As I mentioned earlier, I celebrated my 30th birthday this year. To celebrate Ruth treated me to a night out in Old Towne Alexandria at GRAPE + BEAN taking their Taste like a Sommelier class. The class, led by one of GRAPE + BEAN’s resident sommeliers, taught the deductive wine tasting method, the same method used in Master Sommelier exams. In the exam setting, a sommelier has 25 minutes to identify the varietal, age, and growing region of 6 wines. We had an hour and 45 minutes.
The classroom was set up with two long tables, 3 white wines and 3 red wines at each place setting, and a set of 6 worksheets. Matthew, our sommelier, began by going over the worksheet and giving us key information and little tips. We then went through each wine as a group, chatting with our neighbors about what we noticed about each wine. After each glasses, Matthew took our guesses as to whether the wine was from the Old or New world and what the varietal was. As a group we tended to do very well, although I frequently had difficulty with things such as the intensity of the smell or identifying more than 1 or 2 fruits on the nose. I learned a lot, which Ruth and I immediately put into practice by purchasing a blind flight in the restaurant after our class (which we did rather poorly at identifying, but we are more than happy to keep practicing.)
Let me share with you some of the best tips from the evening, sure to impress at your next wine and cheese gathering!
Legs in a wine are not indicative of wine quality, they only indicate the level of alcohol in a wine. Wine with “better” legs, or thicker drops, tends to have a higher alcohol content. Since alcohol is the product of sugar in the grapes, greater alcohol content often means that the grapes are from a warmer climate, usually a New World (North & South America, Australia, and South Africa).
The color of the wine is an indication of the age of a wine. White wines deepen in color, from watery yellow to deep gold, as they age. Red wines, on the other hand, go from deep purples and brownish-reds to paler garnet and ruby colors as they age.
With both white and red wines, the things to look for in each wine remained the same: were there any obvious flaws, intensity of the scent, and the actual smell of the wine. We were to attempt to name 3 fruits for each wine, as well as any non-fruit smells such as flowers or herbs and spices, and whether there was any earthiness to the smell of the wine.
For the novice, the easiest thing to identify with your sense of smell is whether the wine was aged in oak. Spicy smells such as cinnamon and cloves or rich smells like vanilla are very good indicators of oak aged wine. Anything else you smell in the wine will take practice, as different varietals often carry different noses. Rieslings for example are usually fruity wines with hints of a floral bouquet and even a slight undertone of gas or petrol, as our 3rd glass of wine had.
The most important thing to remember is you are going to draw on your own experiences here, so what you smell will not always be what the person next to you smells. Unless I start wandering the grocery store smell ripe fruits for fun, like Matt does, I will never be able to identify the difference between black cherries and red cherries in a glass of wine. And I am ok with that.
Like with the legs of a wine, a higher alcohol content indicates a wine that was grown in a warmer region. You can identify alcohol content by the burn in your throat. A low alcohol content won’t burn much past the top of your throat, while a higher alcohol content can be felt all the way down your throat (think about the burn of a whiskey or vodka).
Much of what you can identify in the nose of the wine is confirmed in the taste of the wine. For example, hints of spices and vanilla are again indicative of oak aging. However tasting the wine also allows you to use your sense of touch. When drinking a white wine, a rough or slightly gritty feeling when you rub your tongue along the roof of your mouth indicates the grapes were grown in limestone. And a viscous or fuller mouth often indicates the wine went through malolactic fermentation, or the conversion of the tart acid in the wine to a smoother lactic (as in milk…) acid.
From Left to Right:
Nicholas Girard, Sancerre, Loire Valley, 2010
Macrostie, Chardonnay, Sonoma Coast, 2009
Gunther Steinmetz, Reisling, Germany, 2009
Racine Wine Company, “Klee,” Pinot Noir, Oregon, 2010
Domaine Mucyn, Syrah, Franch, 2008
Chanarmuyo, Malbec “Reserva” Mendoza, Argentina, 2010