Wine is more than simply a delicious tipple to enjoy with your evening meal; it is something to be admired, savoured and even studied. Oenology, the study of wine and winemaking, is a longstanding field which can help you to gain more of an appreciation for what’s in your glass – and in your wine cellar.
So what are the characteristics of a good wine? One very simple standard is that any wine you enjoy is a good wine, and naturally that is true, but by studying the wine a little more deeply before you drink it, and by engaging all your senses in the experience, you may come to enjoy that wine a little more.
It is important not to overlook the appearance of wines; it can have a drastic effect. This was proven in a 2001 study by Frédéric Brochet. He gave 54 oenology students a white wine and a red wine to taste, and they described each in familiar terms – the white elicited descriptions of honey, flowers, peach and lemon, whilst the red was credited with notes of raspberry, cherry, chicory and cedar. The twist, of course, was that both were the same white wine – simply adding tasteless food colouring changed the perception of the flavours completely.
When tasting wine, therefore, it is important to take visual factors into account. Natural light is very beneficial, but any good light source will do. Having something white – even something as simple as a piece of paper – to view the wine against allows you to get a proper sense of its hue.
Whilst clarity and brightness are important factors to consider, the colour of the wine gives the strongest indication of its age and condition. Oxidation causes white wines to deepen in colour and red wines to lighten in hue, so experience will teach you what to expect and allow you to gauge how well the vintage in question has been kept. If you are looking at a very young Sauvignon Blanc and the colour is a deep yellow-gold instead of pale straw, you may approach the following stages with some trepidation, as you already know it’s prematurely aged.
Smell is deeply connected with taste; some say that 75% or more of the taste we perceive comes from our sense of smell. Therefore, taking the time to appreciate the scent of your wine will enhance the taste, and with experience, the scents from your wine glass can reveal an extraordinary amount.
For this reason, it’s important to ensure that you’re not surrounded by extraneous strong smells; although wine and cheese are a popular combination, it’s best to keep the smellier stuff under wraps in order to appreciate the vintage in your glass.
Flawed wines will often reveal themselves quite obviously at this stage; a damp, musty, cardboard-like smell tells you that the wine is corked, if it’s oxidised it may smell baked or just generally “off”, and a rotten egg smell says it’s spoiled. These are all indications of a wine you may wish to simply walk away from.
Assuming that your wine is not flawed, there are three overall groups of scent that you should register; the fruit notes, the earthiness, and wood tones.
Whilst the fruit scents are intrinsic to the grape variety used, the earth and wood tones are more connected to the viticulture involved; earthiness is often connected with European wines, where it may give depth to a Burgundy or a chalky undertone to a Chablis, and may be completely absent in New World vintages.
Wood notes, meanwhile, are often connected to the method of ageing the wine; scents of toast and smoke may be brought into the wine while it rests in oak barrels. This is, again, something that varies with different varieties and vintages; a good Californian Chardonnay or a white Burgundy may be very woody, whilst other regions produce little in the way of wood notes.
Taste & Feel
And now, of course, the most important test of any wine – actually drinking it. This stage combines two of the senses; not only taste but also touch, as the way it feels in your mouth (often referred to as mouthfeel) is an important factor.
There should be little in the way of surprises at this stage – when you taste your wine, you are generally confirming the impressions it has already made upon your eyes and your nose. Consider the notes of fruit, earth and wood that you detected, and whether there are any new notes, or ones that are present in the nose but not on the tongue. You will also, of course, taste the sweetness or dryness of the vintage.
The mouthfeel of the wine will speak of its body, whether it’s light, medium or full bodied, and you will also detect the acidity, the tannin levels and much more.
What you are seeking in a good wine is a balance, a kind of harmony between all the different notes that brings them all together. You may also desire a complexity, a wine which develops tastes as it crosses the palate and which gathers nuances in the glass.
One last factor to pay particular attention to is the finish – how the wine tastes on your tongue after you’ve drunk it. One singular quality of a good wine is a long finish, allowing you to savour its complexity for much longer than a gulp of plonk permits.
Sound is perhaps not a factor that is often considered in studying wine – but it plays a part nonetheless. Those who love the satisfying “pop” of a cork may feel that there’s something lacking in the experience of opening a wine which is sealed with a metal screw-top; it doesn’t feel the same, and it certainly doesn’t sound the same.
Drinking in company also brings sounds; the clink of glasses raised in a toast, the satisfied exhale after taking a sip of a particularly good vintage, and the sound of convivial conversation and laughter. What more could you possibly desire?