Understanding Wine 301

LEVEL THREE    “How We Taste Wine”

I am now proposing a simple way of tasting wines, breaking it down into five easy parts to make it more digestible. When we taste wine, our goal is to gather information that will help us talk to our guests about the wine and how well the wine pairs with food.

PART ONE – Is the Wine Dry, Sweet or Somewhere in Between?

To keep things simple, let’s define sweetness as the presence of sugar and define dryness as the absence of sugar.

With this in mind, is the wine you are tasting…

Dry, Medium dry, Medium, Medium sweet or Sweet?

Is that something your guests want to know about a wine? Absolutely.

For simplicity sake, in this case let’s define sweetness as the presence of sugar.  If something is weet, then there is sugar.  On the opposite end of the spectrum is a term named dry-ness, which we can then define as the absence of sugar.  Simply stated then…..sweet (sugar)….dry (no sugar).

This also helps us pair wines with food. The more spicy or salty a dish is, pair it with a sweeter wine. Then the wine will be like biting into a cold pineapple or pear, countering spicy and salty components and also cooling and soothing the palate between bites.

PART TWO – What is the Body of the Wine?

To keep things simple, the body of a wine is the weight or feel of the wine in your mouth.  Let me give you an example. Which has more body, skim or whole milk?

Does the wine you are tasting have…

Full Body, Medium Full Body, Medium Body, Medium Light Body or Light Body?

Is that something your guests want to know about a wine? Absolutely. Now we have identified two specific qualities of wine. This allows us to better categorize them and also provide pertinent lingo to use when talking to our guests.

PART THREE – What is the Acidity Level in the Wine?

No, your customers do NOT want to know about acidity. Not at all!

The reason we address acidity in wine is because it is a VERY important quality when considering how well a wine pairs with food. Imagine going to a restaurant and ordering fish. Somewhere on the plate, there’s lemon – perhaps a wedge, a squeeze by the Chef to finish the dish, or perhaps it’s in the sauce. When you squeeze lemon onto fish, what does it do? It cuts through fishiness and oiliness, essentially cleansing and refreshing your palate between bites. A wine with high acidity can do the same thing.

How do you detect acidity? Your mouth actually senses it on the sides of your tongue. If your tongue is like the letter “U”, acidity is like pins poking on the sides of your tongue. The stronger that sensation is, the higher the acidity in the wine.

For the wine you are tasting, is the acidity….

High, Medium High, Medium, Medium low or Low?

As mentioned, your guests do NOT want to know that.  So why bother, you ask? We learn a little about pairing this wine to food. For example, if a wine has high, lemon-like acidity, I would pair it with any dish I imagine using a squeeze of lemon with – and just as you understand that concept, so will your guest.

PART FOUR – What is the Bitterness Level of the Wine? (applies more to red wines)

Your guests definitely do NOT want to hear about this either. Bitterness in wine comes mainly from the grape itself (some grapes are naturally bitter), the stems, the seeds, the skins and from contact with oak barrels. Of these, grape skins and oak contact are the two easiest areas to consider. Imagine peeling off just the skin from a black grape and chewing on it. How does it taste?  Bitter. When you leave the grape skins with the juice as it is fermenting, the alcohol leaches out the color – and also the bitterness. That’s why red wines usually have at least a little bitterness.

So, for the wine you are tasting, is the bitterness level…

High, Medium or Low?

Why is this important? If you take red meat and marinate it in red wine, what happens? The wine tenderizes the meat. The tannins – the component in grape skins, stems and seeds that creates bitterness – help to breakdown the marbling and proteins in the meat.  That’s also why they say red wine is a good pairing to red meat. The more marbling you see (rib-eye steak and lamb, for example), the more tannin you need in the red wine. With less marbling, less tannins are better. Again, this is just a general exercise to better understand how and why wines pair well – or don’t pair as well – with foods.

PART FIVE – Other Descriptors?

Lastly, add in all the things you smell and taste in the wine… green apples, pears, butterscotch, clove… whatever.

SUMMARY  (Dry vs. Sweet, Body, Acidity, Bitterness, Other Descriptors)

Using this five-part formula, you might taste a white wine and describe it as

Dry, Light- to medium-bodied, crisp (high acidity), with flavors and aromas of pear, peach and green apple… or as you might say to your guest, “This wine is dry, light- to medium-bodied and crisp with flavors and aromas of peaches, pears and green apples.” Will that help your guest better understand the wine… and help you to merchandise it? Absolutely!

How can this help me understand how wines are different? Let’s say last night I had the Beringer Private Reserve Chardonnay. It was medium-dry… full-bodied… medium-low acidity… with flavors and aromas of oak, butterscotch and clove. Then tonight, I had the Au Bon Climat “Mt Carmel” Chardonnay. It was medium-dry to dry… light- to medium-body… medium-high to high acidity… with flavors and aromas of mineral, wet stone, clove and marzipan. Now you can explain these two Chardonnays to your guests. You might say something like, “The Beringer is medium dry and full-bodied with definite oak character while the Au Bon Climat is a bit drier, a bit lighter and shows some of the stony, hillside character of the great Mt. Carmel vineyard – I think you’ll find the Au Bon Climat to be more food-friendly with our cuisine, too.”

Hopefully, you’ll continue to grow your understanding of wine by consistently using these formulas and steps to simply break down wines. We want you to feel confident in your wine knowledge and your ability to talk about wine with your guests using accurate and intelligent wine ‘lingo’. We want you to better understand the wines we serve and be able to find the right wine that your guest is looking for.

Please note we have not discussed whether we like or don’t like any given wine. While that’s important for each of us personally, it’s not important when talking with guests. Consider the food we serve. You need to be able to talk about and explain the differences between Opakapaka and Mahimahi, whether you like either or them, or fish in general. The same is true with wine.

Our goal is to gather information to merchandise wine with our guests and give them a great dining experience with food and wine. This will help you be more successful, too!

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