Friday, April 22, 2011

Flavor Immersion - A Wine Tasting Secret

Everyone wants to be a better wine taster.

Swirl some wine around a bit. Look at it. What is the color and clarity of the wine? Smell it. Really smell it. Get your nose into that glass! What aromas do you detect? Taste it. What are the flavors? Does it coat your tongue? How much acidity is there and how sweet (or not) is it. Does it feel furry (tannins) on your tongue? How long do the flavors last, e.g. how long is the finish? And then share your thoughts with your friends across the table. That is all there is to wine tasting. Anybody can do this for fun or professionally. Practice and experience is the key to getting better at it.

Once you get past the basic process above you inevitably run into the issue of trying to name the aromas and flavors. This is truly where it gets hard for two reasons. First, the aromas and flavors are jumbled together and secondly, some are very similar. The more specific you get with picking them apart and identifying them, the more adept you can be at determining the type of wine and origin when tasting it blind. While most people don’t do this, professional wine tasters, sommeliers, reviewers and hard core wine aficionados do. It is fun to do without a specific reason and when you consider the increase in power of your senses it brings, you are getting something for it beyond the tasty wine. I am studying to become a sommelier (wine service professional) and wine educator so I have to learn how to get good at this. How’s it going you ask? Well, good but frustrating. It is fun but some attempts are more fun and rewarding than others!

How do you get better with recalling and identifying aromas and flavors? You immerse yourself in them. Look at the source, smell it, rub it between your fingers, taste it, let it linger on your tongue so you can pick up the subtleties. I will close with two examples that you can use as a guide.

Cut Grass

The aroma of cut grass is described as found several styles of white wine, Sauvignon Blanc being the common one. Most likely we all remember what this smells like because we have either cut our own lawns or walked by a freshly cut one and got a strong whiff of it. Fresh cut grass has a strong and interesting aroma, similar to that of field greens you might find in a salad or fresh herbs.

Different grasses will have varying aromas all of which hover around the central pungent moist sweetness for the lack of a better description. When summer comes and you are out cutting the grass, grab a pile of it and sit down in front of it. Try not to get the stuff you just fertilized yesterday though. Take deep breaths through your nose. Roll some of between your fingers. Take a strong smell of it. Do you get more specific aromas? You are now ready to recall those aromas in wines that have them as part of their bouquet.


Lemon serves three purposes in sensory evaluation for me. It has strong aromas, specific flavors and acidity, all of which can be found in different combinations in some white wines. That grassy Sauvignon Blanc might have some of this as well, or a nice Chenin Blanc will have the lemon and none or only a little of the grass. With lemon you should do a couple different things to experience it. I am going to do this right now and write my feedback down live. I am using Meyer lemons which are slightly different than your regular lemons, which is more typical in wine. Take the whole clean lemon and smell it. Because lemon is used in many household cleaners you might immediately think of clean aromas. Sensible, but remember the lemon is the source.

For more intense aromas, zest some of the rind. Ahhh, that is the lemon we all know and love. Roll some between your fingers and draw in a good sniff. More intense, it fills the space around your nose. The aroma of lemon is like a primary color, there is no mistaking it and it can be used so many ways. Now for the taste. Take a small slice of lemon and compress it between your tongue and front teeth. Suck on it a little. What do you get? You get sour, acid and just a hint of sweet. That acidity is going to do something else, clean your palate. I just took a swig of coffee after the lemon, and wow my coffee taste more intense! That is because the lemon tweaked your taste buds to be on alert. I hit the lemon again and voila, the coffee flavors are gone. Do you think after doing this you will recognize the aroma and flavor of lemon in wine? I bet you will.

You can apply this concept to fruit, vegetables, chocolate, dried fruits, meats, cheese, tobacco, leather and earth; all of which show up as aromas and/or flavors in different styles of wine. All you are doing getting better and recalling them with limited hints of their essence in your glass of wine. Who knows how good you could get at doing this. Deciding what wine, or beer, you like afterward might get even more interesting!




Anonymous said...

Hi Jason, After reading your article I thought of the scene from Tales of Terror with Peter Lorre and Vincent Price.
Wishing you and Margot a Happy Easter
Paul and Lori Barber

Tastemonials said...

I need lots and lots of practice. I can usually pick out one smell and taste and that's about it. It takes forever to get really good at the descriptors.

Jason Phelps said...

Tasting is very rewarding if you remember it is always about what you can learn.

I enjoy learning to recognize flavors and textures. Placing them in the world just takes a lot more practice!


Winelady Cooks said...

Great post Jason. This can be a fun learning exercise and also very frustrating. I'm still having difficulty with some flavors. My husband (my designated driver) is so much better at this than I. I'll just keep working at it LOL.

Thanks again for this terrific info.