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On Tasting
What You Bring to Your First Wine Tasting
Saturday, 4th December, 2004  - David Farmer

If you enjoy wine you have probably thought about going to a wine tasting. Having a bit more knowledge makes sense when you consider the large number of bottles you will open over a lifetime. Armed with a decent tasting glass here are some thoughts on what you bring to your first wine tasting class.

Seeing is believing so the first glimpse of the wine can tell you all manner of things. Is it red, white or sparkling; and since you already have a tasting record in your brain from all the wines you have drunk the sight will set off impressions about the likely taste before you even sip the wine. Is it a light red or an inky black colour? Does it show the bright, vibrant colours of youth or the browner colours of age and so on? So sight is the first of the powerful tools you bring to the tasting. Without sight you will find that it is not so easy to tell the difference between white and red wines. Don’t believe me? Blindfold yourself and find out. One of my teaching tricks is to add neutral tasting food colouring to wines. Thus you may turn a pale white wine to bright green and serve it with the same wine unaltered. People taste all manner of flavours in the green wine that are simply not there. The reason I believe is a reaction to what they see and what they see looks unpleasant and silly.

It gets difficult when you have glimpsed the label. This will set off a cascade of thoughts that can determine whether you like the wine or not before you taste it. They say that the glimpse of the label is worth a hundred years of experience. Deciding what a wine will taste like from the label will be the most difficult hidden persuader for you to overcome. I have always felt that it was all down hill for the wine industry after the first label was used around 1650. Thus I was not surprised to find University of Sydney scientist, Dr. Colin Clifford, being reported in 2004 as saying, “Our brain is constantly filling in the gaps and constructing its best guess of what is out there.... and the view it provides us might be rather more subjective than we would expect.” Imagine having only a fleeting view of a bottle and constructing your taste around that view, rather that what you find in the glass, and then finding out the wine was something else. It will happen to you.

Then you bring an acute sense of smell to your first tasting. Many tasters find as much pleasure in sniffing a great wine as they do in the drinking. The wine glass is shaped to enhance this experience and when you find a great wine it almost seems a shame to drink it away. For some chemicals you are super sensitive and can smell odour molecules down to parts per billion. The 2004 Nobel prize for medicine was awarded to work done on how we smell by Dr Axel and Dr Buck for a paper published in 1991. Further advances have followed. The best guess is we can recognize and remember about 10,000 aromas. How many you will find in a glass of wine I cannot say but it will be a few thousand. To detect all these smells you have over 1000 different ‘odorant receptors’ and 1000 or so genes that organize the proteins that detect each aroma and send a signal to the brain. Apparently we could smell much more many eons ago as the human genome study suggests that 60% of the genes that were used for smells have been turned off.

Now this starts to create another problem because what has been turned off in one taster may be different to another taster. Both of you are not seeing the same pattern of aromas. Perhaps the strong dislike some drinkers show to the aroma of sauvignon blanc is based on the genes. Maybe the genes they have turned off are different to those who like the strong aromas of this variety. As you can see this wine tasting business requires you to show a great deal of caution when you offer an opinion. Plus the role of aroma detection and taste are bound together. Blocking your nose as you eat can change the taste of many foods and this applies to wine as well.

Swirling and sniffing a wine and then tasting are best done as one action to get the maximum enjoyment from the wine. It’s hard to say but you might find 40% of the flavour is enhanced by the impression received from the aroma. So your sense of smell is very acute, so much so that you can remember a particular ‘aroma memory’ for years. This is good for wine tasters as you can recall great wines after they have gone.

And to link sight with smell, research suggests that our steady decline in odour detection, that is the turning off of genes, is matched by enhanced colour vision. We have swapped one for the other which is not good for us wine tasters as you can only imagine how much pleasure we have lost, although that is a black and white view.

Now it is time to taste the wine. As with aroma, taste receptors are sprinkled over the tongue. The old idea was that a salty taste was detected on one area of the tongue and sweetness on another and so forth. This is not true although the density of receptors varies over the surface. This of course has not stopped companies that make wine glasses (Riedel is the worse offender) spruiking about glasses that are designed to maximize each wine variety by delivering it onto just that part of the tongue that has the right receptors for that variety.

Also scientists are homing in on the meaning of taste or is it flavour. I understand that taste refers to the five basic qualities which are salty, sour, sweet, bitter and umami. When you add in the influence of smell you have flavour. Flavour is what we talk about in wine tasting. Of the five basic tastes only sweet is allowed to be pronounced with the others being hidden in the background.

Of course tasting was never meant to be simple and new research suggests that when people know which of two brands of cola they are drinking their brains respond differently to when they taste the drinks blind. Well we have know this for a long time with wine tasting but this study proves it with the use of brain scanning technology.

So you view the wine, smell and taste it and the sensations are relayed back to the brain. As mentioned the brain does not make an honest assessment but filters according to data that is stored and desires you have created when doing the tasting. Your past experiences, things such as recent wine experiences and even as far back as good or bad childhood memories will affect your final view of the wine. Tasting is a very subjective business but if you keep at it and stop your brain heading off in any old direction you can train yourself to get better and better and with this comes more drinking satisfaction.

New tasters always fall for a simple trap by saying, ‘I don’t know much about wine but I know what I like’. If you cannot see beyond that thought you will not progress. Teaching for many decades has proved to me that tasters do not know what they like when their favourite wines are included in a masked sequence. Try it on yourself. Take wines you are keen on, add some others, including several that you believe you do not like and serve them masked or as we say, blind. You will learn a lot from the result. If you can start by ridding yourself of as much built up prejudice as possible and be as objective as possible you can start to make progress.

A wine in your glass comes with its varietal make-up; its country and district of origin, and the guidance in flavour that has been imparted from the winemaking. I have found useful the thought of saying ‘let the wine speak to you’ and say less yourself. The constant variable is the taster, seldom the wine. The brain plays tricks, the palate alters, your sense of smell can differ quickly and you develop new subjective conclusions about wine all too easily.

Assuming you are not tasting casks and cheap wines, and at your first tasting there is little point, try to approach tasting from the angle I have suggested. The wine will talk to you but you must allow it by finding yourself what it wants to say. You are armed with formidable powers of sight, smell and taste and the ability to meld all of this to a conclusion. Give it a try and open up your senses.

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