We are delighted to welcome back Gwen McCann from The House Wine. Over the coming weeks we are going to be treated to some unique and original wine blogs focussing on different aspects of wine. Today Gwen examines the flavour and taste of wine.
Once you start to examine flavour in wine it immediately gets complicated and we don’t want to get bogged down in semantics and subtleties before we start. For the purposes of this blog I am going to take flavour to mean a combination of taste and aroma. Taste being the five sensations that are experienced in our mouths through our tastebuds (sweet, sour, bitter, salt. and umami) and aroma being what we experience through our sense of smell. The tiny molecules that hit our olfactory bulb at the front of our brain, this is all more subtle and varies with each average person being able to identify between 4,000 -10,000 different aroma molecules.
Why do we like wine? Why do we prefer one wine above another? Why are some people Sauvignon lovers and others hate the mouth-filling flavours and would much prefer an understated, some would say bland, Pinot Grigio. Of course we are all different and tastes in everything are unique and various but with wine it is often particularly hard to articulate what it is that we like or don’t like about a wine. The vocabulary for the flavours of wine just don’t exist, so wine is always described as being like something else and there are many examples of over-the-top tasting notes. Here’s one written last month in the US’s most highly respected wine journal:
“Scents of bacon; fresh cherry and red raspberry shadowed by their distilled counterparts; violet, honeysuckle, and acacia; musk; lavender and other resinous herbs; along with pungently bittersweet citrus oils, all capture one’s attention. Their counterparts on an infectiously juicy, fine-grained and strikingly buoyant palate are mingled with veal stock and mouthwateringly savory pan drippings. Cardamom and black pepper add yet greater complexity.”
To most wine drinkers that’s an awful lot of aromas many of which we would be hard pushed to recognize and although evocative, it is the kind of overblown description that get’s wine journalism a bad name. Nothing excites our senses as much as a tantalizing smell – bacon, coffee, fresh bread, jasmine etc and so it is with wine. If the wine in your glass gives off no aroma then you know you are probably in for a pretty boring glass of wine. Generally with food we see what we are eating, we see it and we smell it and we put the two together, but with wine we smell all kinds of things but we have no visual reference and that is one reason that it makes it difficult to articulate and identify what we are smelling, there are no specialist words for the aromas of wine.
Over the next few weeks and months we will look at the different flavours in wine, where they come from, how to identify them and lets have a discussion about what’s useful and what’s nonsense when it comes to describing wine. There will be some practical work required (don’t worry it will only involve tasting wine) we will taste some wines in parallel and taste some wines alongside other things to try and get a better understanding of the complicated flavours of wine and that should help to make good wine choices and get more from the wine we drink.
FEEL FREE TO ASK ME QUESTIONS, IT MAKES FOR A FAR MORE INTERESTING EXERCISE FOR ALL OF US! ( either leave a comment or email me here )
The Basics of Taste
To limber up your tastebuds for the coming weeks we will start with a simple but telling exercise. We all know a bit about our tongue and our tastebuds; that they only pick up five different sensations, although the received wisdom that different parts of your mouth are sensitive to different flavours is now discredited. What we are probably less aware of is how these building blocks for flavour interact.
Simple taste exercise:
You will need: a glass of dry white wine, lemon quarter and sugar
Pour yourself a glass of white wine – have a taste, note how sweet/acid it tastes. Suck on the quarter of lemon then re-taste the wine – it will taste very different. Take some sugar swill it around your mouth and then re-taste the wine – again the flavour will be very different.
The lemon juice makes the wine taste much sweeter and the sugar accentuates the acid in the wine. Another way to demonstrate a similar effect is to line up four glasses, put 2 teaspoons of lemon juice in each, add a little water to each and then to three of them add one, two and three teaspoonfuls of sugar. As you taste up the sweetness scale you will see how much less acidic the lemon juice tastes. These simple exercises show why winemakers add sugar and either add or take away acid in wines as they are looking for a balance and the level of each has a profound effect on the perception of the other.
Salt and umami are not of any real importance in wine but bitter compounds are a very important element, particularly in red wine, this is harder to demonstrate with a simple taste test but we will come back to it. The flavours that make wine such an exciting and diverse drink are laid over these basic sensations of taste.
Next time we look at the origins of wines unique flavours starting with grape varieties.