Sunday, January 16, 2011

Improving Your Wine Tasting Process & Skills

The enjoyment of wine (both everyday AND fine selections) can be markedly improved with changes in how your experience it. Most wine drinkers will at least have a sense that there is some sort of “process” to tasting wine. Maybe you swirl it around, smell it, take small sips, and consider what your senses are telling you. But what is really being sought here? To become truly accomplished at this you need two things, a good process from which to glean useful indicators and lots of experience. And I mean lots; think hundreds of hours.

I don’t have the hours or the breadth of varieties behind me to be an expert, and my process has been fairly simple to date. I aspire for more though. A few years ago I took several wine tasting and sensory evaluation classes that helped me develop an approach using the Four S’s, see, sniff, sip and summarize. Using this approach I am now confident to step up to a glass of wine looking for indicators of age, varietal, origin, oaking and other stylistic elements using my senses. I have used this process quite a bit and try to experience every glass of wine, beer and cider I come across in this way.

This past week I attended my first, and what will hopefully be a monthly occasion, tasting group with the Boston Sommelier Society. I plan to sit for the introductory class and exam in 2011 and I am sure I need to study the world’s wine regions more, but I also need to amp up my tasting skills. My goals for joining the group are to experience new wines, improve my tasting skills and network with a group of people who are also passionate about wine. It didn’t take more than a few minutes for me to determine that my goals would be accomplished with this choice. My comfort level rose immediately and I sat down to listen, learn and experience.
The tasting process they use in these sessions includes elements that are just what I need to take my skills to a next level. I thought I would share a few of the elements and my impressions of they will help me. Undoubtedly if you are also interested in improving your wine experiences there should be something here for you too.

Being an ”expert” always leaves room for new things to learn. My understanding from group members is that I am the only participant who makes their own wine. That perspective is a new element for the group with exciting potential. I shared a bottle of my Petit Verdot made in early 2010 with the group. It was recognized as a young, varietally correct example that likely had aging potential. The remarks about the fruitiness and clarity were delivered with enthusiasm. These ardent tasters with many more hours of experience than I, were genuinely excited to try something a little different than the usual. I couldn’t have been more joyful.

The tasting process is broken down into three sections, Appearance, Nose and Palate/Flavor/Structure. During the progression of the six wines we tasted there were also two final sections, Initial Conclusions and Final Conclusion. The wines are tasted blind so developing your senses in each of the first three categories above is essential. The conclusion sections are made fun by using a hangman concept where one taster in each round is not allowed to use anything but the information provided from the other tasters to try to hone in on the varietal and source of the wine. That taster has to provide conclusions without having looked at, smelled or tasted the wine. This really stretches your sensory muscles. Just what I needed! Coming to the wrong conclusions in this way as I gain experience will be so useful to help me navigate the aromas, flavors and breadth of styles I might encounter. Getting it right here and there will be a nice bump, but I need the hard lessons so I have to be realistic!

In the Appearance category the one item I wasn’t familiar with was Rim Variation. I asked for some help on what the process was and how what you see should be read. As an aside, one should be careful what they ask for with this group. The information can come at you like a fire hose! Ian was sitting to my right and showed me how to put a few ounces of wine in a clean glass and tip the glass forward (mouth away from you) to enough of an angle that you can see the variation in colors from the outer rim into the center. What you are seeing is the difference in the density of the wine from the center to the edge. You can glean a sense of age here, with older wines typically showing a graduation of hues between the center to the rim and younger wines being more consistent in color. The other metrics in the category are Clarity, Brightness, Color (both red and white), Gas or Sediment and Viscosity/Staining. Each of these has a scale which can be something like low/medium/high or in the case of Brightness, dull/hazy/bright/day bright/star bright/brilliant. Learning to perceive each of these degrees on the scale will take some time. (The value in being able to recognize these as these typically present in wines that are well made versus not or by style is quite clear.)

In the Nose category I found everything familiar except for Age Assessment. I had a sense of what might be sought after here but I didn’t think had ever considered assessing the age solely based on the aromas. As I listened to Marilyn, Roz, Jo-Ann, Ron and Ian discuss the nose of the wines in this way I realized I had thought about this more than I had realized. Your nose can give you a sense of the level of integration of the aromas. A wine that is developed should have a balance here and wines past their peak should give the sense that their aromas break down quickly. Obvious flaws can be picked up by your nose as well, but that is a different metric. A note that can’t be stressed enough. If you want to experience the aromas of a wine you have to get your nose in the glass. I have often seen people afraid to stick their nose into a glass of wine. What are you afraid of? You don’t look foolish. To the experienced you will look like someone who is trying to use their senses to learn something about the wine they are about to drink.

I’ll consider the last category and the fun of developing conclusions in a future post. For now I will summarize my experiences and share a few of the surprises during the tasting.

Overall I left feeling much less anxious than when I arrived. Flat out, I was sure what to expect. I didn’t know anyone, I didn’t know much about the potential backgrounds of the participants and I felt like it was likely I had a lot less experience than the folks I would be meeting. I met people who run wine shops, work at distributors, some who are primarily educators with many of them doing some of that only part time. Sound like me. I definitely am on the lower end of the spectrum of experience but when everyone shows up with a desire to learn that really doesn’t mean much.

One of the wines that befuddled all of us turned out to be the Beringer Private Reserve 2008 Chardonnay. None of us could really place it. It had flavors of cooked pear, it was off-dry and had aromas of spices. An oaked Chardonnay wasn’t out first guess. This selection will likely run you about $40. It was enjoyable but I would stop short of a recommendation. It didn’t blow me away.

The wine that did blow me away was also the one we all honed in on right away. A 2005 Spatlese Riesling from the Rheingau. The fruit, flower and spice aromas were bursting out of the glass. It was off-dry (as it should be) with flavors of fruit blossoms and honey. We all enjoyed tasting and considering this one!

I hope I have included tips here that will help you the next time you step up to a glass of wine to try. I truly believe you can increase your enjoyment taking the short time to consider the wine before you get back to your socializing, eating or whatever the wine is an accompaniment for.

As I attend future meetings I will share more tips, wines worthy of a taste and events that might be going on where you can flex your wine tasting skills.




Lisa | Authentic Suburban Gourmet said...

The Boston Sommelier Society sounds like a great group to be associated with. Enjoyed your post and I wish you all the luck with your upcoming exam this year. Look forward to future posts!!

Kate @ said...

My husband and I consider ourselves wine conoisseurs and hoggers (I don't know how many bottles of wine we have on our wine storage racks) - but we do enjoy our wine and I wish that I knew a bit more about wine tasting. Thank you for sharing some of your knowledge...very informative!

Winelady Cooks said...

Great information Jason. I applaud you for taking on the very difficult sommelier challenge. Your jump into the tasting arena is definitely an important step. Tasting wines is not easy and blind tasting takes on a new meaning.

Thanks for sharing this info and I'll look forward to following you on this journey.


She's Cookin' said...

Thank you for this most informative post! I'm hoping to find a similar group in Orange County (CA) so that I can refine my tasting ability. Meanwhile, I'll return to read what you've been learning. Good luck with your sommelier training.

Pam @ Sticks Forks Fingers said...

Sounds like a fascinating group. Very interesting points you pose for pondering. The other thing I would add is simply this: Taste lots of food as well as wines. It's difficult to find the black currant, anise, bear fat, or whatnot that is called out in tasting notes if you haven't previously tasted those things in food form. I still find lots of joy in trying a new food and exclaiming, "Aha! That tastes just like the mid-palate of the '06 Benton-Lane Pinot I liked so much!!"

Thanks for sharing your passion. Looking forward to doing it in person.

Tastemonials said...

AS you can see, I'm way behind on my reading! This sounds like a great group. We took a class this week where we smelled about 100 different glasses with various items added to the wine to practice identifying bouquet. I was quite overwhelmed and need a lot of practice.