The Art of Tasting Wine with James Flewellen: Quality
One of the common themes running through my wine education courses and writings is that you, the taster, are the final authority on whether you like a wine or not. While I can tell you whether a wine is well made, and give my perception of the aromas, flavours and structure of a wine, I can’t get inside your head to assess your perception of a wine or whether you like it or not.
There are, however, some objective guidelines on assessing a wine for its quality. These are espoused by the WSET and various other wine educators and can be remembered easily by the acronym ‘BLIC‘.
B is for balance. A well-balanced wine will have a consistency between the aromas you smell and flavours you taste. The acidity will match the body of the wine and any sweetness. It won’t be sharp and unpleasant; nor will it be flabby and soft. The alcohol will suit the body of the wine and not be too harsh nor weak. If a wine has been aged in oak, then the level of oak will support the natural fruit flavours rather than overwhelm them. One factor that should be taken into consideration is the age of a wine and when it is expected to be drunk. A barrel sample of a very fine wine will not necessarily be in balance, yet it should be by the time the wine is ready to be drunk a decade later. One of the hardest jobs I’ve seen in the wine business is that of winemakers assess their newly-fermented wine and to make decisions on how to mature it based on their projections of how the wine will develop.
The length of the wine is straightforward. Simply: the longer the better. After swallowing, the finest wines will linger over your senses for many tens of seconds, even minutes in some cases! The one caveat is that the remaining flavours should be enjoyable. I’ve had at least one occasion of a wine with a very bitter flavour and an unpleasantly long finish.
Intensity is the next criterion. It’s a bit of a double-edged sword in that an overly intense wine can be overwhelming in some cases. If a particular aroma or flavour dominates at the expense of the balance or complexity of the wine, then too much intensity is a bad thing. However, with this in mind, the best wines will have an intensity and concentration of flavour that is precise yet generous.
Finally, we have complexity. This is perhaps the most difficult criterion for a wine to achieve. Complexity in a wine begins with high quality grapes. The vineyard must be well tended and the grapes healthy before a winemaker can make great wine. The winemaker’s skill is in preserving the complex biochemicals that occur naturally in the grape, enhancing and concentrating them, while still maintaining balance. Further complexity in a wine is achieved through judicious use of oak for maturation. Finally, the time spent in bottle results in further subtle and complex chemical reactions that develop ever new flavours in a wine. The end result of a fine wine that is opened at its optimal age for drinking is a plethora of aromas and flavours that change and evolve in the glass. The exact aromas and sensations can be hard to describe, yet the finish always leaves you wanting more!
James Flewellen is The Rambling Epicure wine columnist. James is a biophysicist at the University of Oxford. Originally from New Zealand, the huge range of wine James discovered in Europe spurred his interest in all things vinous. He became involved in the University’s Blind Wine Tasting Society and has recently completed a two-year term as its President. During this time he represented the University in a number of domestic and international wine tasting competitions, winning several awards. He is currently completing the WSET Diploma in Wine and Spirits. James has a passion for wine communication and education and runs the Oxford Wine Blog and the Oxford Wine Academy.