The Art of Tasting Wine with James Flewellen: What are we looking for (in a wine)?
Before we get to tasting or even smelling it, the first of our senses to be engaged by a wine is our sight. Observing a wine is the first thing a wine judge or blind taster will do when assessing a new wine, but what exactly can the appearance of a wine tell us and what are we looking for?
Colour, ‘brightness’ or intensity, spritz, sediment, the difference between the core and the rim of the wine all give away subtle clues to the wine-making process, the possible age of the wine, and the grape variety.
Spritz is the term given to small bubbles of gas that may appear just under the surface of a wine immediately after pouring. They are usually carbon dioxide, which is a natural by-product of the fermentation process. Most of it is coaxed out of the wine during the winemaking through the racking process prior to bottling. However, in some wines — especially white wines fermented in airtight stainless steel tanks — some dissolved CO2 remains. In the vast majority of cases, spritz is absolutely fine and will dissipate after giving the wine a good swirl.
Champagne and other sparkling wines, of course, make use of this by-product to obtain their characteristic sparkle. The appearance of bubbles in a sparkling wine actually has a lot more to do with the glass in which the wine is served than any inherent quality of the wine. Bubbles of CO2 nucleate at imperfections on the glass surface — deliberate or accidental scratches or microscopic bits of dirt or left-over detergent. A sparkling wine’s mousse — the French term for the fizz — is best assessed on the palate for quality purposes. That said, semi-sparkling wines will have a different character to the bubbles than a full-blown traditional method sparkling wine.
The colour of a wine is certainly the most obvious characteristic of a wine’s appearance. White wines have a colour spectrum from almost watery-white, through green, to straw, lemon, golden, and finally to coppery-orange for some dessert wines, although the vast majority fall under ‘lemon’ or ‘straw’ for me! Reds can be various shades of red (you’ll frequently hear the more poetic ‘ruby’) or purple, and rosé can go from a quite deep magenta through to a pale salmon-pink.
Both white and red wines converge to orange, or ‘brick’, as they age. This is due to the slow oxidation of the colour components in the wine. The best way to assess potential age of a wine is to tilt the wine in the glass over a white background and to look for any difference in colour between the ‘core’ of the wine (the greater body of liquid) and the ‘rim’ (the edge). This is a lot more obvious in aged red wines, where you’ll see a deeper ruby core progressing to a brick-orange at the rim. A wine that is thoroughly oxidised will be brown in colour — not necessarily a fault as some wines, Madeira for instance, are made in a deliberately oxidative style.
Wines of the same hue can vary in the depth, or opacity, of this colour. Thicker-skinned grapes imbue more colour to a wine than those with thinner skins — think of Malbec or Syrah versus Pinot Noir. Grapes tend to develop thicker skins in hotter and sunnier climates too, thus a Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon will typically be deeper in colour than one from Bordeaux. The winemaker also has a role to play, with different winemaking techniques allowing greater or lesser extraction of these colour compounds into the final wine during the maceration process. Winemaking explains most of the differences in depth of colour in rosé wines.
This idea is not limited to red wines, with Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer two examples of relatively thick-skinned grapes that can yield a deeper-coloured white wine.
Some people pay a lot of attention to the ‘legs’ of a wine. That is to say, the ‘tears’ of alcohol that run down the inside of the glass following a swirl of the wine. They are an indication of viscosity, and related to alcohol, sugar and glycerol levels in the wine. The excellent wine tutor Michael Schuster once told me that he doesn’t worry about these – there’s far more information in the structure of the wine on the palate – and I’m inclined to agree. On the other hand, I learned from a French student of wine that these ‘legs’ are a good indication of age in sweet wines, Sauternes for instance. For me, the jury’s still out on that one – I’ll need to drink a lot more aged Sauternes to compare!
Finally we come to sediment in a wine. The only sediment you should see in a white wine is tartrate crystals. These originate from the natural tartaric acid in the wine and can solidify over time. They’re nothing to worry about, although many consumers have a perception that they are a fault. The only way to get rid of them is to chill the wine, prior to bottling, to at least -8°C for several days, and even then you may not get them all. As you can imagine, this is an expensive and energy-intensive exercise, which is one of the reasons the Riesling community in particular is trying to educate the public about the presence of these ‘wine diamonds’!
Red wines will precipitate out tannins and colour molecules over time. The more tannic a wine is to begin with, the more potential for sediment it has. Very fine sediment, before it forms large clumps, can lead to a wine appearing slightly cloudy. These forms of sediment are nothing to worry about and can easily be dealt with by leaving a bottle upright for an hour or two to allow the sediment to collect at the bottom, or by decanting the wine before serving.
There’s a lot to an appearance of a wine, although ultimately its importance is superseded by what you smell, taste and feel about a wine. Thus for the average enthusiast, you’re more likely raring to get straight to the nose and the taste. If you are interested in puzzling over a wine’s appearance for tasting purposes, the important thing to remember is that there are few hard and fast rules. Each winemaker has a different approach to the next, which results in different wines – even if their vineyards are next door! The key is experience and observation. Make a note of what you’re drinking and use it to compare to other experiences. The huge variety of wines is what keeps blind tasting so interesting, so engaging, and is what makes it so hard!