Put a cork in it
Wine tasting is not a pretty pastime. Snorking, swishing, spitting … it’s not as refined as many make it out to be. It’s more like watching someone rinse with mouthwash.Still, the discerning of flavors and aromas is quite refined, and very complex.I like wine, but I must admit, as far as my wine education goes, I’m still in elementary school. I’m just now beginning to truly appreciate wines and their subtleties, and learning the ritual of wine tasting and drinking. I am starting to develop my palate to distinguish different areas on the “flavor wheel,” as vintner Chris Madrigal, of Madrigal Vineyards in Napa Valley, calls it.I met Madrigal at the Taste of Vail recently and picked his brain to get some tips on approaching all the different wines I was about to encounter over the weekend. (Not only in seminars and pairing dinners, but also at the Taste of Vail Grand Tasting, in which around 150 different wines were featured, from all over the country – just a little intimidating for a wine newbie). Madrigal, an upbeat guy who had no aura of snobbishness about him, was happy to help me out.The first thing he told me to remember was “Don’t let anyone tell you what you’re tasting.””Wine tasting is like playing detective,” Madrigal said. “It’s like a mystery, trying to pinpoint all the flavors and smells. If you let someone tell you what you are tasting, you will never be able to distinguish it for yourself.”He said that most of our taste is through our eyes, which is what makes tasting wine such a challenge. You can see color, maybe sediment and small nuances in how the wine sticks to the glass, but other than that, you have no visual clues to taste.Madrigal then gave me some strategies in solving wine “mysteries.”First, he said, you look for common tastes. These are easy to detect. “Is the wine sweet? Sour? How’s the level of acidity? What about tannins?” Madrigal said.(For those who don’t know wine-speak, tannins are molecules that have distinct, astringent, bitter flavors. Wine can take on tannins when the grapes are pressed, rather than crushed, or if it is matured in oak or wood casks with high tannin content. Tannins make up a major portion of the sediment in wine).The second level of tasting is to discern which fruits are present, Madrigal said. Grapes are a given, but there may be essences of cherry, strawberry, plum, citrus or melon. The next level in tasting complexity is looking for undertones like oak, vanilla and caramel.All these flavors give clues to where and how the grapes are produced, Madrigal said. “A super-taster can even determine the vintage, region and maybe even the winemaker,” he said. After talking with Madrigal, I felt like I moved up a grade level in my wine education. I was ready to take on the wines and taste all the little differences.Despite my eagerness, I’m still kinda stuck at the first few levels of tasting. It takes experience to develop a distinguished palate.As Madrigal said, “The key to learning wine is building up your memory bank. The more wines you drink, the more you will develop your taste.”So to learn more, I have to drink more? I’ll drink to that.Gabrielle Devenish is the food editor at the Post Independent. She can proudly say she’s never had wine from a box. Contact her at (970) 945-8515, ext. 535, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.How to taste winen Lift your glass by the stem to avoid warming the wine in the bowl of your glass.n Raise your glass to check the wine’s color (different hues give clues to different flavors). The wine should be fairly clear; most wines should not have sediment unless they are specifically marked as “unfiltered.” Or unless you backwash.n Swirl the liquid in the glass by gently rotating your wrist; as the wine leaves trails, or tears, it reveals alcohol content. Try not to splash.n Sniff deeply and try to identify the wine’s traits, which could range from essence of raspberry to chocolate, or even tobacco. Put your nose deep into the glass to get as much of the aroma into your nostrils as possible, without actually inhaling the wine.n Take a large sip – but don’t swallow, yet. Hold the wine and swish it across your tongue, inner cheeks and teeth before exhaling slowly through both nose and mouth (while the wine is still in your mouth.) I called this the swishing and snorking step, since those are the sounds that are made. Then swallow and note any aftertastes. If you’re tasting many wines, spit into the container provided (spitting on the floor is frowned upon).n Finally, remember – wine is to be sipped and enjoyed. It is not to be guzzled down in frat-house fashion.
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