Ray Isle from Food & Wine magazine shows off five different exercises to whip your taste buds into shape for appreciating wine. Topics include what it means to be "oaked," the acidity in wine, and how wine gets its aromas and flavors.
When wine pros evaluate a bottle, they focus on six key things. Here, Food and Wine’s Megan Krigbaum collects exercises from a trio of experts to help even a wine know-nothing become a smarter, happier, more insightful taster.
Wine-tasting exercises: Body
What defines body in wine?
“Body is the sense of weight or richness or heaviness, and even the feeling of viscosity that a wine leaves in your mouth,” says Master Sommelier Andrea Robinson, author of Great Wine Made Simple. Generally, the more alcohol in a wine, the more body it will have, which means that wines from warmer climates (which produce grapes with more sugar to be converted into alcohol) tend to have more heft. Sugar, oak and the overall concentration of flavors in a wine can also add body.
How does body affect pairing?
“A key principle for pairing is to match body with body, so that the wine’s not too heavy or light for the dish, and vice versa,” says Robinson.
“Wines have different weights and richnesses, mostly due to alcohol. Milk can vary in the same way, but of course that’s due to fat,” says Robinson.
Wine-tasting workout: body
1/4 cup each of skim milk, 2% milk, whole milk and heavy cream
Taste the milk in ascending order of richness, beginning with skim and ending with heavy cream, considering the texture of each and the sensation in your mouth. The skim milk should dissipate very quickly; the cream will coat your tongue.
Wines to try from lightest to most full-bodied
1. Northern Italian Pinot Grigio: 2011 Tiefenbrunner
2. New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc: 2011 Kim Crawford Marlborough
3. White Burgundy: 2010 Domaine Faiveley Bourgogne Blanc
4. Barrel-fermented Chardonnay: 2010 Rodney Strong Sonoma County
1. Valpolicella: 2011 Tedeschi Lucchine
2. California Pinot Noir: 2010 Dutton Goldfield Azaya Ranch Vineyard
3. Chianti Classico: 2009 La Maialina
4. Zinfandel: 2010 Ridge East Bench
Wine-tasting exercises: Tannins
What are tannins?
Tannins are compounds in grape skins, seeds and stems that contribute to wine’s structure, complexity, texture and ageability — especially red wine. Tannins create a drying and slightly bitter sensation in the mouth, usually toward the back of the tongue. Tannic wines pair especially well with rich foods and substantial meat dishes because they cut through fat; fat also softens the perception of tannin, making the wines more approachable.
Wine-tasting workout: Tannins
3 black tea bags
Pour 8 ounces of hot water into each of the mugs. Place one tea bag in each of the mugs and start a timer. After 2 minutes, remove the bag from the first mug; after 4 minutes, remove the bag from the second mug; and after 8 minutes, remove the final tea bag. Let the tea cool.
Taste the teas in increasing steep-time order, swishing the liquid around in your mouth before swallowing. Notice how the teas are perceptibly more astringent as the steeping time increases.
Wines to try from least to most tannic
1. Beaujolais: 2010 Potel Aviron Côte de Brouilly
2. California Merlot: 2009 Simi Sonoma County Merlot
3. Bordeaux: 2010 Château Bellevue Bordeaux Supérieur
Wine-tasting exercises: Acidity
What is acidity in wine?
Acidity in wine comes from the natural acids (tartaric, malic, etc.) in the grapes themselves, or acids that are added during the the winemaking process. The acidity in grapes varies greatly depending on the variety, as well as sun exposure, climate and the soil in the vineyard; grapes grown in cooler areas tend to have higher acidity. When drinking a wine, you’ll feel the effects of acidity mostly on the sides of your tongue. Overly acidic wines will cause almost a stinging sensation or taste sour.
How does acidity affect pairing?
Acidity makes your mouth water, cuts through the fat in rich foods and refreshes the palate.
Wine-tasting workout: Acidity
Five 4 ounce glasses of water
Set aside the first glass of water.
Squeeze the juice of 1/4 orange into the second glass; into the third, squeeze the juice of 1/4 grapefruit; into the fourth, squeeze the juice of 1/2 lemon; into the fifth, squeeze the juice of 1/2 lime.
Taste in that order, starting with a sip of plain water, to experience increasing levels of acidity. Experiment by adding more juice to each glass to see how the acidity increases. Notice the point at which the juice becomes too sour.
Wines to try from least to most acidic
1. Marsanne: 2011 Qupé
2. Sauvignon Blanc: 2011 Brander Santa Ynez Valley
3. Muscadet: 2011 Michel Delhommeau Cuvée St. Vincent
Wine-tasting exercises: Sweetness
What is sweetness in wine, and why does it matter?
Sweetness in wine is measured by the amount of residual sugar (RS) in the liquid after fermentation. “Sweetness can only come from one thing in wine, and that’s sugar content,” says Master Sommelier Shayn Bjornholm. Acidity can mask some of the sweetness in wines by balancing out the sugar, as in German or Alsatian Riesling. Sugar can also contribute to a wine’s body and texture.
Wine-tasting workout: Sweetness
16 ounce glass with 8 ounces of water
1 cup of sugar
Squeeze the juice of the lemons into the water and stir.
Taste the mixture; it will be very tart.
Stir in sugar 1 teaspoon at a time, tasting after each addition. You should notice when the juice achieves the right level of sweetness and balances the acidity of the lemon.
Rieslings to try from driest to sweetest
1. Dry Riesling: 2010 Robert Weil Kiedrich Turmberg Trocken
2. Off-dry Riesling: 2011 Hexamer Kabinett
3. Sweet Riesling: 2010 Kerpen Wehlener Sonnenuhr Auslese
Wine-tasting exercises: Aromas & flavors
What accounts for a wine’s aromas and flavors?
A wine’s flavors come from the grape variety, as well as the climate and the amount of sun exposure and type of soil in the vineyard. Different winemaking techniques will extract various flavors, too.
What’s The Best Way to Describe a Wine’s Flavors and Aromas?
The truth is, everyone smells and tastes different aromas and flavors in wine. It’s a very subjective judgement. That said, the more tasting experiences you have, the more easily you’ll be able to pick out those flavors. Having your own flavor vocabulary can come in handy when ordering wine from a sommelier or talking with a salesperson at a wine shop—and, most importantly, when pairing wines with food.
Wine-tasting workout: Flavor
Orange blossom water
Put on the blindfold and have someone set out the aromatic items in front of you in any order.
Smell each item. “Aroma accounts for the majority of our taste, anyway,” says Bjornholm. Not only will this exercise give you a better idea of what you like, but it will also increase your Rolodex of flavors to have on hand when tasting.
Wines to try from herbal to savory
1. Loire Cabernet Franc: 2011 Chais St. Laurent Chinon (sage)
2. Moscato d’Asti: 2011 Bera (orange-blossom water)
3. Australian Riesling: 2011 Rolf Binder Highness Riesling (lime zest)
4. Gewürztraminer: 2010 Lucien Albrecht Réserve (lychee)
5. Zinfandel: 2010 Foxglove (raspberry)
6. California Cabernet blend: 2009 Justin Isosceles (cassis)
7. Red Burgundy: 2009 Pierre Morey Monthelie (mushroom)
8. Côte Rôtie: 2007 E. Guigal Brune et Blonde de Guigal (bacon)
9. German Riesling: 2011 Christoffel Erdener Treppchen Kabinett (rock)
10. Left Bank Bordeaux: 2008 Château Malartic-Lagravière (pencil shavings)
Wine-tasting exercises: Oak
What does it mean for a wine to be oaked?
Oak barrels used in winemaking develop their toasty, caramelly, vanilla flavors from being fire-charred. The barrels can be toasted to different levels, depending on the winemaker’s preference; those barrels can hold wine while it ferments or while it ages. Some producers favor old oak over new oak because its effect on a wine’s flavor, tannins and structure is more subtle.
Wine-Tasting Workout: Oak
Box of Cheerios
Crush up Cheerios and smell them. According to Joshua Wesson, the toasty, wheaty notes of the cereal are very similar to those in oaked white wine.
Skewer a marshmallow and roast it over a flame on a gas stove until it’s charred. “In red wines, oak leaves the impression of campfire smoke or the smell of a burnt marshmallow,” Wesson says.
Chardonnays to try from unoaked to oaky
1. Chablis: 2011 Jean-Marc Brocard Domaine Sainte Claire
2. White Burgundy: 2010 Joseph Drouhin Meursault
3. California Chardonnay: 2010 La Crema Sonoma Coast Chardonnay
Red wines to try from unoaked to oaky
1. Sicilian Frappato: 2011 Tami
2. Chianti Classico: 2009 Rocca delle Macìe
3. Napa Cabernet Sauvignon: 2009 Groth