The Pleasure of Tasting Wine
THE BASICS OF TASTING
‘Tasting’ sounds rather grand, but all it means is a rewarding blend of drinking and thinking. Every glass of wine we drink represents a whole year of vineyard cultivation and perhaps several years of effort in the winery. It costs considerably more than a newspaper, yet most of us throw it away, straight down our throats, without even trying to ‘read’ it.
Each wine has a story to tell and pleasure to give, but the simple way to benefit from the story and the pleasure remains unknown to most of those who spend their hard-earned cash on wine. The trick costs nothing, takes very little time, and has the great advantages of being neither fattening nor intoxicating. This is the secret – always sniff before you drink.
The sense of smell is much more refined and informative than any sensing equipment located in the mouth. If you are sceptical about this, think of the last time you had a cold. You didn’t want to eat because your nose was blocked up and you had no sense of smell to stimulate your appetite. The food that you did eat tasted bland and boring, because all you had to rely on were the sensors inside your mouth.
Thousands of taste buds constitute the mouth’s main sensing equipment, and in adults most of them are concentrated on the tongue. As a convenient shorthand, four basic tastes have been identified sweetness, sourness, saltiness and bitterness – and different areas of the tongue are particularly sensitive to each. The tip of the tongue is especially good at picking up sweetness; the upper edges sourness; the front edges saltiness; and the back flat part bitterness. This is only a model. Many people find that it is the underside of their tongue that is particularly sensitive to saltiness, for instance, and we all have slightly different sensitivities to different tastes.
This physiological theory holds as well for wine as for anything else tasted. Few wines are at all salty, however, and only a few Italian reds show much bitterness. Sweetness and sourness, or acidity, play the crucial roles in wines. All wines are fairly high in acid. Acidity is tartness when in excess, and called ‘crispness’ when there’s just enough to enliven. This is what makes wine, and most other beverages, refreshing.
As a grape ripens, its acid level falls and its sugar level rises. It is only because ripe grapes contain fermentable sugar that we have wine at all. All or part of the grape’s sugar is converted into alcohol during fermentation leaving a wine that is, respectively, either strong and dry or less strong and still retaining some unfermented sugar. The amount of acid in any wine reflects how ripe the grapes were when picked. The lower the acid, the more completely the grapes were ripened.
Wines made in hot climates, such as North Africa or the eastern Mediterranean, are noticeably low in acid and high in sugar or alcohol. The only ways a winemaker in a hot region can compensate for this is either by picking the grapes early, before they are fully ripe, or by carefully adding acid to the wine.
Wines made far from the equator, such as the Muscadet of France or English wines, are marked by high acidity and fairly low sugar or alcohol. French winemakers in the cooler regions compensate for this by adding sugar before fermentation to make the resultant wine stronger (but not sweeter). This common practice is called chaptalization. German winemakers have a completely different view and often add some unfermented sweet grape juice to make their wines sweeter, and less alcoholic, than they might be otherwise.
Provided the whole tongue is exposed to a wine, by taking a nice big mouthful, the mouth can send messages to the brain about how sweet and how acid the wine is, but that is just about all. The really interesting part of a wine, its flavour, will elude the taste buds. A more sensitive piece of equipment is needed the nose.