Analytical approach to wine tasting (The text below significantly relies upon my Cape Wine Academy notes, materials and lectures, in particular those by Ms. Cathy Van Zyl)
Analytical approach primarily helps a wine learner to find out a wine’s variety or blend, probable age, quality and potential. Why do we submit a substance as ultimately trivial as fermented grape juice to such an extended analysis? For many who find the appreciation of fine wine an enjoyable hobby, it’s a way of enhancing that enjoyment by turning it into an intellectual exercise that helps compare one wine against another, develop an appreciation for its subtleties, and judge one wine against another.
By training oneself to stop, take a breath, and pay attention to the subtle elements that distinguish one wine from any other, I think we learn an important lesson about life - that it’s worth taking the time to slow down and appreciate anything that pleases us, from a glass of wine to a great work of music, literature or art, or a sunset or a scenic view. It’s a simple way to learn to appreciate the little things in life that may in some small way enhance our enjoyment of every day. Now, a few questions could rightfully be discussed further:
What’s our overall sense of a wine?
Do the appearance, aroma, flavor and total impression seem consistent?
How does it compare with all the other wines we’ve ever tasted?
Does one sip make us desire another?
If it is less than satisfactory, can we identify the elements that displease us?
How would we rate this wine subjectively on a scale of our choosing, i.e. from 1 to 20?
Tasting wine analytically is simply a matter of taking apart a glass of wine as you sip it, examining its components, and jotting down in plain, simple terms your observations about its appearance, smell, taste, aftertaste and the overall impression it makes upon you. Once one gets the idea of it, it is surprisingly easy to do, and one will be pleasantly surprised by the added enjoyment that this analytical approach brings to wine appreciation.
Descriptive wine tasting can indeed enhance the enjoyment of the consumer by highlighting certain aromas, flavours and tastes and in turn allow the consumer to derive greater pleasure from the wine. Wine journalist are often prone to exclusive and at times snobbish winespeak, however analytical wine tasting is basis for making a sound judgment about a wine’s quality, its typicity and its value for money in a plain language. The usual format follows the standard method of examining the wine by eye, nose and palate and then drawing a conclusion. It is essential to look for clues in the process, either direct (i.e. varietal character) or indirect (i.e. the climatic style will help to rule out certain regions and grapes).
Here are the basic ideas to be further exploited in the process.
The clarity/brightness can suggest if the wine is filtered or unfiltered, which in turn can provide a clue to its region of production and production methods.
The color/hue can indicate the variety (Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah are both deeply coloured, while Tempranillo, Nebbiolo and Pinot Noir, for instance, are generally less so). Vivid purple anthocyanins indicate youth; while a wine with a deep center and several distinct bands of colour getting lighter and lighter towards the rim is a mature wine. The depth of colour can suggest the length of extraction, the warmth of the vintage and the health of the fruit.
A deposit might indicate an aged wine, fairly mature or heavily extracted wine which has a bottle age.
The presence of carbon dioxide can indicate a very youthful or recently bottled wine.
The nose gives most of information needed to identify a wine, and also gives a good indication of the quality or state of the wine. A lack of varietal character may indicate a blend or a bland grape.
Clean vs. off odours.
Intensity indicates the age of the wine and also its quality.
Age can be indicated by the intensity of primary fruit as well as youthful freshness, while maturity is easily spotted when there are lots of secondary, tertiary or evolved bouquets.
Oak has a lot of vanilla, chocolate and coffee if coming from American oak, however French oak tends more to tighter spicier notes, smoky, peppery but older wood can be spotted by softening of the aroma or by presence of VA (volatile acidity).
MLF (malolactic fermentation) is indicated by a note of butter (that is characteristic of a byproduct of MLF diacetyl).
Lees is spotted usually in whites and it is indicated by a bready, biscuity or toasty note (especially in Champagnes).
The fruit style indicates climate, vinification techniques, viticultural techniques and help to rule certain regions in or out.
The idea is to confirm the indications found on the nose. Varietal character can be confirmed through both the fruit aromas and the structure.
Sweet and acid will give an indication as to style, winemaking and national characteristics.
Alcohol is a good pointer to the variety, the region or vintage.
A high degree of glycerol can indicate a very ripe vintage and new world fruit.
Tannin should be a pointer to both variety and the expected ageing potential of wine.
Weight would point towards the vinification and quality of the wine and the fruit.
French oak could be easily spotted on the palate with its slightly spicy, tight texture, complexity and finesse. American oak adds sweetness and creaminess. MLF (malolactic fermentation) is the same as on the nose, while lees can be found in the smoothness of the mouth feel.
Depth and the balance of fruit/acid/tannin and alcohol are good pointers to quality.
Length (aftertaste) is indicated by the persistence of flavours and the longer the finish of a wine the better it is.
Finally, other pointers may include botrytis, use of stainless steel or added acidity.