Monday, April 11, 2011

D.J.’s Wine Tip #2: The Four Things That Will Make You Better at Wine Tasting

As you may recall in the first installment in this series, I urged you to drink the wine that you like, no matter what people think about it.  In this installment, I’m going to teach you a brand-new paradigm for being able to describe wine.

In the previous article, I told you why wine snobs are full of shit when they question the flavors people taste in wine.  This is because every person’s palate is different, and it’s unlikely that any two people in a group of people would taste the same flavors in any given wine.  I urged you to try to describe flavors that you taste, without paying heed to the wine snob who will berate and belittle you.

The problem with this is that a lot of people won’t be able to identify ANY flavors in wine, and will grow frustrated.  A lot of people have trouble distinguishing oak.  I went to a grade school that had wood chips out on the playground, so I…err…ate a lot of wood growing up (NOT a Catholic school!), and happen to be able to taste it in wine.  But there are plenty of other flavors that I can’t either describe readily or pick up on. The simple reason is that different people have different taste memories that correlate different adjectives with different tastes.  The language isn’t common enough for people to compare wines with any real merit, aside from “that one tastes good” and “that one tastes bad.”

When I went to my first real wine-tasting, there was a short teaching segment ahead of time that introduced the four real meaty, sink-your-teeth-into elements that are common for pretty much all wines.  We had four glasses in front of us representing these four elements.  They are:

Sweetness: This was basically sugar water.  Pretty self-explanatory.

Acidity: Sort of a citrusy, not-quite ripe flavor.  I think they used diluted lemon juice.  Acidity tastes kind of sour, and an either be refreshing (generally in white wines) or devastating (generally in reds).

Alcohol: A glass full of vodka.  Tastes pretty much like you imagine, though I asked for seconds to…err…”confirm my impressions.”

Tannins: These are the components of grape skins that red wines have that make them dark—generally only the faintest tannins can be tasted in white wines.  Too much of it tastes like leather or astringent—too much in the way of tannins will your mouth puckered and dry by the end.  If you don’t know what leather tastes like, well, go bite a belt.  Go on, I won’t tell anyone.  This stuff was basically dissolved tannin powder, which was awful.  I think the instructor basically held me in a choke-hold and forced me to drink it.

The best part of this is you can kind of replicate the experience at home.  Sure, you may have to go to a specialty shop to find the tannin powder, but everything else should be readily available to you.  For the acid, use some lemon juice diluted in water.  Put each component in a separate glass and taste each.  Then, open a bottle of wine and try to grade each component on a scale of 1-4, using half or quarter-points if you want.  See if you can discern these four basic flavors in wine.  Note your scores for the wines you “like,” and see if you can come to some conclusions about varieties and regions that you might generally like.

It might take a while to get good at this exercise, so feel free to “try it out” with a bunch of different bottles.  I didn’t invent these terms by any means, but I do think they are incredibly useful to the average wine drinker.  Even if you don’t go through the exercise, start to try to taste these four basic components of wine in your day-to-day drinking so that you know which cheapo is the best (my money is on Barefoot Pinot Noir, or Yellow Tail Shiraz).  The point is, if you can describe wine in these four simple terms, wine snobs shouldn’t have shit on you.  Any “licorice” or “daffodils” that they detect are just needless showboating.  These four factors are far more useful, and easier to remember when trying to find a wine that you like.
Any thoughts on your favorite types of wines or whether you have any preference for one of these four components?  Leave them in the comments.

Questions?  Comments?  Already think I’m a closet wine snob?  E-mail me at  Follow me on twitter @djgelner.  Friend me on facebook here.

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