Lesson 02 – How to differentiate between good and ordinary wine?
Part One – Concentration and Structure
Like they say in action movies, we can do this the easy way or we can do this the hard way.
Let’s start with “easy” and take it from there, shall we?
Out of the many dozens of things we consider when judging a wine, for our purpose, all you have to do is to focus on just six tasting points, namely:
My apologies please: it will take me two lessons to cover all six points properly. We’ll do two tasting points this week and discuss the remaining four in the next lesson.
We do part ONE – Concentration and Structure.
Concentration is about a feeling of density and not a “taste” of flavors per se. A wine can have the loveliest of fruit and spice flavors but if there’s not enough of it in every sip, it lacks concentration.
Don’t let the “hot” feeling of alcohol fool you into thinking that the wine is concentrated. Alcohol only gives weight – through a sense of heat on the palate – not concentration to a wine. Also, avoid being fooled by the sweet fruitiness that distracts you from how dense or diluted the wine really is. You can dilute orange juice with sugar water. It may still taste sweet but it lost some of its concentrated orange flavors.
Concentration is a result of a combination of weather and expert wine-making. Ripe grapes slightly starved for water reduces the liquid in the grape and concentrates its flavors. In the winery, extra measures are taken to extract more (phenolics) out of the grape and its juice before, during and even after fermentation.
Good wine must have good concentration although it is perfectly normal for older wines (20 years or more) to lose some of its concentration. As wines mature with age, elegance replaces intensity, an equitable trade perhaps.
The structure – or backbone as it is often called in wine speak – of a wine comes mainly from its tannins. Tannin is that slightly bitter stuff that comes from the skins and pips of the grape. In excess it makes the wine tastes astringent with a sense of dry bitterness. Without it, the wine smacks of alcohol-strengthened grape juice tasting flabby and unexciting.
The best way to “teach” your palate to detect structure is this. Get some tannic acid from a chemist. Ask for it in powder form – easier to handle. Buy a bottle of fruit wine like a Beaujolais or Rosé. These wines have very little tannin. Then we pour into three glasses. In Glass 2 put a small bit tannic acid say ½ teaspoon, and double that dosage in glass 3, none for glass 1. Taste glass 1, 2 and 3 in that order and notice the increase in dry astringency that borderlines bitterness as you go along. That’s tannin at work. Later on, we taste 3 then 2 for a reason explained below.
We can also imagine chewing on inside of orange peel or its pips. That bitter taste that leaves a sense of astringency is caused by tannins.
A wine with poor structure will not withstand the test of time. It will not improve with age. In fact, it may very well deteriorate with time. These wines will never have anything to do with greatness. At best, they are a pleasant drink. We hope their price tags reflect only these virtues.
A wine with too much structure represents a real problem too. Tannins resolve themselves with age, their molecules combining into large crystal (heavier) solids and deposit themselves at the bottom of the bottle in the form of sediments. Referring to the last tasting exercise above – in reverse order – it is like going from Glass 3 to Glass 2, experiencing less astringency along the way. This is true up to a certain extent. In great excess, not all tannins can be resolved during the useful lifetime of a wine. This means it will never grow out of its ugly-duckling adolescence. Some fabulous wines such as the 1957 Château Latour and some of the 1991 red Burgundy’s never managed to “come around”. These are heart-breakers for wine collectors.
And what about those bad wine?
A wine is bad if it is spoiled. This means it is either contaminated by bad stuff like TCA and Brett or excessive oxidation has turned the wine vinegary. We’ll discuss it some more in the lesson on proper care and storage.
Part Two – Conclusion: Bouquet, Typicity, Balance and Finish
“Bouquet” is a wine jargon that refers to a complex mixture of smells exuding from a well-aerated glass of fine wine. In youth, wine gives out an array of linear aromas characterized by fruit, flower, food and herbs scents. With age, everything simmers down to rich collage of scents that form one integrated masterpiece of a perfume.
It really isn’t necessary to dissect the smell of a wine to form your judgment of its quality. But a good bouquet has to be clean, attractive, rich and free of unnecessary distraction. Wine writers like to describe scents using “notes” of flowers (violets), fruit (raspberries, lemon, apple, pear), food (mushroom) and spice (cinnamon, vanilla). Some common flaws that are easily detectable by the nose are: excessive alcohol, volatile acidity – vinegar – and sulfur dioxide. The term “oakiness” is used quite often to describe a flaw caused by over use of oak barrel ageing. The oak scent dominates the bouquet – not good because we want to smell the wine not the wood in which it was aged.
Contrary to popular belief, the “flavor” of wine is 75% smell and 25% taste. Indeed for those who must keep alcohol intake to a bare minimum, just by using your nose, you get 75% of the kicks. You can still taste by spitting instead of swallowing, you get 90-95% of the real thing. Considering that the average “normal” wine drinker gulps down 90% of his/her wine with less than 5% in discernment, you probably get more bang-for-the-buck than the lot of them all the time.
A good wine can’t ever be great unless it vividly demonstrates pedigree of region, climate and style. To illustrate the point, let’ say we have big Pinot Noir, very concentrated with rich flavors. It tastes like a Shiraz and is great with a piece of rare red meat. All in all, it is a very good bottle of red wine, but it is not a great Pinot Noir wine. The delicate Pinot characteristics are totally masked out by its high alcohol content. When we order a Pinot Noir, a Morey-St.-Denis from Burgundy for example, we expect to find certain qualities unique to wines made from this grape, not just another generic red wine of good quality.
To judge the typicality of a wine, some knowledge of style of regions is needed to form a basis for our judgment. For varietal wines – wines that are classified by its principle grape such as Merlot or Chardonnay for example – knowledge on the characteristics of wine made from that grape is necessary. A number of (future) lessons are devoted to providing you this information. If you really need to know now, you can always buy a “Grape poster” for each of your favorite varietals – Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, Sauvignon Blanc for example. There are about 60 of them but your average wine drinker is only interested in a dozen or two.
The “finish” is a wine jargon referring to the length of time the aftertaste lingers on after we have swallowed (or spat) the wine. You can easily measure it yourself in number of seconds. A long finish of over 10 seconds is a sign of quality. It is an excellent way to verify your assessment on the concentration and overall quality of a wine. Some great wines linger on for 30 to 60 seconds.
Length is not the only thing to watch in the finish although a long finish is always a desirable thing. The finish has to also retain the qualities manifested by the wine while it was still in the mouth. It should neither turn sour for example nor should the astringency of bitter tannins start to dominate. Sometimes all that is left in the finish is a dry ugly woodsy taste. A long extension of a lovely flavor well after spitting or swallowing really separates the good from the ordinary. In other words, the finish should be just as well-balanced as the flavors while the wine was still in the mouth. What does well-balanced mean? Please read on.
This is the quintessential condition for greatness. A wine has poor balance if anything sticks out at all, even if that particular feature appeals to you. The major flavor components of wine are: tannins, acidity, (fruity) sweetness, alcohol and wood. They have to function in harmony coming at you like one single wall of flavors. None of these components should dominate. There is no solo performance just one tightly knit symphony of well-proportioned flavors.
Balance is the hardest virtue to achieve in wine. To deliver perfect balance, everything has to be done to perfection in the making of the wine. A thousand things can go wrong to upset the balance. For example if the grapes are unripe – not enough sun in the summer – the resulting wine will taste green. It will lack the concentration of fruit flavors to counter the green acidity of unripe grapes in the wine. A heat wave like what happened in 2003 could cause the sugar content of the grape escalate to excessive levels resulting in a wine that is extremely high in alcohol. Acidity comes from the cold which is in abundance in most parts of Europe. For regions like Australia and certain parts of America, with less drastic climates a lot of wines starve for acidity
Good balance is absolutely essential for a wine to improve and achieve greatness with age. Balance doesn’t come with age. Poor balance aggravates in time because the component(s) that sticks out will do so in more daring fashion as the wine gathers age.
Knowing how to taste wines in a systematic and consistent manner rectify our incapacity to choose because of confusion. After a few more dozens of bottles, all of us should be able to evaluate a wine to determine its real economic value and judge for ourselves in an objective manner if for example a p2000 bottle is indeed worth more than a p1000 bottle. Lastly, before we write out a big check to buy a few cases of just-released expensive wines to add to our cellars, we can use this ability to form our own opinions instead of relying totally on ratings and notes that are based on a stranger’s palate.
Oh, one more thing: please do not confuse your like or dislike of a wine for its quality. Like or dislike is a matter of personal preference. Quality is not.