St. Helena Star/Napa Valley Vintners panel tasting

The wines are bagged and poured, the wine glasses are put out and panelists are seated, sniffing, tasting and judging Napa Valley Cabernet Franc during a July 26 tasting sponsored by the St. Helena Star and the Napa Valley Vintners. The tastings are held in the Rudd Center at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone.

Tasting is easy. You just put a glass of wine up to your lips, tip the glass upward and let the flavors rain in, right?

That could be the gist of it, for sure. Some people, however, get curious about what they are smelling and tasting, and wonder why enthusiasts get caught up in the color or the finish of a wine.

For those ready to take a deeper dive into what wine tasting is all about, here are a few things to help de-mystify the process:

Sight: Look at the wine

Why do some people hold a glass of wine up to the light? We are wondering that, too. True, you can see if particles are suspended in the wine, but that likely won’t stop you from smelling it. Looking at the color and its intensity, however, can give you clues as to the style of wine you will be tasting. It is best to hover your glass over a white surface, such as a tablecloth or piece of paper, and look down into the wine.

A white wine with a pale lemon-green or vibrant lemon color generally indicates a young, fresh wine. As a white ages it gets deeper in intensity (moving from pale to deep), and changes color from lemon to gold and then amber. If your white wine has gone off to brown, don’t even use it for cooking!

Some white wines, such as chardonnay, age well and develop a complexity of flavors (nuts, honey, dried fruits) that adds to the enjoyment of the wine.

Color intensity can deepen with oak-use as well. A chardonnay that has spent time aging in small oak barrels may appear a deeper lemon than one that is bottled soon after fermentation. How do you know if your deeper intensity comes from oak or age? Your nose will come in handy here.

Before we leave “sight,” however, let’s talk about crystals. If you happen to see small crystalline slivers on the cork or around the neck of your white wine bottle, there is no need to call a consumer watch group. They are not glass (unless you have broken the neck of your bottle!) Wine is an evolving beverage, and in addition to changing color and intensity, other reactions happen in time. Two natural substances found in wine – potassium and tartaric acid – bind together and create crystals. They are not harmful, and just another reminder that wine is a very complex product indeed. Some producers will force these crystals to form before they bottle the wine so that there will be no complaint from the consumer.

Let’s go back to color. In young red wines, these range from purple (blue-tinted) to ruby to garnet and tawny with age. The intensity of the color, however, turns paler, not deeper, with age in a red wine. Looking at the intensity can lead to some fun guessing games if the taster is unaware of the specific wine in their glass.

Have a lighter intensity? Color comes from the skins of the grapes, and much of this is extracted during fermentation. Grapes with thinner skins, such as pinot noir, Grenache and Nebbiolo, have less color to extract so their wines are often paler in color. Don’t get fooled, however, into thinking a paler intensity always equals faint flavors. Nebbiolo, the star grape of Italy’s Barolo and Barbaresco wines, has thinner skins, yet nevertheless, produces some of the most flavorful wines on the planet.

Smell: Go ahead and sniff the wine

You can either smell it straight away, or swirl the wine and then smell. WHY do we swirl? It’s not just to show off agility. There is some science behind the flair. Aromas are volatile, and when we swirl, we create a larger surface area of wine in the glass. This allows more aromas to evaporate from the wine into the air, which we then capture as we smell. Smelling, in fact, is our strongest sense when it comes to wine tasting. We can learn to identify 1,000 different aromas in life, and of those, about 200 are said to relate to wine.

If you are new to swirling, and this puts your white dining chairs into dire jeopardy, then warming the bowl of a wine with your hands can also bring out more aromas. (This is also why some aromas seem more intense when they are in your mouth; your mouth is warming up the wine.) Swirling from the relative safety of a solid surface, such as a table, can also be a good way to go.

Let’s get even geekier for a minute. Aromas are detected by the olfactory epithelium, a fancy word for the organ that gives us our sense of smell. This triggers our memory banks, causing us to think and say things like: “that smells like my grandmother’s basement” or “this is like a bowl of Fruit Loops cereal.” These associations are fun, even if someone else has no idea what your grandmother’s basement smells like (and perhaps thankfully so). It’s only when you taste professionally that it is a good idea to start using a wine vocabulary that others can understand.

Not only do new aromas develop in a wine over time, but they can also weave together seamlessly, where no one group of aromas sticks out aggressively. The fresh oak planks of a young, oak-aged cabernet sauvignon will mellow and integrate with black berry and black currant fruit, as new savory aromas layer into these aromas.

Taste: Finally it’s time to sip the wine

Take a sip and enjoy flavors such as red cherries and vanilla on your tongue, right? Not exactly. What we think of as tastes are actually aromas. This needs an explanation. Our taste buds strictly detect the big five types: sweet, salt, bitter, umami and acid. Aromas are travelling up the back of our mouths and rear nasal passages, and these aromas trigger our memory banks, telling us the aromas are vanilla or red cherry. While we may call them flavors, they are technically aromas. But regardless of what we call them, they can trigger pure pleasure for a wine enthusiast.

Style determiners

Not all wines are created equal, and nor should they be. Some wines create a drying sensation in our mouths, called tannins. Tannin is not a taste but a textural or tactile component to the wine. You feel the dryness in your mouth – almost as if you have stuffed cotton balls along your gum line. What is happening? Tannins bind to our saliva, and so we no longer feel the effects of that saliva. Tannins are found naturally in a grape’s skins, stalk, and pit, but they can also come from oak barrels. While some people may not like tannic wines, the good news is two-fold: they soften over time, and they help a wine age.

Tannins appear more in red wines, since red grapes are generally fermented on their skins, whereas white grapes are pressed (separating the skins, and any stalks, from the juice) prior to fermentation much of the time. Tannin can add a structural backbone to a wine like a Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon, a Barolo, or Bordeaux red.

What about acidity? That too is naturally found in the grape. Since acids in a grape fall as sugar rises during ripening, vintners look to pick the grapes when they are in their goldilocks phase: not too high in sugar (and therefore too low in acid, leaving the wine flabby) nor too high in acid (which may leave the wine tart in flavor). A balance of fresh acidity and ripeness are keys to a top quality wine.

The body of a wine is one more thing to consider. Some wines are crisp and lighter bodied, while others can feel weightier on the tongue. Some of this is from the grape itself. Chardonnay, semillon, merlot, and countless other grapes, can naturally create wines with more body. But sweetness, oak-aging, and higher alcohol also give the impression of a richer bodied wine. Sometimes a light-bodied refresher is just the thing; and sometimes, we look for a richer, fuller bodied wine to savor on the palate. It is a good thing that both styles exist all over the wine world.

Finish: Pleasant flavors that linger

What’s all the talk about the finish of a wine? When a wine has pleasant flavors that linger on your tongue after you have swallowed the wine, it is considered a good quality wine. If it has long, lingering flavors but those flavors are bitter, those do not count!

While we have covered quite a bit here, you may just want to sip on a wine as you laugh with friends or enjoy a great meal. There is no need to languish over the color of a wine or dive into the science of tasting. However, if you wish to, there is so much to explore. Wine is only as complex as we want to make it.

Editor’s Note: Catherine Bugue is the St. Helena Star’s tasting panel writer and is the co-founder of the Napa Valley Wine Academy in Napa.

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