The Four-Week Wine Course: improve your enjoyment of wine under the expert tuition of Christine Austin

This is the time of year when many people decide to learn a new skill, and so, to save you heading out into the bleak winter weather I have decided to bring a wine course to your Saturday mornings. In just four weeks we will cover the basics of wine, and you will be pleased to hear that there is homework too.

I hope to introduce enough vital information so that you can bluff your way through most social gatherings and develop your interest in wine.

Tasting or Drinking?

The whole point of wine is to enjoy drinking it. From the grapes in the vineyard to the bottles in the shop, there is no other point to this whole process apart from enjoyment and the only way to appreciate the work of all the growers and winemakers is to pull the cork and drink it.

Wine tasting is completely different. This is an opportunity to taste a few sips of the wine while you decide whether you like it and because most wine tastings are arranged by wine merchants, you have the chance to buy the ones you like.

There is a ritual to wine tasting and here are a few pointers to help you fit in to the usual wine tasting scene.

Pour carefully

Don’t overfill your glass, you are tasting, not drinking, so only pour enough for a couple of mouthfuls. You should look at the colour by tilting the glass away from you and looking through the wine, against a white background. Never hold your glass up and peer from below; this is the mark of an amateur. Be aware that most commercial wine tastings are held in poorly-lit venues, and the white tablecloth will be splattered with wine in a very short space of time, so move onto the next stage.

 

 

Swirl and sniff

Hold your glass by the stem, swirl the contents and stick your nose in for a sniff. It probably smells of wine. Now imagine a range of flavours, pretty much like you see colours on a paint chart.

Swirl the glass and then stick your nose in for a sniff

For white wines start with citrus notes such as lemon and work through to mandarin and orange. Change profiles and think about less acidic aromas and more fruit such as apples, pears, apricot and peach. Think about floral aromas starting with delicate honeysuckle and work through to jasmine and rose.

 

It is the same process for reds, starting with light red cherries and working around to blackcurrant, plums and damsons.

Learn to imagine a range of fruit flavours as you taste

There will be other aromas in many wines. Oak, spice, herbs and tobacco all manage to appear in some wines, sometimes because of the way the wine has been aged, or from the grape variety.

Do not be distracted by your neighbour who may declare that he can taste spiced pumpkin with just a hint of kiwi fruit. That is only his opinion. There is no right or wrong to tasting sensations. Your taste buds; your tasting notes.

 

 

Slurp and spit

Once you have sniffed and thought about the aroma, now it is time to taste the wine. Take more than a sip and less than a mouthful and then try to do the thing that separates the tasters from the drinkers. Hold the wine in your mouth and suck in air. This releases more aromas and flavour compounds. At first this can be a messy process, so practice at home before heading out in your best white shirt.

The reason for pulling air through the wine is that you need to get even more aromas out of the wine and up into the olfactory system. As every child knows, if you hold your nose you can’t taste, so tasting wine is actually smelling it again, after it has been warmed in the mouth and after air has released even more aroma compounds. The tongue gives very little information, but does contribute the sensation of acidity down the sides and sweetness at the tip. It also registers bitterness at the back. If you have ever been confused between acidity and bitterness there is a simple way of learning which is which.

Pour two glasses of red wine. Add half a teaspoon of citric acid to one and a slug of Campari to the other. Ask someone to switch the glasses around and then taste them while holding your nose. This stops you smelling the Campari. The Campari glass will have an immediate effect on the back of your tongue, while the acid adjusted glass just tastes tart.

The mouth also registers astringency, which is the drying sensation all around the palate, indicating the level of tannins in the wine. Young red wines may have a lot of tannin, and as the wine ages those tannins soften and become less astringent. A taste of cold black tea will remind you of the effect of tannin.

Now is the time for the most challenging aspect of wine tasting. If you want to taste all the wines at a tasting then you will have to learn to spit politely. Once again practice comes in handy, and I find that the fresh cherry stone spitting season is ideal for honing technique.

Back to drinking

Should you bother with all this tasting procedure at a dinner party? Absolutely not. You are there for enjoyment, so hold your glass properly, by the stem, take a quick sniff, and sip your wine. Your host may have chosen this wine specially so make some appreciative noises, and maybe even ask what it is. You may be challenged to guess the wine, and you need to be prepared for this. Remember that a glance at the label is worth 30 years experience so try to spot key names on the label as the bottle gets passed around.

Homework

Check out your home wine glasses. They should be plain glass, tulip-shaped, on a stem, with enough capacity when full to hold at least a quarter of a bottle of wine, although you should only fill them one-third full.

Now pour a glass of your weekend wine and practice swirling, sniffing, slurping and spitting. Think of a few descriptive words for the wine, and don’t worry if your tasting companion comes up with totally different words.

About The Author

Christine Austin

Christine is a wine writer, broadcaster and a wine judge for several international wine competitions. She has a technical background and spent five years as a buyer for a major supermarket before moving to wine writing.She writes for The Yorkshire Post Magazine and organises the York Festival of Food and Drink. She has won both the Lanson and the Roederer prizes for wine writing.

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