The man standing before us at the end of the long table struck me as wonderfully French. He was elegantly weathered, impeccably dressed, and had just spent the day teaching us about tasting wine.
This was about a million years ago, when I was an undergraduate studying abroad in Paris, and spending all my spare change on things like pastry-making classes, chocolate-making classes, and wine-tasting classes rather than the more predictable college occupation of heading out to party at a boîte de nuit. After just a day’s worth of instruction on the wines of France, our august instructor sprang a little competition on the sixteen of us who sat there amidst tasting glasses and scribbled notes. He gave us all three glasses of wine and we were to guess the grape varietal, region of France, and age of each.
As he read the results, I was utterly shocked to hear (in French), “and our winner, with only a single mistake, is mademoiselle Emily!” Apparently I had either had excellent luck or picked up a couple things during the class.
Those things I picked up during the class I call my wine tasting “party tricks.” What they are, really, is the tiniest scratch at the surface of what trained professionals like sommeliers learn in order to blind taste wine and evaluate it: some of the very, very basic characteristics that you can observe when tasting a wine. Don’t worry, you’ll probably still totally embarrass yourself if you try to break these out in front of a trained sommelier who actually knows what they’re talking about, but it’s still fun to be able to look at a wine and say with some confidence, “I’d guess this is around 7 years old, and probably from somewhere cooler, like Oregon.” So, here for your fun, are the things I learned from that wonderfully French wine teacher in Paris.
First, you can look at the color to get a sense of what grape was used in a wine. (This is true of both whites and reds, but it is more obvious in reds, especially single-varietal, so I’m going to focus on red wine.)
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Some grapes like Pinot Noir, Gamay, and Grenache are a light ruby or berry red. On the other hand, an inky purple wine is more likely to be Syrah (Shiraz), Malbec, or Cabernet Sauvignon.
There’s actually a whole color spectrum that you can start to decipher if you care to, and it’s a good excuse to buy a lot of different varietals of wine all at once and line up a glass from each! But, as with any spectrum, the ends are the easiest to pick up on.
The legs of a wine are the little droplets that bead and run down the side of a wine glass after you swirl the wine around and then stop. According to our wine teacher in France, the legs tell you how warm or cool of a region the wine grapes were grown in. Basically, legs are interesting because they give you a clue as to the viscosity of a wine. A higher viscosity wine generally means it has a higher alcohol content, and you can see this in the droplets beading and running down the glass more slowly.
Higher alcohol wines usually come from warmer growing regions like California, Australia, and the more southerly reaches of Italy and Spain. The warmer climates allow grapes to achieve higher concentrations of sugar during the growing season, which translates into a higher alcohol content in the fermentation process. Cooler climates, for example Oregon, Burgundy, and Chile, tend to yield lower alcohol, decidedly less viscous wine.
You can also look at the color reflected off the surface of the wine at the top of the glass, which will have some translucence to it. In France, I was taught to look at this color by tilting the glass and letting light shine through the wine. The color of this light—or the color at the meniscus of the wine in the glass—gives you a clue as to the wine’s age.
A very young wine, three years old or younger will have an inky and intense purple tinge to the light bouncing through it. As a wine gets older, the light will take on a lighter, more ruby red hue, with the shade of red deepening as the wine matures from 5 to 6 to even 8 or 9 years old.
As wine reaches the decade mark or older, the red transitions to being a very bricky but less saturated (that is, more translucent) red-brown or even amber-brown as the color particles precipitate along with some of the wine’s tannins. (Interestingly in white wine the darkness goes the opposite direction: A very old white wine will be a deeper gold as opposed to the very, very light green or gold of a young white.)
Nose and Palate:
This, the way a wine smells and tastes is, of course, the true heart of the matter of deciphering one wine from another, and therefore the most complicated. Rather than easy tricks here, the learning of the subtle differences between grape varietals, stylistic differences between regions, characteristic blends, flavor personalities of certain vintners, and so on, take intensive studying to learn.
But, one of the interesting things about blind tasting is that it is a way like detective work, with some clues that are easier to detect and interpret than others. Smells and flavors can help you eliminate what a wine obviously isn’t, while at the same time clueing you into what a wine is. All of this added together helps lead you towards a better understanding of that wine.
So, one thing I do find helpful to know are some of the flavor/scent notes that are signatures of a certain grape. Here are a few examples that are easy to store away in your mind (bearing in mind there is also always a strong element of subjectivity with regards to smell and taste, and also many wines are blends, in which case you’ll detect scents and flavors from several different varietals):
If you get hints of raspberry, especially if combined with a sort of wet forest floor smell, there’s probably Pinot Noir in your wine.
Grenache tends towards aromas of strawberry with hints of warm spice.
Merlot always makes me think of plums and vanilla with a touch of chocolate.
If you smell black currants with some more earthy scents of cedar and tobacco, or even green bell pepper, you’ve likely got a wine with some Cabernet Sauvignon in there.
And Syrah (Shiraz) usually displays an interesting combination of really dark, jammy fruit flavors with savory scents of black pepper and savory herbs.
Okay! Well, now that we’ve covered all that, I’m going to give you three different wines, and you have to guess…
I like to say I'm a lazy iron chef (I just cook with what I have around), renegade nutritionist, food policy wonk, and inveterate butter and cream enthusiast! My husband and I own a craft distillery in Northern Minnesota called Vikre Distillery (www.vikredistillery.com), where I claimed the title, "arbiter of taste." I also have a doctorate in food policy, for which I studied the changes in diet and health of new immigrants after they come to the United States. I myself am a Norwegian-American dual citizen. So I have a lot of Scandinavian pride, which especially shines through in my cooking on special holidays. Beyond loving all facets of food, I'm a Renaissance woman (translation: bad at focusing), dabbling in a variety of artistic and scientific endeavors.
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