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On Tasting
Going To Your Second Wine Tasting
Saturday, 11th December, 2004  - David Farmer

Its not to hard to learn about wine and it has rewards. Being able to tell a bargain wine from a cheap wine that is ordinary is a very comfortable feeling and over a lifetimes of buying you can save a large sum of money and this applies in restaurants as well as bottle shops. So it is worth it to press on. From the first tasting you discovered that sight, aroma and taste all work with the brain to produce your ‘impression’ of the wine. Plus how easily it is to be influenced and swayed off course which means you have to stay focused and disciplined.

Hearing, Talking and Writing

Add to those senses already discussed, hearing, talking and writing and you’ve got all the tools needed to understand this tasting business. A famous wine judge who had moved to the chairman’s role found a very simple way to steer the desired outcome in the direction he wanted. In a loud voice he would proclaim that ‘wine number 35 is outstanding’ and he hoped the judges agreed. Naturally we all went back to our work sheets and furiously rubbed out the pathetic score we had given the wine and marked it up to high silver. So it is with any tasting group. So for your second tasting listen to those who know more though do not be swayed by everything you are told.

A proven way to learn about wine is to talk about it and even better write a tasting note. For some reason people who do this learn a lot faster. Sure it’s not easy to talk about something of which you know little and who wants to be laughed or snickered at. I think the reason it works is because it creates confidence quicker and you zoom up the learning curve sooner. Keep the words simple and talk about aromas and flavours. As far as a tasting note goes even one word is better than a blank sheet. Describe the colour then a few words about what you liked or did not like about the wine. The main thing is to start. If you are looking at a range of wines try to rank them in your order of preference. Doing this builds real wine knowledge so be prepared to make plenty of mistakes and remember the old saying, appearing to have knowledge when you don’t means you will stop learning.

The Five Basic Tastes

Let’s revisit the five basic tastes and see how they apply to wine. Sour in wine is the taste of acids of which there are a number so think of the citrus family, green apples and hints of vinegar. Sweet is easy as this is the sugar of the grape. Even dry wines still have a few grams of sugar and often a lot more. Sugar and acids work together to give you the best taste so look for a nice balance of these two. Bitterness is the mouth filling grip from the tannin family found in red wines. Saltiness is essential to balance out food but does not show up in taste of wine and the last is umami which is the textural quality or savouriness of the wine. The wine maker can build this up with techniques such as lees stirring and the use of oak, with the idea being to give a creamy texture to the wine. The alcohol content of the wine is also part a wines texture. The mouth feel or texture of a wine is very important so I will return to this another day.

Making Cocktails

While we are on the topic of the sugar, acid and alcohol balance a good way to experiment is making cocktails. I love making cocktails and was greatly influenced by David Embury’s fabulous book, ‘The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks’ (Faber) that came out in the 1950’s and is now out of print. He leads you through the art and teaches what he calls, how to roll your own. In other words do not follow a recipe but get the balance right. I came down to the following mix which has produced splendid results. Use three strong to two sour to one sweet. Strong is the alcohol of choice such as gin or rum. Sour is the balancing ingredient or the cocktail falls over and this of course is lemon or lime juice or tiny amounts of those bitter alcohols like campari. Sweet is a sugar syrup or grenadine or a portion of a sweet liqueur although remember these are cocktails already so use sparingly. The harmony of the sour and sugar balance is the art though they must never mask the alcohol. The only other secret about making cocktails is that every thing must be stunningly cold and that includes the glasses.

The Frame of Reference

A concept I have found useful in understanding wine is what I term the frame of reference. Simply imagine a large picture frame and down in one corner are all the wine drinkers of Australia. In the top corner are the wine drinkers of Germany and so on from all over the globe. What you will learn to like is what you are taught to like and become familiar with. It will be the ripe, golden tastes of Australian wine. Others see it differently and will like what they are familiar with. So please try not to get to certain about what is acceptable and what is not. The wine you reject may give great joy to someone else. This could well mean you have made a hasty decision and may be missing out on pleasure. Your palate can evolve and enjoy a much broader range of tastes than you can imagine. To enjoy all the world’s wines is the long term objective so keep the mind open. The unfamiliar taste should not be hastily rejected.

As you progress with your tasting skills you will need a test to see how well you are going. I will give you two. You need to be able to look at any restaurant wine list and see which wines offer the best value. Actually if you do not get to that level I have another idea. What is working well for me in Sydney restaurants is to summon over the wine waiter and tell him bring me a good white that will excite me and the same with a red and don’t let me down. The other test is if you are given a glass of wine, masked of course, after determining the quality can you estimate what it would cost.

You spend your life making decisions about how to spend money. We all start very early doing this so I liken wine knowledge to your early days of getting the best deal on lollies. So part of the point about learning about wine is how to get more lollies in the jar.

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