You see it at every wine tasting event: a man jutting his nose as far into a glass as possible, his nostrils contracting and pulling in the aroma in an effort to decipher the wine’s secrets. It can be tricky, so let’s uncork what’s really in your glass.
Let It Breathe
When a bottle of wine is opened, it is finally—after being cooped up for a year or decade—being allowed to breathe, decant or aerate. The introduction of oxygen “opens up” the wine and brings out its aroma and flavor.
Several elements contribute to this. The first is the fruit, the second the yeast that is used to ferment it. Fruit and yeast combine during fermentation to produce the sense of taste, a wine’s aroma and flavor. The barrel, typically oak, a wine is aged in also influences the wine in your glass.
Some white wine varietals, for example, are fermented and aged in steel. Today, many white wines are trending toward crisp flavors that exhibit bright fruits. Stylistically, this is a result of the wine’s being treated in steel tanks, preserving the wine’s natural fruit esters.
One the other hand, red wine and some varietals of white wine like Chardonnay spend more time in oak barrels. Red wines in particular benefit from barrel aging. They take their color from the skin of the grape, and tannin occurs when grapes and their skins soak together during the fermentation process. Barrel aging allows red wines to develop their depth of color and refine, or settle, tannin, the grittiness (or dryness) you taste in a red wine.
The Palate’s Pleasure
The fruit, yeast and wood produce the aromas, flavors and tactile sensations (coolness, warmth, dryness, tingling, coating and numbness) that put your palate in overdrive. Your mouth immediately senses sweetness, the sensor of which is at the tip of the tongue. A wine’s acidity is recognized in the cheeks, on the sides of the tongue, and then at the back of the throat. Lighter red wines and white wines generally have a higher degree of acidity. The middle of the tongue picks up tannin—a tactile sensation, not a flavor—frequently sensed in a young wine that “feels” too dry, and senses the weight of a wine’s fruit. This is why wines are referred to as light, medium, or full-bodied. The aftertaste, or what is referred to as a wine’s finish, comes when you swallow. A good wine has a pleasing sensation in which all the elements meet in harmony and balance.
Mike Tornatore, aka Wine Guy Mike, is a wine consumer advocate who is passionate about sharing his love of wine, especially the notion that great wine often comes in very affordable bottles. WineGuyMike conducts monthly wine tastings at Katie O’Keefe’s Casino and Bar in Missoula. Visit WineGuyMike.com for upcoming events and more information.