Wine Tasting vs Wine Drinking - Part One

At our wine tasting event last week, one of the new members of the Arrowhead Wine Enthusiast made a comment that I thought might be on the minds of a number of people. At all of our tasting events, I try to bring classic examples of wines produced in certain regions, and explain the production methods and growing conditions, but the one thing only the person tasting can do, is determine whether it is a good wine or a bad wine. That new member said he was having trouble tasting the differences between certain wines.

Are you drinking, or tasting wine? If you are swallowing your wine, you are probably drinking. If you are slurping, gurgling, and spitting... your are probably tasting. If you are taking notes, you are definitely tasting.

I must admit that if you are interested in really tasting a wine, then a large group of socializing people is not the ideal way of doing things. Tasting takes concentration, practice, and a good memory. I wish I was one of those "super tasters" that can pull all those extravagant flavors out of a glass of wine...but I am not. What I do know is that certain grape varieties have unique characteristics that will help you in your evaluation. As mentioned in one of my earlier posts, your wine study should begin with learning the characteristics of the noble grapes.

Step one is tasting is to make sure you are in a quiet place, with good light, and no adverse smells (no perfume or aftershave). Tasting involves a full evaluation of the wine in your glass. There is a series of steps used to evaluate a wine, and they are done in a specific order. By taking notes for each evaluation, the combined notes should lead you to the characteristics of a certain grape and region. The evaluation process involves: 1) Appearance; 2) Nose; 3) Taste; 4) Finish; and 5) Conclusion.

Appearance - In a clear, clean glass, filled no more than 1/4 full with wine, angle the glass slightly to view the wine in the glass (don't swirl at this point). Check the clarity of the wine (if it is cloudy, this could be a sign of problems). Next evaluate the intensity and color of the wine. Barrel aging can darken white wines and young red wines. Also white wines darken as they age, and red wines get paler, losing their brilliance. The intensity and color can give you clues on what to expect on the nose and palate.  Lastly, look for other things, like bubbles, legs or tears (the wine that clings to the glass after swirling), and tartrate crystals. Also look at the rim versus the core of the wine in the glass.

What do each of the "other things" above indicate?

Bubbles in a sparkling wine would be a good thing. The size of those bubbles can give you an indication of how those bubbles got into the wine. Typically, the finer the bubbles, the better the process for getting them in there. So, sparkling wine (produced in the traditional method, like Champagne) should have finer bubbles than a cheap sparkling wine, where the carbon dioxide was injected into the wine (look at how large the bubbles are in a glass of soda).

"Legs", or now referred to as "Tears" are evaluated by tilting the glass back and forth, and seeing how the wine runs down the side of the glass. The tears are indicators of alcohol strength. There is no easy explanation of why, and I am not a physicist, so just trust me on this one. The one trick is those German Rieslings, that have lower alcohol, but still have tears. In those cases, the high residual sugar levels come into play.

Tartrate Crystals, also often referred to as "wine diamonds", look like shards of glass in your wine, or sometimes just thought to be sediment. Not a comforting thing if you are unfamiliar with them. Tartrate crystals are harmless crystalline deposits that come from tartaric acid, which is natural in wine. The presence of these crystals usually indicates that the wine was not filtered, or did not go through cold stabilization. Those that look for less manipulated wines find these welcome sights in their wine.

With the wine glass tilted over a wine background, look at the core of the wine versus the rim (the center of the glass versus the sidewalls). Since all wines turn brown with age, the rim is a good indicator of age. For example, a young red wine will have an almost purple rim, versus an older red with a rim that is more brick colored. A young white will have a clear rim. versus an older white with a yellow brown rim.

So. appearance can give us clues for what to expect on the nose and palate. In the next post, we'll continue to explore the methods of actually tasting a wine, and not just drinking a wine.

Wine Tasting Parties

One of my "jobs" as the Founder/President, and Sommelier for the Arrowhead Wine Enthusiasts Club is putting together the monthly tastings. One of the most common questions I get is, "How do you figure out what to buy for the tasting?". I thought I might give you some insight into how I go about picking the wines, the quantity, and also keeping the tastings relevant, and new.

The Arrowhead Wine Enthusiasts (AWE) is mostly a social organization built around wine and food. We have an average attendance of about 40 people per tasting, but have many people following our club on Facebook,, and of course, The Sommelier Update. While we are a social group, I do pick wines, regions, and varietals that help grow our members' appreciation of wine. Each meeting includes education (for those that are interested) on the wines served, and guidance in tasting and food pairing.

The first step in determining what wines to buy, is to know your group. I know that our group tends to lean towards red wines over white. They tend to shy away from overly sweet wines. They are "so-so" on Sparkling and Rose wines. They like to experiment with new varietals, but also like to compare them to the standard varietals they drink most of the time. Keeping this in mind, I typically buy twice as much red wine as white. I usually serve two white wines, and three red wines, or I might do one rose and two reds and two whites. When I do sparkling, I do all sparkling, but a mix of different styles. When it comes to quantity, the first thing to determine is how long your tasting is going to go. Our tastings typically run about two hours, so with forty people, that means I'll need about 23 bottles of wine (usually 4 bottles of each white, and 5 bottles of each red). I will usually have a little leftover (better than running out), which we auction off to the highest bidder, at the end of the tasting. On nights where we meet in restaurants, the tasting only goes a little over an hour, and we encourage people to stay for dinner. On those nights, I cut back and buy one bottle less of each. I should point out that we have measured pour spouts on each of the bottles to control the pours and slow down the drinking, and really encourage tasting. Typically no spit bucket.

As for the wines I pick...many times, the host will determine a theme they would like to do. For example, France, or Australia. Sometimes, it gets more specific. We recently did California wines from the Sierra Foothills (a real challenge to find five good examples, since most of these are small production wineries, and limited distribution...but I was able to find five good examples, after going to four different wine stores). When we do have a theme, I try to find classic examples for that country, or region. I have three to four different wine shops that I think have very good variety, and very good prices (The Wine Club, The Wine Exchange, and Hi-Times...all in Southern California, and with internet sites). If the theme is a large region like France, then I try to give a tour of France. For example, I might visit Burgundy, Bordeaux, Loire, Rhone, Alsace, or I might throw in some examples from lesser known regions like Cahors, Savoie, Provence, or the Langeudoc. Again, I try to find classic examples for those appellations. I feel that I can throw in some more unusual varietals if I have some more familiar wines. For example, most are familiar with merlot. If I have a right bank Bordeaux, and red Burgundy (Pinot Noir), and can add something a little different, like a Jura (Savagnin grape - yes that is spelled is not the same as a Sauvignon). This way, the participants try what they are familiar with, but also get to try something they probably have never tried (or for that matter, heard of). Since most of the wine shops I buy from have websites, I create a "wish-list" of wines for my tasting, and arrive at the stores and start looking. The best stores know me when I walk in, and always ask what this meetings' theme is. I share my wish list, and give them my ideas, and always seek their advice on what they have tried lately that might be a hot buy. I am rarely steered in the wrong direction.

Also, when I purchase wines, I try to make sure I have a nice progression, and different flavors. For example, with white wines, I try to make sure I have one lighter, and one that is a bit more full body, or I might have something that is more fruity to compare with the second wine which might be barrel fermented. I always try to have a progression, and set the wines up from left to right. As they progress through the tasting, I encourage them to taste the wines with different foods, and see how they work, or don't work with certain things.

Hopefully this will give you a level of comfort in creating your own wine tasting parties. Use my food paring tips in some of the previous blog posts, to encourage your guests to bring matching appetizers, entrees and desserts....and have fun. Wine shouldn't be pretentious. It is social, it is fun, and it is there to be explored. If you ever need some ideas, or help, feel free to contact me here. My passion is to help you enjoy the world of wine as much as I do.

Wine and your Health

As we start the new year, many of us have made resolutions to live healthier lives. So how does wine fit into that goal? Let me first say, "I am not a doctor, and you should always consult your physician"...there, now we can get down to the fun stuff - making wine part of our daily lives.

Wine is chocked full of healthy compounds. Wine contains tannins, polyphenols, alcohol and (the new buzz word) resveratrol. There is plenty of research that shows one to two glasses of wine a day can actually lower your risk of heart attack, and even raise your good cholesterol (HDL) while lowering the bad cholesterol (LDL) due to stimulation to the liver. And, that is thought to be a great antioxidant, fighting those nasty free radicals that could be a cause of cancer. Alcohol may actually protect against cardiovascular disease, simply because it thins the blood and may prevent clots.

In the United States, the drinking age is 21, but when you look back to the old world, wine is part of the meal starting at a much younger age. Responsible drinking (and in moderation) is the key. Here in California, you are considered "drunk" when your blood alcohol concentration (BAC) level is 0.08% or higher. A persons' BAC is calculated as the amount of ethanol per milliliter of blood. This percentage is affected by an the persons weight, health, gender, and even their food intake while drinking.

In the United States, guidelines for alcohol consumption are based on a standard serving being 14 grams of ethanol alcohol. If you figure that an average bottle of wine (750 ml) is between 9% to 15% alcohol (and rest water), we can figure there are about 54 to 90 grams of ethanol per bottle (or, based on standard serving size, about 4 to 6.5 serving sizes). The recommended guidelines in the United States are 2 servings/day for men, and 1 serving/day for women. Remember that these are guidelines. A larger person may not be affected as much as a smaller person, simply due to the larger amounts of body fluids being able to dilute the affects of alcohol. Also, since alcohol is absorbed through the lining of the stomach and the small intestines, food consumption with your drink can slow down the rate of absorption.

Just remember to drink in moderation. Too much of a "good thing", can have adverse affects. Research has shown that moderate wine consumption can have positive health benefits. Some new research (that is still being evaluated) shows promising signs that moderate consumption may lower the risks of dementia, osteoporosis, and even type II diabetes.

So, here's to your health, and to the New Year. Drink some wine, and make 2011 the year you keep your resolution to be a healthier person.