“wine tasting as the rationalization of the epicurean activity” – peynaud

when people ask me why i take my wset diploma of wine so seriously i often joke around and usually answer that i am in fact “intellectualizing my alcoholism”…

kidding aside, taken straight from a book about wine tasting by émile peynaud, the above quotation is for me the explanation of the french paradox: the seemingly complete lack of guilt the french have when it comes to the pleasures of the table.

the more i learn the more i am falling in love with the “epicurean activity” and my passion, just like the one of the french or the italians, grows the more i discover about tastes, sensations, and what makes a wine or a food exciting and “worth the detour”.

what is the difference between drinking and tasting, one will ask?  indeed… why taste and not just drink?  well, for one thing, “pleasure is often increased by understanding” and tasting is the conscious appreciation of wine, often systematic and certainly always intellectual, with, at the very least, a cerebral element to it.

of course, the wine maker taste at various stage of wine production to ensure the style , consistency, and marketability of his product.  the wine buyer will taste to make his selection and hopefully meet the requirements of his target market.

for us drinkers, amateurs, and passionate wine lovers, we will taste to recognize quality, to increase our pleasure, and much too often, to wax poetic until the wee hours of the night…

and so, a big big part of the wset courses is their systematic approach to tasting which progressively becomes more precise and complication as you climb the ladder of their courses from the foundation to the diploma.  you can see the whole range by clicking here.

their idea is to provide drinkers with a systematic guidance to evaluate wines which will bring an element of discipline and consistency in the process so that 2 separate persons, simply by reading the other persons notes, will clearly understand where a wine positions itself compared to another.  it is a frame and a structure, which admittedly is not very poetic in itself, but it provides at a rational method of quality evaluation.

for the diploma, we use the highest level (you can find the pdf version here) which is extensive and goes in depth in all aspects of tasting from appearance, nose, palate, and conclusion.

as i like to say, tasting is an intellectual activity and therefore we must use, first and foremost, our brain.  following that idea, the systematic art of tasting becomes methodological and easy to follow.  from the brain, we move to the eyes with which we firstly study the appearance of the wine.  then, we move to the nose to take in, incidentally, its nose.  finally, we use our palate to, not only taste the wine and confirm what we discovered with our eyes and nose, but also to appreciate and evaluate its physical sensation and how it feels on our palate and in our mouth.

it is only then, after carefully noting our observations at each stage, that we can draw a conclusion: is the wine of quality, does it justify the scores “wine spectator” gave it?  why is it so?  at such level of quality, will it age, will it improve if it does?  for how long?  is the price justified?  why so? should i recommend it to my friends and family?  write about it on my blog?

of course, recording our thoughts is not always easy and this is why the systematic approach comes in handy.  but why record them at all if we are neither wine maker nor wine buyer?  well.  recording our impressions can also help us monitor the evolution of the wine.  say you buy a case of a super wine today and open a bottle now to appreciate what you have bought.  if you decide to lay down the wine for a couple of years, you might want to open a bottle each year or 2 for the next 12 or 24.  if each time you records the aromas, tastes, and sensations, you will have an extraordinary record and this will definitely increase the enjoyment of the epicurean activity, believe me.

and so, to make it easier for me to record my impressions, i have reformatted (pdf here) the  wset systematic approach in order to use simple check marks while leaving enough space to write more impressions for aromas, flavours, and conclusion.  this is the format i intend to use for each of the 200+ bottles that i plan to taste in preparation to my final exam in june 2009.

i will also use “le nez du vin” about which i have posted previously.  based on their “master kit”, i have developed a guide (pdf here) to help me identify those aromas and flavours i might perceive along the way.  you will notice how those aromas are separated in 3 groups: primary, secondary, and tertiary (more on this below).  finally, my guide also includes 3 diagrams taken directly from the excellent book from pierre casamayor “how to taste wine” which graph the all important concept of balance for white, red, and sweet wines.

indeed, wine tasting is not only about taste.  in fact, it is much more than that and this is why, the more you learn, the more you appreciate.

the appearance of a wine can tell us much about its condition, about its production, and gives us hint of how it will taste and feel on the nose and on the palate.  the key is that it must be bright and clear which is a sign of freshness and stability.  it’s intensity will point to its structure.  if too pale, it might be light, of a minor vintage, and have poor ageing ability.  it might also tell us about its age and it production technique.  it’s color will give us more clues about its age with bluish hues pointing towards youth: a white wine tending towards greenish hues is young and fresh while a red with purple shades will be tannic or at least very young.  brownish colors tells us the wine is fast approaching maturity if not already at its peak: gold to amber color in a white and garnet and tawny shades, especially at the rim, for a red.  finally, the tears, their weight and number will tell us how alcoholic or sweet a wine is.

the nose will also reveal much.  the obvious fault will be apparent on the first sniff, whether it is corked, oxidized, or has too much volatile acidity.  it’s intensity will give us strong hint of it’s quality: too weak and the wine is either inconsequent or of a minor vintage.  the 1st impressions of the aromas will give us the most important clue about its development: it will be youthful if the wine is full of its fresh, crisp primary and secondary aromas and it will be developing or developed if the tertiary aromas predominate.  one thing is certain, a mature wine of high quality will have a soft, subtle, and complex bouquet – a term to describe the complexity and nobleness of its tertiary aromas.  the aromas will also tell us clues about its production: oak ageing normally gives the wine aromas of vanilla, coconut, cinnamon, and cloves.  malo-lactic fermentation, a technique to soften the wine, will bring at a young age aromas of butter, yogurt, and milk.  ageing on lees brings yeasty, brioche, and bready aromas.  as it ages in the bottle, the wine will go through a period of “reduction” and it is during that stage that it will develop its tertiary aromas: hopefully the original crisp and fresh fruits will have transformed to becomes more “cooked” or “dried”.  this stage will also develop other aromas like leather, honey, prune, coffee, roasted almonds, dark chocolate, and all kinds of meaty, earthy, mushroomy characters.  a great wine will always retain some of its original fruit, albeit in a different “stage” of evolution: from cooked, stewed, and dried.

at last, the moment long awaited: the palate.  in fact, the palate is more to confirm that we have already perceived on the appearance and the nose and the taste and sensation in the mouth will often give us little extra clues about it. 

the key for a wine of quality is the balance of its structure components and it is on the palate that we will be able to judge that balance.  almost all reds and most whites are made dry.  however, alcohol will give us a sensation of sweetness on the palate.  the french call this concept the “moelleux” which is neither sugar itself nor alcohol itself.  it is the sensation of sweetness the alcohol and/or the sugar gives to the palate.  this sensation is all important for the wine balance and its use is to balance the acidity that we find in all wines and the tannins that we find in reds. 

for whites, we will care about how the acidity compares to the alcohol.  a white that is too acid will be too light and too green while too much alcohol will make the white too heavy or too hard.  acidity is important to give a wine its freshness and the further from the equator or the less ripe a vintage, the higher its acidity.  the alcohol level of a wine from a cool climate will generally be low and it’s acidity high and so to reinforce the alcohol and balance the acidity, slightly high level of residual sugar will be encouraged making the wine off-dry, or medium dry.  

for reds, we will care about its tannins and how ripe and fine they are.  tannins are from the skins and the pips of the grape and are all important for the preservation of the wine if it is destined to age.  they are astringent and give us a bitter taste and harsh/dry sensation on the palate.  the acidity of the wine will reinforce the tannins and therefore both of them must be balanced by the sensation of “moelleux” and since a red wine is mostly fermented dry, this sensation will come almost exclusively from the alcohol level.

the body is the weight of the wine on the palate and comes from the extraction of flavours, colors, and other goodies during fermentation together with the alcohol level.  the richer the wine, the denser and fuller the body, the longer it’s persistence of after-taste which we will talk about below.

flavours will normally confirm the nose but they will be more complex on the palate and a few new flavours might be perceived.  what is important is how these flavours are harmonized with each other and other aromatic families like the oak sensations we discussed previously.  the flavours  of a great wine must complement and support the balance of its structure.  the flavours, alcohol, tannins, and acids must blend as a whole for the wine to be considered of quality.  finally and most importantly, the flavours will give us an indication of the aromatic persistence which is how clearly and how long we still perceive the wine flavours once we have spit or swallowed.  this is not related on how long we perceive the acidity, the alcohol, or the bitterness of the tannins.  the aromatic persistence, or it’s “length”, relates to its flavours and aromas and the longer we can perceive them, the higher the quality of the wine.

which brings us to conclude and make an appreciation.  is the wine merely acceptable?  good?  outstanding?  and why is it so?  an outstanding wine will be brilliant with an outstandingly characteristic color.  it will be unmistakable in its characteristic aromas and it will have a complex bouquet and a balance of aromas where none predominates the other.  it will be unmistakable in its characteristic flavour with an extraordinary balance of its structure components.  it will be smooth, soft, lingering, with an outstanding after-taste.  it will leave the drinker with an excellent overall impression.

and so, tasting is thus the intellectual  appreciation of an irrational emotion.  it is the rationalization of a passion for food and for wine that can only help us increase enjoyment and bliss.

i will post my tasting notes on a regular basis and hopefully you can find in my notes a kind of systematic and rational approach so that you can relate to them and they can provide you with some kind of assistance in your own appreciation and understanding of your enjoyment.  hopefully, you will comment on them and point out the weaknesses and the areas of improvements upon which i will need to work harder in my path to epicurean discovery.