Thursday, December 17, 2009

Extra Helpings: Surviving (And Enjoying) A Wine Tasting

Wine intimidates a lot of people. Even people who enjoy a nice glass of wine every now and then are hesitant to dip their big toe into the world of the oenophile. The problem, as I see it, is two-fold. First, it is largely believed that only expensive wine is considered good wine. Second, wine connoisseurs often speak a confusing, word-laden lingo that make outsiders feel overwhelmed and quite frankly, a little lost. Often the wine steward or sommelier will prattle on endlessly about terroir and the growing practices about each grape that went into the wine. Listening to this encyclopedic explanation about a single wine is confusing enough. How on earth do you manage to navigate through a wine tasting where eleven different wines are being presented?

In today's entry, I am going to help you, gentle reader, navigate through this minefield of myths and realities in order to provide you with the tools to attend and actually ENJOY a wine tasting. Hopefully by the time you finish reading this article, you'll have a sense of what a typical wine tasting event is like, what to expect going in, and finally, what you should take away from the experience.

First, let us talk about the two statements I made earlier in the post:

"Wine must be expensive to be good."

Absolute hogwash. While I am certainly not about to suggest you go to your local mega-supermarket and plunk down $4.99 and expect to find winner after winner, there have been many occasions where I've found not only an acceptable bottle of wine for $10, but a quite delicious one. More expensive wines don't necessarily correlate to better tasting wines. Often times, the price of a wine is often directly related to the amount of wine produced and the perceived demand. If a single farm producing a single vintage only creates 10,000 bottles for worldwide distribution, the laws of supply and demand will help to dictate price.

"Wine connoisseurs often speak a confusing, word-laden lingo."

Sadly, this is true. In an effort to quantify what really is a subjective experience, the wine industry has come up with elaborate terms and descriptions to try and communicate the essence of a wine without having to taste it yourself. Sure, there are scientific methodologies we can apply to a wine, it's alcohol content, it's residual sugar levels, but those measurements don't speak to the very heart of wine consumption, the aroma and taste.

In fact, let's talk about aroma and taste for a moment. When I first started attending wine tastings, I assumed that all of the ephemeral, flowery language used to describe a wine was all in the taste. It's not. As with all manner of food and drink, much of what we perceive that isn't salty, sour, bitter, sweet, and umami is through our sense of smell. The same holds true for wine. A vast majority of the individual flavors that we perceive are through our olfactory system.

So with that bit of introduction, let's get to the heart of the matter, surviving and enjoying a wine tasting. Some tastings, such as the one I had tonight at Vaccaro's Trattoria, are more free-form. In other words, you try the wines you want in whatever order you want and pair them with the food sitting out on the table at your discretion. The other type of wine tasting, or better described as a wine pairing, would be when the sommelier works together with the chef to come up with a menu of dishes and wines where each compliments and brings out the best qualities of the paired food and drink. Typically wine pairings are part of a defined menu that comes out in courses.

Tonight's wine tasting was going to specifically be for sparkling wines as well as a sample of Mackenzie Farms goat cheeses. Here was a shot of the two menus, Mackenzie cheeses on the left and sparkling wines on the right:

In a setting where a specific food is not being featured along with the wine, you will normally find more generic food offerings, such as bits of plain bread, less complex cheeses, and perhaps crackers or breadsticks. The point of these bits of food is to not only help cleanse your palate between tastings, but also to help prevent you from absorbing too much alcohol too quickly. Tonight's tasting was slightly different because along with the wines we would be trying tonight, there were also five or six varieties of cheese to taste separately.

Here were a couple of shots of the buffet table right before the event started:

And here was a shot of my appetizer plate with my first tasting, a Prosecco Brut from Il Follo in Italy:

Along with this Prosecco, Il Follo offered two additional styles, Extra Dry and Rose:

At this point, even though I did take a photo of every glass of wine I had, there is no point in showing you the additional photos; they all pretty much look the same. Instead, let's talk about how to taste the wine.

1) Look at the wine in the glass. Put the glass of wine between you and a light source? Is it clear? Can you see through it? Color can often be used to determine the age of a wine.

2) Swirl the wine in the bottom of the glass. This helps to oxygenate the wine which releases the aromas from the liquid as well as helping to soften the tannins in the wine (if you are drinking a red wine, for instance). The resulting vapor is what you detect when you smell the wine. This is referred to as the "nose" or the "bouquet" of the wine. This is where most of the flavor profile used to describe the wine comes from.

3) Take a bit of the wine into your mouth. Sometimes you will hear people make a "slurping" sound when they do this. What they are doing is drawing in extra oxygen with the liquid in order to help release more of the volatile aromas so that both your tongue and your olfactory senses can get as much out of it as possible. My personal preference is to draw in a little bit of wine, form my mouth so that the center of my lips are pressed together but the sides of my mouth are slightly open. This allows me to gently draw in air without making too obnoxious of a sound. Finally, swallow the sample.

Here are the things you are looking for after swallowing the wine:

1) Additional flavors that you didn't detect when you smelled the wine.

2) Attack. Did the flavor in your mouth come quickly or did it linger a while and allow you to savor it for several seconds? I have come across many wines that while they had a lovely nose to them, had an awful, almost Windex-like sharpness to them that was off-putting once I actually tasted them.

3) Decay. Did the flavor linger or did it almost instantly disappear? If it lingered, did additional flavors develop the more you savored it?

After tasting a wine, you will inevitably have additional liquid left. The pours tonight at Vaccaro's were particularly heavy handed (which is not a bad thing if you aren't the driver) and had I drank everything I was given tonight would've had a hard time legally driving home. Some wine tastings offer a common "bucket" that you can dispose of leftover wine. Tonight, I simply grabbed an extra glass and used it as my vessel for anything I didn't want to finish. Some people might think that pouring out wine would be considered uncouth, but I assure you, when tasting this many wines, it is absolutely necessary. In fact, professional tasters often don't even swallow the wine. After swirling it around in their mouth, they spit it out. This isn't because they didn't like it. If they didn't spit it out, most of their work days would be done by mid-morning as they'd be too drunk to function.

In between glasses of wine, it's good to cleanse your palate with a bit of bread or cheese or a sip from a glass of water. The last thing you want to do is have the flavor from an earlier wine influence your judgment on the current one. I recommend bringing a writing implement to take notes as you experience each wine. The level of detail is really completely up to you. In the case of my tasting, I wasn't sure exactly what angle I would be taking when I wrote up this entry, so I took fairly detailed notes on the bouquet, acidity, sweetness, attack and decay of each wine. But had I just been there to see what I liked, I could've easily done what my tablemate Donna did; she simply wrote "Loved it", "Good", "Not so good", and "Hated it" on her wine menu. There is no right or wrong here.

As a matter of course, we should probably talk about expectations. In every wine tasting I've ever done, there were wines that I loved and wines that I hated. In a tasting like today's where we had eleven choices, I expected to really like two or three, to really hate two or three, and find the rest ... eh, okay. You should expect the same thing. That being said, I will always encourage you to try all of the wines, even if you aren't expecting to like something. Not only might you find something that surprises you, but tasting as many varieties as you can will help to start improving both your palate and your perception of what defines a good wine versus a bad one. Don't think that just because the sommelier picked a particular wine for a tasting and provided you with a seemingly endless stream of information about the grapes, winery, and country of origin, that you have to like it. Always give it a fair shake, but in the end, what is good and bad is up to you.

One last bit of information you need to know is that wine tastings are like Tupperware parties; the hard part is getting you there. Once you arrive and are enjoying the wines and cheeses, the hope is that you'll walk away with a case or two of wine. Some vendors are pushier than others, but know that there is no requirement to buy anything additional. Tonight's wine and cheese pairing was $25 per person and I knew going into the tasting that I hadn't intended to walk away with anything other than my experience and my notes. This is exactly what I did.

I want to encourage you to check out a wine tasting near you. They are available at many different venues from grocery stores to wine stores to restaurants. They are usually minimally priced and often offer a variety of wines for all budgets. The price range of tonight's selection went from $13 on the low end up to $48 on the high end with all but three of the selections being less than $19. With all of the tastings I've attended, I've come to realize that not every wine tasting is going to "fit" with your temperament, personality, and checkbook. Shop around until you find the the right combination of location, helpful staff, and selection of wines that suit your taste.

If I could boil this entire article down to three pieces of advice, it would be this: Keep an open mind, taste everything, and decide for yourself which wines are right for you. Oh, and have a good time!

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