What makes great wine?
In France they say that a GREAT wine has the 4 ‘E’s;
E for Equilbrium (Balance), that its éléments are in harmony
E for Elegance its subtlety, its class
E for Expression of its birthplace and time
E for Emotion that it stirs in you
Every wine has a story but we have to know how to listen to it, to be open to it; unstressed, unhurried, without preconception ….letting our different senses step by step reveal the clues as we taste.
The Sense of Sight
The Wine’s Appearance
We look at the colour of a red wine and compare it to precious stones like ruby or garnet. Its colour can give us clues about the age of a wine and its readiness for drinking. This is best done against a white napkin or tablecloth. Tip the glass to a 45° angle to see the edge of the wine. When it is young, it is a bright purple colour like the futures wines. Then it turns red or what we call a ruby colour, and as it ages, it goes paler and has orange tints at the edge of the glass. At this stage, the wine is said to be garnet – it is evolving and getting ready to be drunk. By now, there would normally be some sediments in the bottle.
Looking down from the top of the glass, we can see how deep the colour of the wine is. Due to the thickness of the grape skins, Bordeaux wines are generally deep in colour. An almost black and opaque colour indicates a hot, sunny year when skins were thick and full of colour pigments. A paler colour is usually the sign of a cooler vintage.
The way the wine clings to the side of the glass is an indication of alcohol level. The more it clings, the higher the degree of alcohol, the hotter the year. These are the ‘legs’ or ‘tears’ of the wine.
The Sense of Smell
The Wine’s Nose
Wine has between 800 and 1,000 different aromatic molecules. Humans can smell and recognise hundreds of aromas but practice is needed. It’s like exercising a muscle.
The olfactory bulb at the top of our nose that receives this information is closely linked to the hippocampus in the brain which stores memory and emotion. A single aroma can transport us back in time to a particular moment in our memories like Proust’s Madeleines.
Firstly, we sniff the wine briefly without swirling the glass to check its condition, to decide if we want to put it in our mouths. It is like smelling milk to see if it has turned sour. This is a good check and first impressions are very important for checking against faults.
Then we swirl the glass to encourage more of the wine’s molecules to become volatile. We can only smell aromas that are in gaseous state. How intense are these aromas, are they weak or pronounced? The Bordeaux grape varieties tend to have quite powerful aromas.
What do they smell of? Some aromas come from the grapes themselves. Each grape variety has its own aroma palette by which it can be identified. Grapes are made up of similar compounds that are also found in fruit, spices and flowers which explains why we smell them in the wine.
Merlot: red cherry, fruit cake, chocolate
Cabernet Sauvignon: blackcurrant, mint, cedar, pepper
Cabernet Franc: raspberry, red cherry, earthy, tobacco
Bordeaux wines are blends so there is a mix of these types of aromas.
How many aromas can you smell? There are many different families of aromas; some from the winemaking and barrel ageing and, some from the ageing over the years in bottle. We can tell from this the stage of the wine’s development; is it youthful, still developing or at the end of its life?
Primary aromas come from the grapes themselves. These are fruity, floral, spice, herbaceous, herbal aromas.
Secondary aromas come from the winemaking and barrel ageing. Winemaking aromas include biscuit, toast and butter. Ageing in barrel gives notes of vanilla, nutmeg, smoke and coffee.
Tertiary Aromas come from the ageing in bottle and are found in maturing wines. They include aromas of leather, earth, game, tobacco and farmyard.
The more families you are able to smell, the more complex, the wine is said to be. We call the aromas of a wine that has been aged, its bouquet.
Any fault in the wine can usually be detected immediately on the first nose. Anything that smells of damp cardboard, stables or a trip to the dentist should be rejected immediately!
Cabbage (reduction): not enough oxygen was used during winemaking. It can be reversed by swirling the glass. Damp cardboard (TCA): a corked wine, caused by a taint during the cleaning process of the cork. It is very strong and completely masks fruit. It can occur to different degrees. Nail varnish or vinegar (volatile acidity): too much oxygen exposure during winemaking, or the bottle has been open too long. Green bell pepper (Pyrazine): unripe grapes particularly Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. Burnt match: too much sulphite used during winemaking. Horse sweat or the dentist (phenolic taint): contamination by Brettanomyces bacteria in the cellar. Earthy Beetroot (geosmin): harvest of mouldy grapes.
The Sense of Taste
Our sense of taste is relatively basic compared with our more skilful sense of smell. We can only taste five components in all. The five tastes are sweetness, acidity, bitterness, saltiness and umami – a recent Japanese discovery, which can be described as a strong savoury flavour like that of mushrooms, cured meats or seaweed. Specific taste-buds are located all over our tongue and not in separate zones as was once thought. When tasting wines, it is quite simple. Only the following components and their inter-reactions, play a role;
Sweetness: most wines are totally dry, but what we can taste is the ‘perception’ of sweetness from the ripe fruit. Alcohol and oak also add to the impression of sweetness.
Acidity: Bordeaux wines are relatively high in acidity as the climate is cooled by the sea. There are higher levels of acidity in red and white wine in cooler years. Acidity makes your tongue salivate like when tasting a lemon. It should not be confused with tannns.
For red wines there may be a third component which comes from the tannins present in the wine.
Bitterness: some tannins can taste bitter particularly if too much has been extracted from the skins during winemaking or the tannins in the skins were not fully ripe.
There are more bitterness taste-buds at the back of the tongue. It is nature’s final check to prevent us from swallowing poisonous substances which are often bitter.
In professional wine tasting, we try to evaluate the actual amount of acidity, not how much acidity appears to be there. Other factors such as sweetness can make the degree of acidity seem less.
But that is not all we taste on the palate. As wine warms up, more volatile aromas are released and, via the back of the throat, they travel to the olfactory bulb at top of nose. It enables us not only to taste acidity, or sweetness on the palate but to taste the different flavour characteristics of the fruits, flowers and spices that we have already smelt. It is a called retro-olfaction. Our sense of smell accounts for about 80% of what we taste which means that when we have a cold, we are not able to taste anything very much.
The Sense of Touch
We do not only use the sense of taste on our tongue but also the sense of touch.
The next three elements that we can learn about on the palate have more to do with our Sense of Touch than taste.
Tannins: ripe tannins have a silky texture and make the wine taste smooth. Unripe tannins are rough and astringent, drying the mouth out. They are found in the skins, and pips of the grapes. The gums of your mouth fur up like when you drink a strong cup of tea. Tannins soften with time and become smoother as wine ages.
Body: this is the weight of the wine on your tongue. If it is light-bodied, it feels diluted or watery. A full-bodied wine is heavier on the tongue and rounded. This is often linked to alcohol and depends on how ripe the grapes were that year.
Alcohol: we can feel the degree of alcohol in a wine by its mouth-feel or viscosity and a warming sensation. The red wines of Bordeaux, generally, have medium alcohol levels from 11% to 14% ABV depending on the amount of sunshine during the summer months.
Its finish or length refers to the aromatic persistence of the wine on the palate once it has been swallowed or spat out. The finish is a good indicator of a wine’s quality. The longer it is, the better the quality of the wine.
Some vintages of Yquem are said to have the length of a peacock’s tail.
Once we have finished tasting the wine, we judge our overall impression of the wine and we can draw some conclusions.
Certain factors can give an idea of the wine’s quality. The WSET (Wine & Spirit Education Trust) refers to this as the ‘BLIC’ of the wine. A wine with all of these attributes is said to be outstanding!
Balance: of the tannins in comparison with the concentration of the ripe fruit
Length: the wine’s aromatic persistence
Intensity: the strength of the aromas and flavour characteristics
Complexity: the number of different aromas and flavour characteristics
The most important question is, do you like it? Other questions include: is it worth what you paid for it or is it what you are expecting of its type?
Another important question: is the wine ready to drink or does it need more time?
After all of this analysis and breaking up of the taste of wine, what makes a wine great or not is very simple.
A great wine is a wine that ‘moves you to emotion’ like a particular piece of art or music. It has nothing to do with perfection but the honest and authentic delivery of the perfect balance that nature was able to achieve that year at that place.