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Bouquets, aromas, hints & notes: so how *do* you taste wine?

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Guest blogger Christina Rasmussen takes us through wine tasting in honour of London Wine Week…

Tasting wine can be an intimidating task.  I remember the first couple of times I tasted wine I was desperately nervous to say what I thought, half mumbling an incoherent answer. Now I wish I could tell the 21 year old version of me to just go for it – if my idea doesn’t match the common conception, so what? I strongly believe that wine involves personal opinions and subjective perceptions. It is, in my opinion, an art form. So here’s my take on it:

The Grape 

The grape; such a fascinating little thing. Green, yellow, red, black… It can be used not just for wine but to create a multitude of food and alcohol: wine, port, sherry, jam, juice, jelly, oil, grape seed extract, vinegar, raisins, not to mention the spirits too – Armagnac, Cognac, Pisco, Stravecchio, Grappa, all the marcs – like Marc de Bourgogne and Marc d’Alsace.

Further to this, it will always baffle me how one fruit can vary so enormously. Try a Gewürztraminer next to a Cabernet Sauvignon and the mind boggles; how can two such equally wonderful wines come from essentially the same fruit?

This leads me to my next point: never judge a wine against another of an entirely different species. It’s not fair on the little grape in question. Of course everyone will always have preferences; some will be pro-Chardonnay and others will be pro-Pinot Grigio. However, when tasting a wine, try to appreciate the wine for its own characteristics (or for that matter the other way round: it could be just crap).

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The Region 

Secondly, it is so important to take into account the region in which that grape is produced. You might have heard of the term “terroir” before. It essentially means that wine is inherently affected by the soil, topography and climate of where the grape has grown. This will define its character enormously.

I worked in Beaune, Burgundy for six months a couple of years ago. This is where I got to grips with wine, and its production. It’s amazingly scientific and at first hugely overwhelming; I had to buy a wine dictionary to keep up – (if you’re interested and a bit of a future wine nerd, it’s called Lexivin and is excellent). Burgundy is a prime example of a region where terroir plays a huge role. Within the space of just a few meters, soil type can change drastically and hence create a wine that is entirely different to its neighbour.

The Temperature 

So, we have now established that you must take into consideration grape variety and terroir when tasting. Next, of equal importance, is the actual tasting technique itself. Firstly, ensure the wine is the correct temperature. This is really important; if it is too cold or too warm it will alter your perception of it hugely. It’s a generalisation, but reds should normally be served at 14ºC to 18ºC and whites at 8ºC and 10ºC (however, cheaper wines can benefit from being served between 4ºC and 8ºC).

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The Tasting Process 

The temperature is right and your wine is ready. Hoorah. So now what do we do?

Step One: Look at your wine. That might seem silly, but you can learn huge amounts from a wine’s colour. First, look straight down into it, then into the light, and then tilt it. That way you see its whole spectrum and any shimmers.

Step Two: The Swirl. If you’re a newbie at tasting wine, I recommend doing this on a flat surface or else you risk your wine flying all over you or your unfortunate neighbour (especially if it’s red). If you’re doing this properly for the first time, I would also say smell your wine first without swirling it. This will reveal to you the importance of *The Swirl*. Once you’ve swirled your wine round the sides of your wine glass, take a few sniffs (without burying your nose inside – your nose should be just above the glass). Then retract and let your brain process the aromas.

Step Three: The Sniff. This is firstly to make sure your wine doesn’t have a flaw. This will normally be easy to tell (although not always, some faults are a bit trickier). If your wine smells of a wet dog or mouldy bag of bread, something’s not right. Next, the aromas! A good wine can scream out hundreds of aromas, so don’t worry about identifying all of them. Just go with your gut instinct, and if there’s one in particular that you can’t quiiiiite find, keep concentrating and eventually it will come to you (I had this recently with a Sauvignon Blanc dessert wine from New Zealand and it turned out to be fig, but it took me maybe an hour to get there. It was a like a “Eureka!” moment).

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The Aromas themselves: 

1.    Primary aromas. Fruit, floral (and sometimes vegetable) aromas. These come from the grape: citrus, tropical, stoned, green, berry, dried. So for example, typically a Sancerre might have grapefruit and pineapple notes. A Riesling may have more floral, blossom and lime notes.

2.      Secondary aromas. These come from winemaking, for example barrel usage and lees stirring. This will add notes such as cloves, coconut, vanilla, coffee and tobacco.

3.      Tertiary aromas. These come from time spent ageing and other interesting factors (such as limestone soils adding a chalky note). Examples of this are meaty additions (seriously… I was lucky enough to try a Hommage Jacques Perrin 2007 recently that literally gave off aromas of veal jus), tobacco, leather and mushrooms.

Step Four: Tasting! Finally, let’s drink. Take a small sip and sort of pout, sucking air in through your teeth, like drinking through a straw. You may look and sound a bit like an idiot, but it’s a necessary evil. Fruit, flower, herb, mineral, meats; all of these types of tastes will evolve further from the nose into the mouth. In addition, tasting the wine lets you detect balance, harmony, complexity, evolution… and tannins.

…. Tannins. What the hell are they?

In wine, tannins come from the grape skins, seeds and stalks (approx. 50% of plant leaves are tannins). In tasting, they are to do with texture. If you have a sip of a very powerful young red wine, you will know exactly what I mean by a highly tannic wine. It’s that “tsst tsst” dry-mouth sensation that feels a bit like when the dentist uses the sucky device, leaving you devoid of moisture. However, when allowed to mellow over time, tannins add structure, roundness and depth, and also make a wine worthy of ageing. They are a necessity for good wine.

So, next time you buy a bottle of wine, have a proper look at the label and browse the internet. There’s so much to learn, and you can drink while you do it – surely that’s a good enough excuse.

Christina @ Fashionbite xx

Check out Christina’s blog: Vintage Of All Kinds / @Christina_SvRSign-Up To FashionBite’s Weekly News

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