Wine 101

Enjoying the Sensory Pleasures of Wine

There is something about this concoction of grapes transformed by yeast that is especially enchanting to many of those who enjoy wines. Once intrigued, they will often expend great amounts of time, energy, and money in the pursuit of the exceptional olfactory and gustatory experiences that wine can provide.

Those who become true wine aficionados are often initially attracted by the unique sensory experience of seeing, smelling and tasting a good wine. They soon discover, when trying a different bottle, that the sensory experience is quite dissimilar, and perhaps even more attractive. The grip of wine enthusiasm begins to be felt. Why do these wines affect the senses so differently? One finds the answers to that question in many areas. Thus, winelovers want (need) to know the vineyard location, type of grapes used, growing conditions, winemaking techniques, cellaring history and on and on. The compulsion to know about every aspect of a wine is viewed as eccentric behavior at the very least by those who say that wine is wine, and it comes in red, white and pink. It is clear, however, that there are profound differences among wines and the enjoyment of wine, for these authors at least, is in recognizing and appreciating those differences.

What differences, you may ask? Well, let's take the senses one by one. As a wine is poured, our sense of sight is the first to evaluate its characteristics. Wines encompass a wide chromatic range, depending on the source of the grapes, the grape variety, vinification methods and age of the wine. Compare the visual impact of the brilliant, greenish-gold color of a young Muscadet with the honeyed amber-gold of a well-aged Sauternes. Or, enjoy the star-bright crimson tint of a vigorous, youthful Valpolicella opposite the rich ruby and mahogany hues evident in a mature red Bordeaux. It is clear that these wines differ greatly in appearance and as you evaluate them further, you’ll notice equally significant differences in the aromas and flavors.

It’s the differentiation of aromas that is the crucial element of wine evaluation. There's an amazing array of scents to delight the olfactory sense. We often use other fruits as descriptors for the aromas in wine. Thus, white wines can evoke associations with lime, lemon, tangerine, peach, pear, apple, pineapple and other tropical fruits. Red wines recall strawberry, cherry (red & black), currants (red & black), raspberries, blackberries, plums.... you get the drift. These fruit aromas are embellished by winemaking techniques such as barrel aging and by development in the bottle as the wine ages. There is a wide range of herb (lavender, thyme, mint, etc.), spice (black pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg, etc.) and other scents that winetasters often experience. Descriptors like vanilla, earth, leather, woodsy, creamy and others are common in the annals of winetasting.

There are even textural differences among wines. Feel the wine with your tongue. Some wines have much more weight on the palate than others. Compare the mouthwatering, lively tartness of a young Chianti or Beaujolais-Villages with the voluptuous fleshiness of a Chateauneuf-du-Pape or the velvety earthiness of a Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. Yes, even the tactile sense can be stimulated by what starts as simple grape juice.

The vast range of tastes found in wine inspire avid interest as well. The olfactory sense is far more discerning than the palate and many winetasters use the taste of a wine to confirm or deny what is sensed at the nose. Still, there is much diversity of flavor to appreciate. As with the aromas, fruit associations in the flavor descriptions are common in the winetasting jargon - the lemony freshness of a Portuguese Vinho Verde - the pineappley richness of a California Chardonnay - or the jammy, blackberry fruit of many young red Zinfandels. And there's more, so much more. Thousands of wines exhibit distinctive characteristics, and they're all out there waiting for winelovers to enjoy.

If you’re interested in exploring the multitude of vinous characteristics, the best way is to taste wines of diverse styles and origins side by side. That way the differences will be readily apparent. It helps to write down your descriptions and impressions. When you associate a word with a particular sensory element - be it an aroma, texture, color, or flavor - you are more likely to remember that association in subsequent tastings. Ultimately, you’ll be able to more precisely describe the types of wines that you prefer. If you like the black-peppery spice of a good Côtes du Rhône, you can inquire if that characteristic is present in some new wine. The more conversant you become with wine jargon, the better the chance you’ll purchase wines congruent with your taste. Also, you’ll be better equipped to deflate your arrogant brother-in-law when he spouts forth endlessly about his wine experiences.