In my early to mid-twenties, before enrolling at the Culinary Institute of America, I had already started exploring wine with keen interest. By the time I arrived at Hyde Park, I was familiar with many of the major grape varieties and some basic growing areas or appellations. Yet, I lacked the ability to differentiate wines in any meaningful way.
HOW TO TASTE
The turning point came when I was taught “how to taste” during the wines portion of our two-year culinary arts program. Our first in-class wine tasting: could this have been the most exciting moment of my culinary education? A subject I had been dabbling in for years, but without formal instruction. After much discussion and direction on precisely how to open a bottle of wine and an involved pouring process ensuring that each student received the correct wine in the correct glass, we finally set about to taste.
COLOR: First step, evaluate the color and clarity of the wine even before taking a sniff. I quickly lifted my first glass, a white, against a light from the ceiling. This immediately drew the attention of our instructor, Michael Weiss, who warned against this since various lights and surrounding walls could influence the perceived color. The best practice was to use a plain white background placed on the table, such as the white paper the glasses had been conveniently set upon. This was obviously the better choice as it showed off the difference in shade from the wine’s core to its rim. If I hadn’t been in such a hurry to smell and taste the wine, I might have realized how much information could be gained from this simple glance. I now know that color reveals much about the style and age of the wine. A darker white might indicate age or perhaps some grape skin contact, or simply a more robust wine than a lighter-colored version. All useful tidbits when attempting to unlock the mysteries of a given wine.
NOSE: Next came the nosing of the wine, a process that uses the most sensitive taste organ to discern aromas & flavors in a wine. When our class was given the go-ahead to smell the wine, we were told not to be bashful. Some were simply waving the glass under their nose as if sampling the latest offering from Chanel (by the way, perfumes and colognes are discouraged). Better to place your nose directly in the glass to identify any aromas captured therein. If you read some wine magazines, you’ll often encounter what seems a laundry list of aromas and flavors tasters perceive in the wine. Quite intimidating when as a student I stuck my nose in the glass of white wine and thought, citrus and maybe some faint grassiness. Over time, I’ve learned it’s not important for me to try to describe every aromatic note. Some would disagree, but as long as I am able to determine if the wine is potentially flawed or not and if I can discern a direction the wine is going: earthy, red fruit, citrus, spice, floral, oaky, etc., I find this sufficient for my purposes. From there I can delve more deeply, but with more simplistic wines, sometimes I don’t need to in order to enjoy them. If and when I am ready to examine aromas further, I then have a reference point from which to begin.
PALATE: Of course, tasting the wine was next and here again, the temptation to name each nuance creeps up on you. As a culinary student, this was even more intense, as if trying to decipher the subtle ingredients in a Punjabi curry. Taking a similar tact as with aroma, I try to narrow the focus. Additionally, I pay particular attention to the integration of oak (if present) and the amount of tannins. One of the most surprising revelations of that first tasting was how much focus can be placed on the finish of the wine, i.e. how long after swallowing one can taste the wine. I found this practice was never innate and I occasionally still need to remind myself to consider this, as it can be the difference between an average and a very good bottle of wine.
THERE’S MORE TO IT
Well, now that we tasted the wine, one would think we were done. Yet I soon found out that this is where the real work begins. As our other instructor, Steven Kolpan, frequently challenged us over the weeks, now was the time to consider the overall merits of the wine. Was the wine in balance, was there too much alcohol or too much acidity or perhaps not enough fruit? Was this wine ready to drink or did it need time in the cellar? What type of food would be appropriate for this wine? So many questions to consider at this point and on that initial tasting day, I could barely remember the wine from the two sips I had taken (and spit, by the way).
Now, after much practice, the technique I touched on that day has become a consistent methodology. On that day, I completely missed the fact that I was being given a measuring stick, a way to evaluate the wines I tasted and just as importantly, a way to compare and discuss the merits of various wines. I still use this basic formula for tasting each time I taste a wine. I’ve made the process my own over the years, simplifying certain parts but holding true to the format. This allows me to identify memorable characteristics of the numerous wines we carry; I can group wines together and thus recall the more nuanced points: which wine has more tannin and structure, which has more forward fruit.
While this technique is ultimately the basis for any wine education, it is merely one portion. One must consider the historical aspects, the geography of where and the tradition of what grapes were planted, the overall philosophy of the estate, the winemaker, and the limitations or laws of the region or appellation. Only with this knowledge can a complete picture of the wine be formed; however, critical tasting will always be a legitimate measure of a given wine and thus a value to any wine lover. Now as a professional, tasting wine on a regular basis, this technique is well ingrained, yet there is always room for improvement.
A LIFE-LONG STUDENT
Before my wife Mei Ying and I opened our wine shop in 2006, I had worked in wine for almost 10 years. Since then, I’ve continued to taste a considerable number of wines, some as the wine buyer, but others simply to explore certain types and styles. In addition to tasting, I read wine and food magazines, books, articles and blogs. Whenever possible, I pick the brains of winemakers, importers and colleagues to better understand the wines I taste and how they compare with those “benchmark wines” I’ve been unable to taste. It is a never-ending stream of information, covering everything from geographical minutiae to philosophical debates on style. Indeed, this is part of what makes wine so engaging, and makes me a life-long student.
As much as I enjoy learning on my own, the classes I’ve taken since graduating from the CIA have expedited the learning process. Each has shown the value a structured course offers. A greater measure of discipline is required and I find my preconceptions and misconceptions challenged in the classroom. So I’m considering taking another class to polish, refine and hone my skills this winter, a quiet and inviting time of year to spend indoors thinking about wine. Perhaps you too would like to brush up on your wine education, in which case, grab a notebook and practice your own rendition of critical tasting; it’s a pleasure in itself and gives you the basis to enjoy the world of wine a bit more fully.
Roll’s longtime wine & spirits contributor Timothy Buzinski is the owner with wife Mei Ying So of Artisan Wine Shop, 180 Main St., Beacon
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