My new favorite game

Perhaps it stems from the newly completed wine cellar, and the fact that I now can easily put my hands on every bottle we have, or the organization system it brings, so that my husband knows what bottles are every night kind of wines, and which ones are hands off, but we have recently taken to playing ‘guess that bottle’ on a regular basis.

Basic rules – whoever selects the bottle, then opens it in the kitchen, pours two glasses and then leaves the bottle in the kitchen. The guesser then has to ascertain as much as he or she can about the wine using only color, aroma and flavor – although my husband does ‘cheat’ a little and uses social cues like whether I decanted the wine, what I served with the meal last time, or what temperature the wine is (i.e. whether it came from our cellar or not). 

The more we play this the better each of us are becoming. For instance, the other night my husband called out an older vintage Santa Cruz Mountain red, pretty impressive if you ask me. I think the improvement stems from a refinement in our deduction skills and ‘wine logic’ rather than an improvement in our palates. As we both force ourselves to think about what we are tasting the process of thinking about wine becomes easier and more natural.  

Again and again I am amazed at the depth and breadth of wine information. Any little practice I can get in the habit of (especially practices which involve sipping tasty wine!) hones my knowledge and, with time, increases my enjoyment of wine. The first few times you try this you may get no further than red or white as your guess, but with each subsequent round of ‘Guess that Bottle’ you will get better and better – after all this is the same basic technique used by most of the candidates taking the Sommelier certification tests. Fun, educational, and it involves wine – does it get any better?

Wine Tasting

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Memory Lane

This weekend I taught a class for a small parents group at a friend’s home. It was ridiculously fun to look on as they had their ‘a ha’ moments – finally figuring out what melon smells like in wine, or realizing that raspberry is just a scent in the wine, not an additive, or tasting Barbera with Mushroom Bruschetta and realizing that the wine and food taste better together than either one on its own. Once you get a handle on wine basics, your evening glass of wine becomes a heck of a lot more interesting and enjoyable. 

Watching the budding oenophiles have their epiphanies I thought back to my early days of wine appreciation. Long, long ago, in my first restaurant job, I was sipping wine with the resident wineaux, and he asked what I smelled. My first answer? Red wine. He then asked a most obvious question, ‘What else?’ That was my first ‘a ha’ moment – suddenly my wine perspective shifted. I set the glass down on the table, and decided not to think about it as wine. As I brought the glass back to my nose, I took one big, deep breath, and without the expectation of wine – I simply smelled. All of the sudden I smelled morning – toast and jam, with a little coffee. Just like that, I became a wine lover. 

As is the case with learning any new subject, there is no set formula to make you a wine expert over night, but giving yourself free reign to take a big sniff and then let you mind run wild will inevitably help you become a better taster. When you recall that time you were snowed in at a friend’s house  when you stick your nose into a glass of Syrah, think about the details – were you making hot cocoa? Bacon? Was that leather-clad hottie also there? If you can figure out what scents are taking you to that memory, you’ll figure out what you are smelling in the wine, and not just take a walk down memory lane. 

Wine Tasting

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What’s that golden hue telling you?

Last night I found a recipe that I really wanted to try, and I really needed to cook – if for no other reason than to not have a baby in my arms for a brief period. As I was putting the finishing touches on the polenta I asked my husband to run downstairs and pick a bottle of white wine to go with dinner. He brought up a bottle and told me not to look while he opened it. He brought me a glass and told me to guess what it was. He set the glass down next to the range while I was busily stirring the polenta. I glanced down and took one look at the wine and suggested it was a Santa Cruz Mountains Chardonnay.

At which point my husband shook his head in bewilderment and asked how I could possibly guess what wine it was just from looking at the wine. Well, I have the advantage of knowing the bottles stocked in our wine fridge. Currently there’s a couple bottles of Riesling, a few Sauv Blancs, a French Chardonnay, a white blend, and a bottle or two of Santa Cruz Mountain Chardonnay. We purchased a case of the SCM Chard on sale a year or so ago. The first few bottles were really nice, but as it was an older vintage, 2001 I think, the wine did start to shows signs of its age. After opening a bottle over a year ago, I had sort of disregarded the rest and left a bottle or two around to collect dust. 

Last night the wine was so easy to guess because of the intense golden color in the glass. That deep color means one of two things – a botrytised dessert wine, or a wine that has oxidized slightly. Of the wines that we had in our fridge there was only one that would have that color – the Rieslings would be pale yellow, the Sauv Blancs rather pale as well, but with a little more of a greenish hue, the Viognier and French Chard would have a more intense golden tone, but nothing like this. This wine was almost the color of honey, and I made the very safe assumption that my husband would not choose a dessert wine to go with polenta with kale and mushrooms. That really only left the Santa Cruz Mountains Chard.

I would not say this sort of wine savant occurrence is frequent in our house, but I do alway try to think about the wines that we’re having and compare them to the wines we’ve had before. I also play games like this with my husband, and he with me. It keeps our limited cellar from getting boring, and I typically learn something about the wine, or the assumptions I’m making, every time we play ‘Guess that Bottle.’ It’s a cheap and easy way to develop your abilities as a taster – and it’s fun too!

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Wine Tasting

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Wine Tasting Terms

In addition to developing a wine vocabulary for how to describe the smells and tastes of a wine, there is a whole terminology associated with the analysis and tasting of wine. First things first, there is a bit of a process to wine tasting, an order of events that is common throughout the wine community:

See - look at the color and clarity 

Smell  - stick your nose way down in the glass and take a big sniff

Sip - see if the flavors match the aromas, check the balance of the wine, judge the weight and finish.

Each step has its own language associated with it, so let’s start at the beginning.

When tasting, you first look at the wine to judge the color and clarity of the wine. To describe color you’re better off consulting a color palate, so we’ll skip that part. Clarity ranges from cloudy to brilliant. Clarity is desirable as cloudiness is a sign of winemaking mistakes and often indicates an unpleasant taste. A hazy wine is generally clear with a slight particulate content when viewed against the light. Occurs most often in unfiltered or unfined wines.  A clear wine has no obvious particulate and is well…clear. A brilliant wine is exceptionally clear, almost sparkling.

The rim is the edge of a wine’s surface seen when the glass is held at an angle over a white background. It can be used to evaluate a wine’s age – if it is pink, ruby or purple the wine is likely young, if it is orange or brown the wine is likely older. The legs refer to the liquid rivulets that form on the inside of a wineglass bowl after the wine is swirled  and help to evaluate the alcohol concentration present. Usually the higher the alcohol content, the more impressive the rivulets appear because of reduced surface tension effects. Not a good indicator of quality, but mesmerizing to watch.

You often hear nose, aroma and bouquet used interchangeably. All of these terms do refer to the scent of wine, but they’re a little different. Nose refers to the aggregate of all of the scents in a glass of wine, the way the wine as a whole smells. Aroma refers to one specific scent in a wine, like the aroma of vanilla. Bouquet is the set of secondary aromas that develops as a wine ages, or as it opens up (becomes more fragrant) in the glass. 

Once the wine is in your mouth you evaluate the balance, weight and finish. A wine’s balance is measured by the relative sensations of sugar, acidity, alcohol and tannin. In a well balanced wine, none of these characteristics stands out. Tannins are naturally occurring substance in grapeskins, seeds and stems. They are responsible for the bitter or astringent component in wines. Think of holding an aspirin tablet on your tongue - that is tannin. Tannins act as a natural preservative. It is considered a fault when they are present in excess. Tannins have no aroma, so feel free to laugh at the posers who claim that, “this wine smells really tannic.”

The weight is a measure of the body of a wine. When thinking of the body of a wine think about milk a light bodied wine feels like skim milk in your mouth, a medium bodied wine feels like 2% milk and a full bodied wine feels like whole milk in your mouth. 

A wine can be described as austere, indicating that it is dry, relatively hard and acidic, lacking depth; round indicating that it gives a feeling of completeness with no dominating characteristic; soft indicating that it has low acid, tannin, or alcohol content, and subsequently has little impact on the palate; or hot indicating that it is overly alcoholic, and has a bit of a burn.

The finish of a wine refers to the taste it leaves in your mouth after swallowing. If you stop tasting it immediately, it has a short finish. If the taste lingers for 30 seconds to a minute the wine has a long finish.

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it does highlight some of the more notable wine tasting terms. Now go find one that is nice and round, full bodied with great legs – a wine that is. 


Wine Tasting

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Developing your wine vocabulary

You have certainly read a review, or a shelf talker at a liquor store that extolled the ‘blackberry and anise notes’ of a wine and proclaimed that there was a ‘kiss of vanilla.’ Granted wine marketers and a winemakers often get carried away and wax on poetically about the anthropomorphic qualities of a wine, but it’s not entirely a load of bs. There really is something to those notes.

The same scents are present in wine as are present in countless fruits and vegetables. The average person is said to be able to distinguish over 1000 different scents at a time, but can usually only name a few of them. You can improve your odds in the scent game with a little bit of easy training. Just smell stuff wherever and whenever you can.

As scent is the sense most closely tied to memory you will find yourself recalling long forgotten pies that grandma baked, children’s toys, or perhaps lost loves when you start. Use these memories to help you – what kind of pie? Did grandma bake with a lot of spices? Is it the plastic or the artificial strawberry scent from your old Strawberry Shortcake doll that you are smelling? Did that ex wear a leather jacket? You can start to see how the aromas are emerging – blackberry, baking spices, petroleum, strawberry, leather. With a little thought these memories will help you pick out individual scents.

Sniffing PearsJust by being conscious of what you are smelling you can start to train yourself to associate a scent with a word. Next time you are in the produce section pick up a green pepper take a big sniff and really think about it. You are doing two things here – isolating the green pepper aroma and teaching yourself that this is what a green pepper smells like. As you learn the individual smells it becomes easier to pick them out of a wine, and by associating names with all of the scents you encounter you’ll find you soon recall the name of the food. I might suggest starting with 2 or 3 fruits each grocery trip. More and you’ll overload your nose, not to mention all of the funny looks you’ll get. In no time you will compile your own extensive wine vocabulary.

Wine Tasting

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