Wine Tasting 101 is being conducted every single day in distinct manners, but I doubt how many people are truly impressed by their very first attempt to swirl, sniff and sip. At the beginning of my wine journey I certainly have attended a few “tasting 101”s, where I was presented six to eight glasses filled with “handpicked” wines, few of these were more than 10 bucks per bottle. Occasionally pleased by some of the 101 events yet disappointed by the majority, I think a better job can be done. The problem is not really about the price level but the lack of versatility and the failure to express the full flavor profile of the variety, the influence from winemaking and the terroir.
What indeed matters for the curious ones about the tasting 101 is to impress – with the broad spectrum of flavors, the intricacy from plantation to winemaking, and the magical synergy from the nature, the people and the ages. I proposed a tasting 101 with a $100 cost per person and ascertain that it is going to be different this time.
A few dimensions as good reference to start:
Acidity: sourness in different expressions. It could be a green apple sharp acidity, or a yogurt creamy acidity. Acidity balances the sweetness and fruitiness, without which a wine would be cloying and flabby.
Tannins: phenolic compounds that grips and drys out your mouth. Thinking about the mouthfeel when you eat a bunch of almonds. Tannins create the texture that differentiates wines from juice. Tannins along with acidity form the backbone of a wine.
Other notable factors including body, alcohol level, finish, etc are also important, but not as crucial as acidity and tannins.
How to evaluate a wine? In the WSET courses I learned about BLIC – Balance, Length, Intensity and Complexity, among which Balance is a decisive factor – nothing sticks out in a ugly way and nothing is out of place; Length is how long and flavorful the aftertaste is; Next a wine is not necessarily good when it has high intensity, balance is the king; Finally when a wine is well balanced with great concentration and nice long finish, we can talk about how complex it is – how many characters can you find? Are they pure and delineated? Does it develop any new flavors over time?
Let’s get down to the actual tasting. The line-up:
Pol Roger, Blanc de Blancs 2008
Cloudy Bay, Sauvignon Blanc 2017
Bergström, “Sigrid” Chardonnay 2012
Domaine Leymarie, Chambolle-Musigny 1er Cru “Aux Echanges” 2014
Bodegas Muga, Prado Enea, Gran Reserva 2009
Dal Forno Romano, Vigneto Monte Lodoletta Superior Valpolicella 2006
Caymus, Cabernet Sauvignon 2015
Hétszölö, Tokaji Aszú, 5 Puttonyos, 2008
1. Not all sparkling wines are called Champagne – Pol Roger, Blanc de Blancs 2008
Bubbles are always the perfect starter, it stirs up the stomach and flushes the buds. Champagne is an overly and incorrectly used term nowadays for sparkling wines, so first knowledge point – Champagne is a region, or the sparkling wine produced in the region of Champagne. Sparkling wines have been served at various occasions and events, certainly everyone has tried the kind more or less, whether a Prosecco or Cava, however I am putting the focus on the vintage of the selected Champagne here – yes this is a vintage champagne, made out of the best grapes of the year and through highest class of winemaking process, usually requires most attention when it comes to barrel aging that a vintage bottle is not released until a prolonged period maturing in the cask. Pol Roger is a prestigious producer in Champagne, founded in 1849, still owned and run by the descendants. In a vintage Champagne from an established winemaker, more can be expected, often hints of nuttiness, brioche and rich texture, than an average NV bottle.
2. What is that pronounced aroma? Do you know about gooseberry at all? – Cloudy Bay, Sauvignon Blanc 2017
The most distinctive character of the New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is the pronounced gooseberry, not permitted to grow in the States and no familiarity for a vast majority of people, yet it is truly distinctive, and pleasant. I usually recognize it as guava if that helps at all. Sauvignon Blanc is the most exported varietal wine from New Zealand for its consistent quality and pronounced flavor. Its sharp acidity also makes it a good companion for light fares.
Please take a note about that crisp acidity and we will come back for it after tasting the Chardonnay.
3. Oak – the essential tool to make a big wine – Bergström, “Sigrid” Chardonnay 2012
Chardonnay is called the winemakers’ grape for its neutral profile and versatile elasticity, as it can embody a broad spectrum of styles from different areas of the world, or from different winemaking techniques. Examples are numerous to list: Chablis, known for its bracing minerality and great marriage with oysters; Malolactic fermentation infuses it with a yogurt-like acid and hints of cheese; Practice of oak barrel aging is able to bring a lot more magical influences to the juice, from coconut notes to oily richness.
Here are the basic steps for winemaking – crush, press, and ferment. All big wines (the term “big” wines usually means powerful, complex in style and exceptional quality) have to be aged in oak barrel, stainless tank or bottle before release. Oak has a big influence – look for vanilla, coconut or toast as its most evident traits.
4. There is a lot to talk about this wine – Pinot Noir, Burgundy and terroir – Domaine Leymarie, Chambolle-Musigny 1er Cru “Aux Echanges” 2014
“God made Cabernet Sauvignon, whereas the Devil made Pinot Noir.” That quote came from André Tchelistcheff, America’s most influential winemaker.
Pinot Noir is known as one of the hardest varietal wine to make in the world, hard to grow and easy to mess up, yet some most expensive wines in the world are from Burgundy, the sacred land for Pinot Noir, a region pioneering in the concept of terroir driven wine, where a batch of wines made tailored to the micro-climate of a single cru (vineyard). Cote du Nuit, the star region inside Burgundy, giving born to legends like DRC, Domaine Leroy, about 200 acres in size, enjoys the fame of producing Pinot Noirs in enormous variations from masculine Gevrey Chambertin to feminine Chambolle Musigny.
The selected wine is from a premier cru Aux Echanges in the village of Chambolle Musigny, expected to convey a feminine style with tart red fruits, lean body and long lasting acidity.
5. Tertiary flavor – Bodegas Muga, Prado Enea, Gran Reserva 2009
Old wines are for serious wine connoisseur, for 1). An age-worthy wine develops complexity over decades; 2). They are hard to find; 3). They easily double the price up. As wine professionals, we don’t usually recommend purchasing old wines for beginners since it is easy to get a bottle past peak, flimsy in flavor and structure, and with a intimidating price tag. Yet the age of wine is another enchanting dimension, not only the “time” value but the complex tertiary flavor, that we want to present here. Rioja Gran Reserva is one of the most accessible old wines, because of their minimum 6 years of aging requirement of aging, more often they are first seen in the market 10 years after the fruit is harvested, and the fact that they are underrated. From a decent and affordable bottle of Rioja Gran Reserva, one can expect tertiary notes (the flavors that is developed through age) of dust, tobacco and leather. Along with the deep dark fruits from Tempranillo, Rioja is a wine that any starter in wine should not miss.
6. A great winemaking technique – Passito – Dal Forno Romano, Vigneto Monte Lodoletta Superior Valpolicella 2006
Italy is the second most important wine producing country in the old world. It is a difficult job to pick a single most impressive one from the numerous delicious wines produced in the Apennines Peninsula. After some thoughts, I selected one of my favorites and its specialty is worth going into details. An extra but crucial step is taken in the winemaking process for this kind of wine – Passito, the berries rainsined before being crushed into juice, the result of which yields extraction of some unique flavors like dry figs, and also intensifies the fruit core. The most classic wine going through Passito is Amarone DOCG, a wine that is craved all over the world. It is never cheap given that half of the juice is vaporized through drying. Romano Dal Forno is an iconic Amarone producer, whose wine is of premium quality, with anticipated notes of dried red berries, figs, tobacco, wet stones and leather.
7. Hedonistic Napa Cab – Caymus, Cabernet Sauvignon 2015
Caymus is a big name, one the most representative Napa Cabernet, it won the Wine Spectator Top 100 wines of the year a handful of times. Explosive with black fruits and layered creamy richness, astonishing every single first time Caymus drinker, it is a Hedonistic wine that is so pleasurable to drink, a wine that is born to be served at a grand feast. While some could argue that the fruit flavor is so overwhelming that tilted the balance, it is not hard to uncover a few interesting notes beyond the fruits, e.g. cedar, chocolate and vanilla.
8. Dessert Wine – Hétszölö, Tokaji Aszú, 5 Puttonyos, 2008
Dessert wine is an enjoyable treat after a big fat entree, the sharpe acidity and a right amount of sweetness rebalance your salty and greasy palate. Dessert wine is made from shriveled berries where the vast majority of juice is gone and residual sugar is high. The special berries are made so through being dried out (like Passito method), or being frozen (the method to make icewine), or being infected with noble rot. Acidity is the key to balance such high level of sweetness, without it the wine would be flabby and cloying like over-sweetened fruit juice. Tokaji is a true classic made in Hungary, a wine producing country that is focused on dessert wine. The wine is blended with a base white wine and the infected “azsu” berries. Please enjoy this nectar, expect the apricot, honey, caramel flavors, viscous in texture, and everlasting aftertaste.
It was a well received event. I heard a couple of times of “mind-blowing” acclaims to almost every bottle that night – some were amazed by the lean but concentrated Chambolle, some kept asking for more Bergstrom, and others were blown away by the utterly pronounced Caymus, etc.. Taste buds vary from people to people, what essentially we need to showcase, as a wine professional, is not only the quality but the versatility as well, in this way people with any weird taste should be gratified, and that is what entirely matters.