Flamboyant or Flabby: The Science Behind Wine Tasting
In the world of wine, a lot can hinge upon a good wine tasting. Vintages can be made famous when tasted by sommeliers and given excellent reviews, or broken when a dreaded term like "flabby" is used. In recent years, wine tastings have become popular for more than just experts, in fact, many wineries open up their doors for tastings of their vintages, and it has become a popular theme for parties.
Can a Wine's Taste Be Accurately Judged?
However, despite expert testing there is often a noticeable difference between tastings on how a wine is judged. Some winemakers find their wine does well at one testing, and fails to impress at another. Curious as to why this was happening, winemaker Robert Hodgson, who owns Fieldbrook Winery, decided to investigate with a scientific experiment of his own.
In 2005, and up until 2009, with the permission of the California State Fair wine competition Hodgson set out to see how wine tasters judged the same wine. Presented with a usual selection of wines, some wines were poured multiple times. Judging the same wine without knowledge, the testers judged the same wine without consistency. In fact, Hodgson has found over the years with similar experiments, finding that most expert judges, when rating a wine on a scale of 100, will vary by as much as 4 to 10 points in a judgment. This can cause a wine to be rated as excellent at one taste, and another glass poured from the same bottle to be rated as fair. While a few points may not seem like much, it can be the difference between a wine placing in competition with a gold medal, or not placing at all.
Hodgson has concluded that while an expert may be quite knowledgeable about wine, and can accurately determine its qualities when drinking a glass alone, that when faced with multiple wines it can be overwhelming to the senses.
What Makes a Wine Appealing?
Wines come in many varieties, from white to red, sparkling and dessert wines, and many people have a favorite. But when faced with all the bottles in the store the selection can be somewhat intimidating. It can be tempting to choose a pricier bottle and expect it to be superior. However, in a study conducted at the Edinburgh International Science Festival by psychologist Richard Wiseman in 2011, he found that subjects could not tell the difference between a cheap wine and an expensive wine. Their guesses based on taste alone were no better than a coin flip: 50/50.
French scientist Frederic Brochet was also curious about the tasting of wines, and in 2001 conducted two experiments at the University of Bordeaux. The first study, published in a paper titled "The Color of Odor", examined the effect of color on wine, asking samplers to taste a white wine and describe it, then a week later describe the same wine when dyed red. The descriptions used were wildly different, the white being described as light, the red as full of tannins and rich.
In his next study, Brochet asked subjects to rate two wines for which the subjects were shown the bottles. One was a superior expensive bottle, the other a cheap one. The trick? Brochet placed the cheap wine inside both bottles. Subjects described the wine they perceived as cheap to be flat and weak while describing the perceived superior wine to be round and complex.
The lesson learned from Brochet is that just like a book shouldn't be judged by its cover, neither should a wine.
So what should a wine drinker look for in a bottle? And how can you ensure that your wine always tastes it best, no matter what it cost? No matter how subjective taste is there are several factors that will make any wine taste better, no matter the cost or the label.
This might seem obvious, but serve wine in a wine glass. A regular glass or a beer mug won't do. The perfect shape is wider at the bottom, and then tapers to a smaller opening at the top. Think of an egg shape, or even a tulip. For sparkling wines, use a narrower flute-shaped glass. Though some connoisseurs will swear by certain types of glasses, and a different glass shape for each wine, little research has been completed regarding this. The impact on the perception of the wine due to the type of glass may be subtle, but it is a factor to take in to consideration. At the very least you will impress your guests with the appropriate glassware, even if they can't tell Sauvignon from claret.
When serving wine, whether for a tasting or to accompany a meal, it will taste and smell its best when it has been stored at the proper temperature. Lower and higher temperatures will greatly affect how a wine tastes, emphasizing different properties of the wine.
Wines that should be served at lower temperatures, like dessert wines, sparkling wines, and light whites will have their acidity and tannins emphasized, while their scent is muted.
Wines that need a slightly higher temperature, like reds, will benefit from the reduced acidity and increased bouquet.
While some people choose to store wine in a dark basement or closet, it is not the ideal choice. Even basements can heat up on hot summer days, and there won't be any moisture control. Most wine drinkers benefit from a dedicated wine cooler which can keep their treasured bottles at a constant temperature, set specifically for the type of wine stored, all year round.
Aerating a wine simply means exposing it to the air and it is as simple as opening the bottle and pouring it into a glass. Some people use funnels, but simply swirling a glass of wine will have the same effect. The purpose of exposing the wine to air is to trigger oxidation and evaporation. The oxidation and evaporation together will reduce certain compounds that can cause a wine to smell and taste faulty. It can be especially useful when a wine has a slight ethanol or sulfur smell.
It is important not to let a wine aerate for too long, as too much oxidation will flatten out the flavors and aromas. As a general rule of thumb, heavier red wines will benefit from a longer aeration, while light white wines will need minimal exposure.
Keep in mind that a greater surface area, (more of the surface of the wine against the air), will mean a faster rate of aeration. This is why red wine glasses are often fuller and wider, while glasses meant for white wine tend to be slimmer and provide less area at the top for exposure.
How to Taste Wine
While science may have proven wine tasting to be subjective, that doesn't mean it can't be enjoyable. At the very least it will demonstrate what type of wine you have a preference for, and it is a fun group activity.
You don't have to be an expert to taste wine, in fact, all you have to do is follow a few simple steps, often referred to as the "Five S" steps: see, swirl, sniff, sip, and savor.
This first step is easy. All you have to do is look at the wine and check it for the color and opacity. The color of a wine can give clues about the type of grape used and even if the wine was aged in wood. The color of a red wine can indicate age of vintage, as older red wines will often have a bit of an orange tinge on the edges, while an older white wine may be more opaque than its corresponding younger vintage.
- Pour a glass of wine into a wine glass
- Tilt the glass away and look at the color from the edge of the rim down to the middle of the glass
- Placing a white napkin or paper behind it will help
Useful ways to describe the color are:
|Red Wine||Maroon, purple, garnet, red, ruby, brick, brownish|
|White Wine||Straw-like, pale yellow, clear, golden, amber, brown, light green|
Now check to see how opaque the wine is, that is how well you can see light through it. Try tilting the glass and letting it swirl to see if there is any sediment like cork. Useful terminology here is watery, dark, translucent, opaque, dull, brilliant, cloudy, and clear.
Swirl and Sniff
Judging the scent, or aroma, of a wine is integral to the tasting process. There are literally thousands of potential scents that can be found in wines, so memorizing them all is not doable. You can however look for certain key aromas that can tell a lot about the character of a wine.
Holding the glass by the stem, swirl the contents for about ten seconds. Now take a series of short and quick sniffs and step away. Try to identify the presence, or lack thereof, or any of the following components:
Flaws: Look for anything that smells off and may indicate that the wine is spoiled. Musty smells will mean that the wine is corked (spoiled), a yeast smell may mean too much brettanomyces that gives red wines a leathery component, but too much is undesirable, while a smell of burnt matches may mean that too much sulfur has been added during bottling.
Fruit: Obviously, the wine will smell like grapes as that is its main component, but look for hints of other fruits on top of that. Experienced wine tasters can tell by the smell what type of grapes were used and even what growing conditions the grapes were under - whether it was a cool, moderate, or warm climate in the vineyard. For example the smell of black currant will usually indicate the presence of Cabernet grapes.
Herbal/Grassy: Some grapes will lend the wine a grassy scent. A good example is the Sauvignon blanc or a cabernet sauvignon, both of which are often scented with herbs or hints of vegetation. Many prefer that their wine be scented only lightly with grassy and herbal aromas.
Spicy: Some wines will have a bouquet with a hint of spice. A good example are the Rhone red wines which often have hints of Provencal herbs.
Earthy: Wines that can be characterized as earthy often carry scents of damp earth, leather, rock, and even mushrooms. This is more common in red wines, but can be found in whites as well. In fact, the very finest red and white wines contain scents of mineral and rock. A mushroom smell, though it can add some subtle nuances to the wine, an abundance of it can mean that the grapes used to make the wine were never fully ripened.
Wine Barrel: Aging wines in barrels can lend many interesting scents depending of the type of oak used, the techniques used to make the barrels, the age of the barrels, the amount of char used, and the skills of the winemaker mixing and matching the barrels. Common scents to find are smoke, toast, chocolate, vanilla, espresso, roasted nuts, and caramel.
Secondary Scents: Other scents that you may be able to pick up include:
|Scent||Type of Wine|
|Beer||Young, white wines|
|Buttered popcorn or Caramel||Chardonnay|
Properly sniffing the wine is an important step in wine tasting. It helps to build up a memory bank of different wines, and as you taste them you'll be able to associate those smells with a specific taste and preference.
Sip and Savor
After all that preparation, it is finally time to take a sip of that wine. But don't gulp it back, instead take a small sip. Let it roll around your mouth, then depending on your preference, either spit it out or swallow it.
Though not difficult, there are actually three stages of tasting to consider:
- Initial Impression: When the wine first hits your tongue, it should be a good meld of the alcohol content, and the tannin, acidity, and sugar levels. They should combine to give an impression of a wine that is light or heavy, crisp or creamy, sweet or dry.
- Middle Phase: This is the actual taste of the wine on your palate. At this point look to distinguish distinct flavors like fruits, spices, or secondary flavors like the ones you were able to detect in the aroma.
- Savor It: This final phase is an appraisal of how long the impression of the flavor lasts after it is swallowed. Does it have an aftertaste? Was it bitter at the end, does it last, was it too heavy to swallow?
Various scientific studies have shown that wine tasting is about the tongue it lands on, and that even then a wine's properties may not be judged consistently. That doesn't mean that wine tasting is completely ineffective, it is still a great way to familiarize yourself with different brands and vintages. It also means that any wine can be a great wine, even if its price tag is low, and its reviews by critics unfavorable. As long as it is stored at the right temperature, served in appropriate glassware, and allowed to breathe, it can be the perfect wine for your evening.
A Glossary of Wine Tasting Terms
Listening to a wine expert talk about wine can be confusing, so use this glossary as a translator, and brush up on some terms to be able to use them appropriately and sound like an expert yourself.
- Body: the weight and texture of a wine in the mouth.
- Elegant: a wine that is not big, fruity, opulent, or bold.
- Flabby: The wine has NO acidity. It's a hurtful term for a winemaker to hear, so try not to spew this one out at the winery.
- Flamboyant: This wine is trying to get your attention with an over abundance of fruit.
- Horizontal testing: wines from the same year/vintage are tested but from different wineries.
- Tannin: Tannins are one of the main ingredients of red wine. It has a dry taste that can cause the mouth to pucker.
- Tasting flight: describes a selection of wines for tasting, usually between three to eight glasses.
- Vertical Tasting: the selection of wines are taken from the same winery, usually from the same wine type, but different vintages are tested