“GRAPE EXPECTATIONS” – An Introduction to Wine Enjoyment
Wine is totally different from other alcoholic drinks – its taste characteristics depend on a whole array of complex factors, including grape variety, grape maturation, type of minerals in the soil, pattern of rainfall and soil drainage, vineyard altitude and sun direction, vinification in oak barrels or not, etc., etc. The taste characteristics of wine made from the same grape variety therefore vary enormously unlike, say, two different bottles of gin.
This introduction to enjoying wine will start from first principles. I feel this is necessary because some of these basic requirements of wine tasting are omitted, in part or whole, even by some wine aficionados. The intention is not to offend anybody’s intelligence, but simply to lay down some basic rules, as with any skill apprenticeship.
Drinking and tasting are two different functions altogether. When you drink water, a soft drink, a beer or a gin & tonic, you tend to swallow the liquid straight way, and it passes immediately from lips to throat to stomach in a split second, thereby getting some quick pleasant sensation in the mouth and throat. Furthermore, if you’re concentrating on something else, as you’re drinking this liquid, you notice even less its characteristics as it shoots down the gullet.
Basic requirement number one for wine appreciation is therefore to make sure you know how to sip wine in small quantities and how to make it go all round your tongue and mouth before swallowing. When you then eventually swallow, you note what sensations the wine leaves in your throat and for how long these sensations last after you’ve swallowed – great wines leave pleasant and complex aromas in your throat and nasal cavities lasting many seconds – one of the crucial criteria for wine quality assessment, which is so often overlooked by the less knowledgeable.
It follows that mental concentration on the aromas and flavours in your mouth and throat is another fundamental requirement. This is not easy at table with other diners, where you would be listening and contributing to conversation, but it is a mental discipline needing cultivation. When you are mindful of what sensations food and wine are leaving in your mouth, you are able to eat smaller food portions and drink less wine than when you’re gulping down whole platefuls and glassfuls without thinking about it whilst arguing about some hot political or work-related topic. This discipline of thoughtful food and wine tasting, besides being fundamental in culinary enjoyment, is also one of the important components of an obesity-combating strategy.
The third basic requirement is learning to concentrate on the aroma of the wine. Although I’ve left smelling wine till the end of this introductory piece, assessing a wine’s bouquet (its ‘nose’) is a first priority, because none of the other senses are so powerful and pleasurable as our sense of smell. Furthermore, the sense of taste is so dependent on the sense of smell, that when the latter is impaired, you do not taste properly, or not at all. A recently discovered large family of genes, in nasal cavity epithelium, controls protein olfactory receptors which recognise thousands of incoming odorant molecules. They transmit this information to the brain’s limbic system which analyses it by scanning its vast memory bank for related matches. The limbic system is involved in emotion, motivation and emotional association, and has a role in formation of memory by integrating emotional states with storied memories of physical sensations, such as smells.
Wine appreciation must therefore start with thoughtful assessment of its nose, and this must not be rushed. The right shape of glass is also important to concentrate the evaporating wine molecules up towards the nose. The foul habit of smoking whilst dining will interfere with wine assessment, and after-shave and perfumes are more appropriate for one-night-stands than for enjoying good food and wine. I trust you should by now already realise that there is far more to wine appreciation than memorising some wine brand names and labels.
Albert Cilia-Vincenti is a longstanding member of the Wine Society (1874) of the UK & founding committee member of Il-Qatra Wine Club (1999)