle. I've noticed a wide range of tolerances, for some, even a tiny amount of this smell and it's 'game over' while other people live for it. The Brett bacteria can be present all through the winery, and in small amounts add complexity, but in overwhelming doses is definitely considered a wine fault.

New Oak

You’ll probably have seen the phrase “new oak”, especially if you are a fan of new world wines. New oak refers to the oak barrels that wine rests in to mellow out before it is bottled and sold. When oak barrels are brand new, they impart a significant amount of flavour to a wine, with aromas like vanilla, toast, and spice. The time in new oak can also smooth out and soften harsh tannins.

Barrels are reused, but most of their flavour is given up in the first two years that they’re filled with wine. After the third year, they can still be used, but they would be called “inert” or “neutral”, meaning they are not imparting much oak flavour anymore. They do however, still have an important purpose for aging the wine: the wood allows a small amount of oxygen to interact with the wine, which will round out the edges on tannins.

You might also see a reference on the wine label to the type of oak used. The two major types of barrels are American and French (although barrels are made elsewhere too). American oak can give vanilla and coconut flavour, and French has a reputation for a finer grained wood which can lend a more elegant finish to the wine.

Barrels are a big expense for a winery, so they are often proud of their new oak. In more commercial grade wines, you can taste the use of cheaper oak chips or oak essence to attempt to replicate the flavours of a new oak barrel.

Hope this helps! Let me know of any other wine label words that you’ve come across below.

HOW TO TASTE WINE LIKE A PRO

This woman is contemplating all that goes into  truly  tasting a wine...

This woman is contemplating all that goes into truly tasting a wine...

No one needs a lesson on how to drink wine, that part comes naturally. Today we’re talking how to TASTE wine, and by the end you’ll be tasting like a pro. These are the techniques I use in my wine Diploma course for every wine I taste – and they’re all poured blind (aka from a plain decanter, no label), can you believe it?

Before we get to tasting, I want you to harness your inner Sherlock Holmes, because what we’re embarking on will require you to pay attention to lots of little clues, use your powers of deduction, and make a conclusion (you're also going to need to dispatch any self-consciousness you have around seeming precious). 

For this exercise, you’re going to stop thinking of wine as a beverage, and start thinking of it as a mystery you need to solve.

Remember this, it’s your tasting shorthand: SEE – SWIRL – SMELL – SIP – SAVOUR

First, we SEE the wine. Ideally you’ve got a white counter or piece of paper that you can view your glass over. Taking a look at the wine, we’re specifically looking for three things: how deep is the colour, opaque or pale? Is the wine crystal clear and bright, or is it a little murky? What colour is it – for whites does it have a green tint, is it lemon yellow, gold, or does it have a brown tone? For reds, is it vivid purple or ruby red, does it have a hint of garnet (brick red), or even brown?

When I’m looking at whites, I tilt the glass at 45 degrees over the paper, and look at the rim of the wine for hints. For example, Sauvignon Blanc tends to be very pale, almost watery, and sometimes has a bit of green in it. With reds, I do the tilt too, but I also put the glass down, and look straight down to see if I can make out the stem. If I can’t see the stem, I call a wine opaque.

Depth of colour can give you a clue about where the wine was grown and potentially even what grape it could be. Grapes grown in hot climates like Australia or California can have deeper colour. Some varieties like Pinot Noir and Nebbiolo will appear paler and more translucent in the glass. Wines like Zinfandel and Shiraz can have very deep colour, and sometimes they are totally opaque, so I’m mentally perusing what grapes it could be right from the get-go.

A clear, bright wine can indicate a well made wine, whereas a murky wine can indicate a few things: it’s an older wine that has thrown sediment (ie the tannins have precipitated out of the wine and are now visible), the wine was not filtered by the winemaker, or in some cases it could be faulted (ie something is wrong with it – this will come through when we smell and sip). Colour will also give us clues about the potential age of the wine. As wines age, they tend to become paler (reds), deeper in colour (whites), or develop a brown tone (brick colour in reds, tawny colours in whites).

We’re also taking a look at the “legs” or “tears” as they run down the sides of the glass. Thick, heavy, slow-moving tears can indicate a wine that has higher alcohol or could have residual sugar (ie it’s sweet). Whenever I see really thick tears, I think hmmmm, what will this taste like?

Next, we SWIRL. We talked the importance of swirling on Day 1 of #Instawineschool. This step is sometimes overlooked, but it’s really important in order to get the clues we need when we sniff. When we swirl our glass, we’re oxygenating the wine, and creating a wine vortex in the glass. Give your glass 5-10 seconds of swirling, as this sends the volatile aroma compounds into our noses as we SMELL.

Don’t laugh, but when I SMELL a wine for the first time, I swirl then breathe out and inhale deeply with my eyes closed. I try to put out all other thoughts except for what I’m smelling in the wine. If I need to take another smell of the wine, I give myself a couple of breaths before going back to the glass so I don’t wear out my nose.

As I smell, I’m looking for the very first impression I get. It might be blackberries, or vanilla, or spice. This is our first clue as to what the wine is. Then I start running through the scent families to tease out specifics. Do I smell fruit? Yes, is it stone fruit (apricots, peaches, plums), apples (red or green), pears, tropical (pineapple, mango, passionfruit), citrus (lemon, lime grapefruit)? Are there any floral notes (roses, violets elderflower, orange blossom)? Do I smell any hints from winemaking – butter, cream, bread, vanilla, toast? How about scents that tell us about age – earth, spice, leather, mocha, tobacco?

If a wine is all fruit, that is, the scents you’re picking up are wholly types of fruit, then we’re likely dealing with a younger wine. If you can pick up some hints of winemaking, like vanilla or oak, bread notes, then the wine is developing. If all you’re getting is smoke, spice, earthiness, mushrooms and tobacco, with no fruit, then the wine likely has some age on it, and we’ll call it fully developed.

If you’re smelling wet cardboard, you may have a ‘corked’ wine. We hear this term all the time, and no, it doesn’t refer to bits of cork floating in your glass. There’s a compound called TCA (trichloroanisole), that can sometimes be found in cork, and it creates a musty wet cardboard or wet dog odor. It can also dull the aroma and taste of a wine, making it flat. Cork production is much more careful these days (it was found that chlorine was an issue), so cork taint is becoming less common than in the past.

Some grapes have ‘tells’; you smell the glass, and the bouquet is so evocative that you just know what it is. Gewurtztraminer smells like lychees and roses. Riesling can smell of petrol. Pinotage can smell like tar. Cabernet Sauvignon of mint or eucalyptus. Syrah of black pepper. Gruner of grapefruit. Take note of any distinct aromas you get.

If you think I’m spending lots of time on SMELL, you’re absolutely right. This step is where I pick up most of my clues about a wine!

Now, we SIP. Finally we’re tasting some wine. Close your eyes, take a good sip, and don’t be afraid to slosh the wine around your mouth. We need to get the wine to all your tastebud areas (sweet, bitter etc).

If you’re feeling brave, try the SLURP. Taking a sip, purse your lips as if you’re playing the flute, tilt your head forward a tiny bit, and breathe in a steady amount of air. The air will pass through the wine, creating a slurping sound. This trick brings extra aroma compounds to the back of your mouth, where they will be picked up by your nose. Careful not to drip down your shirt!

Again, take note of your very first impression of the wine. Is it super acidic (juicy, vibrant, mouth puckering)? Is it tannic (velvet or toothpaste feeling, gritty, astringent, sandpaper tongue)? Does it feel heavy like cream (full-bodied), full fat milk (medium-bodied) or light like fat-free milk (light-bodied)?

Sensing alcohol is another trick. Take a sip, swallow or spit your wine, then pay attention to how fast your saliva starts running. Sounds strange, but the higher the alcohol, the more your mouth will water.

Then, like we did with SMELL, start running through the flavours you’re getting. They may echo the same things you smelled earlier, or you may pick up something totally new. Run through fruit, spice, flower, other flavour families to try to put a name to what you’re tasting. If you need a tip, read the back of the bottle to see what the maker is suggesting, although it’s best to learn by reading this after you’re done! When you can pick up lots of different flavours, we call the wine complex.

Now, we SAVOUR. This step can get skipped, but the whole point of drinking the wine is to enjoy it right? After you swallow, how long do the pleasant flavours linger? The longer the finish, the more you can be sure this was a well made quality wine. A quick or simple finish, or one with unpleasant aftertaste can indicate a cheaper or commercial grade product.

Now that we’ve SEEN – SWIRLED – SMELLED – SIPPED – SAVOURED, think of all the clues you picked up along the way, the flavours, texture, aromas, and consider them.

Finally, ask yourself the most important question of all: Do I like this wine?

Developing your palate, learning to identify grapes, and picking out flavours is all well and good, but it’s all about finding wine YOU love.

BEST WINE BOOKS FOR WINE LOVERS

There’s something about reading a story, that is infinitely more fun than studying from a textbook. Not only is it more entertaining, it’s easier to pick up and retain information, at least it is for me.

Today, I’m going to share the best non-textbook reads from my wine library. These are books I’ve read, re-read, and loved, that also helped me learn more about my favourite subject. Even better if they are enjoyed on a comfy couch, with a glass of wine on the side table and a pet at your feet. Enjoy!

Kermit Lynch: Adventures on the Wine Route

I’m starting with my favourite of the bunch, this book was just so much fun to read. Kermit has Personality (with a capital ‘P’), and strong opinions, always good things when it comes to being a protagonist. He’s just released a 25th anniversary edition which I’d recommend, as it follows up on parts of the story. This is a vivid story of an American who falls in love with French wine, determined to make a go of his California wine store. It follows his buying trips through France, and introduces us to some incredible characters in the vineyards and wineries of the Rhone, Burgundy and Loire.

Tilar Mazzeo: The Widow Clicquot

This is the story of Barbe-Nicole Clicquot Ponsardin, who came of age in the aftermath of the French revolution, and inherited a wine business as a young widow. For those who have an interest in women in business, or the history of Champagne, this will be captivating. This is a woman who changed the world of my favourite beverage; I don’t think Champagne would be what it is today without her.

Lawrence Osborne: The Accidental Connoisseur

 This is a funny book, as in it made me laugh out loud funny. It’s from the perspective of an irreverent outsider falling into the wine world. Lawrence takes us into the most incredible scenes, a private lunch with Mondavi, to vineyards in the Northern Rhone, plus commentary on Parker’s nose. It’s a sceptic’s perspective, and he’s not afraid to skewer sacred wine cows.

Jancis Robinson: Tasting Pleasure (Confessions of a Wine Lover)

The word that comes to mind when I think of Jancis, is erudite. She’s a Master of Wine, and also a very prolific writer. This was one of the first wine books I ever read, and I loved it. She takes us behind the scenes to some of the most incredible places, with big names, in the wine world. It tells her story of going from a university student to a famous wine writer, and it’s eminently readable. If you want to be inspired, read this.

Elin McCoy: The Emperor of Wine (The Rise of Robert M. Parker, Jr,. and the Reign of American Taste)

If you’ve ever wondered why we use a point scale to score wine, or why people refer to “Parker” as a pejorative, this is the book for you. Love his taste or hate it, Parker has completely changed the way wine is made around the world. I remember while I was first getting into wine study, hearing Parker had claimed to remember every wine he’d ever tasted. That’s either hubris, or a man who’d make a fascinating subject for a book. This is a peek into the world of a famous wine critic, and it’s a thrill to read.

Let me know if the comments below, have you read any of these? What’s your favourite book about wine?