Books have been written about how to “taste” wine. This can be a sport — “Identify this!” becomes a challenge for enthusiasts and an imperative for professionals working toward a certification such as master sommelier or master of wine. It’s easy to lose sight of how to enjoy a wine the way Hemingway did and savor the companionship it offers.
Bring your glass to your lips, but before you take a sip, give it another swirl and sniff. Delight in those aromas once more. Much of our sense of taste is actually what we smell. (Think of how bland your food tastes when you have a cold or spring allergies, and your nose is stuffed up.)
Now take a sip and pay attention to the wine’s “attack.” This is really just geek-speak for its first impression. Is it tart or sweet? Racy or dull? As the wine fills your mouth, swish it around a bit over your tongue, to make sure all your taste buds have a chance at it. Try to aerate it a little in your mouth, by sucking in some air as you swish it about. Some people do this noisily, but it can be done discreetly — as it should be.
This is where you might pick up flavors of this fruit and that herb, a cornucopia of berries and melons, spices and various forest fungi. But you already got most of that on the nose, by smelling the wine. On the palate, what we’re really looking for are balance, length and texture.
Balance is essentially the interplay of tart acidity, sweet fruitiness and (in red wines at least) astringent tannin. If the wine tastes harmonious, it is balanced. If any element dominates, it isn’t. You may prefer one element to be highlighted, but all should play supporting roles. Tannin might assault you on the attack, like you’re being whacked with a baseball bat — that’s bad. If it tickles you on the finish, the way spinach makes your teeth itch, that’s good.
Length is simply that — how long the flavor lingers in your mouth after swallowing. Some wines disappear and then come back (these are called “doughnut wines” because of the hole in the middle), while others are “short” — they just fall off your palate like lemmings over a cliff. A long, pleasant finish is a sign of a superior wine. If your wine-loving friend smiles and falls silent after taking a sip, that’s why. He’s conversing with the wine.
Texture is really key, and difficult to describe. Does the wine caress your tongue like velvet, or go down like straight-from-the-source spring water? Does it have energy, or is it heavy and dull? These aren’t really flavors, but they are attributes we assess as we decide whether we like a wine.
I was reminded of the importance of texture during a recent online tasting of three Virginia red wines led by blogger Frank Morgan as part of his Virginia Wine Chat series. The wines, all from 2017, a very good vintage in Virginia, were all Bordeaux-style blends from the Monticello wine region, and each was included in this year’s Governor’s Case of the best Virginia wines from the annual statewide competition. The wineries are about 10 minutes drive from one another, and each has a French-born winemaker. Each wine was delicious, and very different.
Damien Blanchon’s Tradition wine from Afton Mountain Vineyards was taut, tight and a bit tart, with flavors of sour plum candy over just-ripe raspberries. The sensation was of stones and minerals. This wine requires focus, and maybe some time in the cellar.
The Pollak Vineyards Meritage, crafted by Benoit Pineau, was a warm embrace. Family, good times. The wine is classic, Bordeaux-style with a Virginia drawl.
Matthieu Finot said he was trying for a riper style with his Mountain Plains red blend at King Family Vineyards. He succeeded. The wine is plush and jammy, with spicy notes and a chewy texture. Elton John in concert.
Three winemakers with different things to say through their wines. And they nailed it.
And yet, here’s the rub: I can’t tell you what a wine is saying. I can only tell you if a wine has something to say. An honest wine will speak of its vintage, its place, its winemaker. It’s up to you to listen.