This month marks one year for the Drink More Wine column. If you’re a regular reader of CL, I hope it’s pushed you to explore grapes outside of your usual boundaries. The world of wine is an unfathomable field; there’s always more to learn. If you’ve been following along, your knowledge of grapes has expanded and you understand the differences between New World and Old World wines, and a little bit about storage and glasses. Now I’m going to begin digging a little deeper and getting you to concentrate on components of wine, and how you can get more information with each sip. Just by thinking a little instead of drinking mindlessly, you can add a great deal of enjoyment to your love affair with wine. So let us begin.
Your pleasure in drinking wine will be greatly enhanced if you consciously engage your senses. See and smell the wine in anticipation of your first sip. First, use your eyes: look at the color and clarity of the wine. Tilt your glass and hold it over a white napkin or tablecloth so that you can actually examine the color of the wine. Look closely at the edge from above.
The edge is often referred to as the disc. As you look at the surface of the wine, it should be bright and clear; if your wine looks hazy or murky in any way it may be tainted. As you look down and assess the wine for hue, sometimes called the robe, the intensity of that color gives hints of the wine’s age and depth. White wines gain color as they age, while red wines lose it. Since most white wines are drunk young, they will be on a spectrum from pale yellow green or straw to golden or caramel. You will notice distinct differences between lighter varietals, such as Sauvignon Blanc, and heavier whites like Chardonnay, which usually display more golden hues. Aged sweet Sauternes can be a delicious butterscotch.
Light reds such as pinot noir are usually less dense, with beautiful garnet tones, whereas an intense syrah/shiraz can be purple or almost black at its center. A young cabernet-based Bordeaux might be ruby when young, but take on a distinct orange edge and brick-like color when aged. If the wine is of high quality, this is the first sign you may have hit the jackpot. I hope you all have a chance to taste some great wine with 20-25 years of age, with layers of flavor and complexity you’d never imagine.
One last visual observation comes when you swirl your stemware and watch the wine form tears or “legs” as it trickles down the sides of the bowl of the glass. There is not necessarily a direct link between legs and quality. This is, however, an indicator of the viscosity of the wine, which gives you a sense of the mouth feel. I personally find that wines with distinct legs are usually more pleasurable to drink.
Now it’s time to swirl the wine again and stuff your nose into the bowl. Depending on the grape varietal, you will smell anything from citrus to herbs to flowers to orchard fruits for white grapes. Red wines will range from light to dark berries to smokiness or the earthiness of mushrooms. Aged Bordeaux is often described as taking on hints of leather, cedar or tobacco. Our noses are amazing in the number of smells that they can discern.
And there’s no reason to be intimidated. Wine professionals don’t necessarily have a more sophisticated palate or olfactory sense. They do have lots of experience and are able to read clues, visually or certainly from information on the wine label, to anticipate what range of smells might be present. Our olfactory senses are easily overwhelmed, so it’s better to sniff the wine in two or three smaller inhalations. When you swirl the wine and it evaporates as it drips down inside the glass, it releases a range of flavor messages for you to evaluate. So concentrate.
Use your eyes and nose as you drink and describe what you see and smell; next month we’ll begin to tackle taste.