Describing and Evaluating Wine
Winetasting, like any other specialized field, has its own terminology which enables tasters to communicate impressions and judgments in a meaningful way. This section deals with the vocabulary of describing and evaluating. The complete evaluation of a wine involves the description of appearance, aroma, taste, tactile sensations, finish and balance and harmony. It is also important to note possible defects.
The Elements of Winetasting
Wine is usually drunk during meals but it is much more than an ordinary beverage. Good wine excites the senses with its color and texture, and its infinite array of aromas and flavors. When wine is drunk for this kind of aesthetic pleasure, it becomes an aspect of gastronomy. Wine drinking is al-so a convivial activity with ancient social traditions. Shared with like-minded companions, wine can inspire thought and discussion.
The purpose of tasting (as opposed to drinking) is to evaluate the quality of a wine, on the basis of sensory impressions. A laboratory analyst uses scientific instruments to measure the quantities of the various components of a wine; a taster uses his own senses to give an evaluation of their character and quality. This skill requires the use of the senses of sight, smell, taste and touch.
The evaluation of a wine follows a set procedure which has four main stages: the examination of appearance, smell, flavor and texture and finish.
Sight: The Visual Examination
Our sense of sight is activated by light rays which pass through the crystalline lens and the vitrous body of the eye to the retina where light-sensitive cells called rods and cones transform them into electrical impulses. These are then carried by the optic nerve to the occipital lobe, the part of the brain responsible for the interpretation of visual stimuli.
The aim of the visual examination is to evaluate color, clarity, fluidity and, for sparkling wines, effervescence.
Is examined by filling a tulip-shaped tasting glass about a third full and holding it against a white background at an oblique angle so that the surface of the wine assumes the shape of an ovular disc. Points to note are, besides the basic color, the depth and the subtle differences in shade around the rim of the wine.
Is judged by holding the glass between the eye and a subdued source of light against a dark background. This reveals the degree of transparency of the wine and the presence of any suspended particles which spoil its clarity.
To judge basic texture and viscosity, rotate the glass so that a light film of wine forms on the sides. When the glass is still again the liquid will slowly descend in "legs" or "tears". Numerous and very evident "legs" are an indication of a full-bodied wine.
Is judged by examining the bubbles (perlage) and the foam (mousse) which form in the glass immediately after the wine is poured. The first test of finesse in sparkling wines is the size and intensity and persistence of the carbon dioxide bubbles that rise from the bottom of the glass.
Smell: The Olfactory Examination
The sense of smell is the key to enjoying wine, because it enables us to perceive both aroma and subtleties of flavor. When we sniff a wine volatile scented molecules pass into the olfactory ~L1COUS membrane at the top of the nose where the olfactory cells convert the molecules into signals which are transmitted to the olfactory bulb locates at the base of the skull. This organ enables the brain to perceive not only odors inhaled through the nostrils but also conveyed to it from the palate by way of the nasal passage at the back of the mouth.
The objective of the olfactory examination is to judge the intensity, length and quality of a wine's aroma, and subsequently to identify and describe the character of the specific odors of which it is composed.
Is of relatively limited importance since it is a measure of quantity and not necessarily quality. In a fine wine an intense bouquet is an attribute but in a poor-quality wine a strong odor can be negative factor.
Refers to the duration and continuity of aroma and is an indication of quality.
It is usual to distinguish between three different types of aroma:
Primary (or varietal) aromas: Are odors intrinsic to the grapes which are transmitted directly to wine. Primary aromas are the source of so-called varietal character of certain wines.
Secondary (or fermentation) aromas: are the odors of the alcohols and esters produced during fermentation by the action of yeasts. They give the fruity character which is found at its most intense in young wines.
Tertiary (or post-fermentation) aromas: comprise what is usually known as bouquet. The formation of these particular aromas is an integral part of the evolution of fine wine and they are generally most intense in mature wines. They are the result of the chemical action of enzymes on the natural components of the wine, and in the case of barrel-aged wines, those acquired from the wood.
Recognition and description
Is at the same time the most fascinating, poetic aspect of analysis and the most difficult since it requires an "olfactory memory" capable of storing and cataloguing a considerable number of smells (above all familiar, everyday ones) and matching them with those in the aroma of a wine.
It is important to remember that the sensitivity of the olfactory organs decreases with prolonged exposure to the same odor, to the point that we are eventually no longer able to detect a given smell, a phenomenon, known as "assuefaction".
Taste and Touch: The Gustatory Examination
Gustatory analysis begins in the mouth and involves the interpretation of three types of sensation: taste, tactile sensation and aroma.
Tastes are mainly detected by the gustatory cells of the papillae located on the tongue. These papillae are formed by hundreds of cells known as taste buds which react with substances in the mouth sending electrical impulses via a series of neurons to parts of the brain responsible for registering taste sensations.
Taste in the strict sense is limited to the recognition of four flavors: sweet, acid, salty and bitter. We are able to distinguish these flavors one from the other because there is a time lapse between contact with the stimulus and the perception of it, which is different for each of the primary tastes. This means that we always recognize the four basic Flavors in the same sequence, first sweet followed by acid, salty and bitter. Some tastes last longer than others, and this persistence is an important factor in evaluating a wine. Each of the primary tastes is perceived mainly on a different area of the tongue.
Sweetness: is detected mainly at the tip of the tongue by the fungi form papillae sensitive to sugars (the sugar content of wine varies from 0 to 150 g/1), alcohol and glycerine. The sensation of sweetness has a time lag of about one second and persistence of up to 10 seconds.
Acidity: this is detected mainly along the sides of the tongue by foliate papillae sensitive to the different types of acids in wine. The six main types and their tastes are:
Tartaric, malic and citric acid are natural components of grape juice. Succinic, lactic and acetic acid on the other hand are produced by fermentation. Total acidity in wine varies from 4-10 g/1. The sensation of acidity is second in the taste sequence with a time lag of about 2 seconds and a persistence of up to 12 seconds.
Saltiness: is detected mainly at the upper front part of the tongue by foliate papillae sensitive to salts, which derive from minerals or organic acids, present in quantities varying between 2 and 3 g/l. The sensation of saltiness has a time lag of about 2 seconds, but its persistence is of little relevance since the traces of salt in wine serve mainly to highlight sweet and acidic flavors.
Bitterness: this is detected mainly at the back of the tongue by circumvallated papillae sensitive to phenolic substances including quinines, and ethyl acetate. The bitter sensation is the last to be perceived with a time lag of about 3 seconds and persistence of up to 15 seconds. This lingering effect accounts for the bitter aftertaste described in certain wines.
Practicality all of the oral cavity has some sense of touch, but the parts most sensitive to the "tactile impressions" of wine are the upper, center part of the tongue and the soft areas of the palate, the pharynx, the larynx and the gums. The center of the tongue contains fluiform papillae that feel rather than taste and transmit signals to the brain. "Chewing" on a mouthful of wine is a technique which helps to accentuate the sensations of texture, temperature, astringency, body and the prickle from carbon dioxide in sparkling wines.
Texture: this refers to the fabric of a wine, the way it feels in the mouth, often described by general impressions of touch. It includes for example the sensation of smooth, rich viscosity which is typical of certain dessert wines and is caused by the combination of sugar~ glycerine and alcohol.
Astringency: is the dry sensation caused mainly by the tannins present in young red wines. The ageing process reduces astringency, and as a. result it is much less evident in mature and older wines. It should not be confused with the bitter taste which on the contrary increases with the age of a wine.
Temperature: refers in this context to the sensation of warmth created by ethyl alcohol, which increases with the wine's strength.
Body: is a term which expresses the sense of weight of a wine in the mouth. The impression of full-body is almost like that of chewing on something solid. It is created mainly by the dry extract (i.e. the components of the wine which are left after the liquids have been evaporated) and alcohol.
Prickle: a prickly sensation is caused by the presence of carbon dioxide which accentuates the acidity of white wines and the astringency of reds, while reducing the impact of sweetness.
Aromatic Taste Sensations
The basic tastes of wine in the mouth are complemented by the aromatic qualities sensed by the olfactory system by way of the nasal passage at the back of the mouth. These aromas are conveyed to the olfactory bulb as the taster inhales through the mouth and exhales through the nose.
This effect is influenced by several factors. The temperature in the mouth, which is warmer than that of the air, causes a slight evaporation of the wine which releases volatile scent molecules. Saliva, which is secreted liberally during tasting, chemically modifies certain substances in wine through a process known as hydrolisis which makes them odorous. The intensity of the sensation can be increased by pressing the tongue against the roof of the mouth in a movement which compresses the wine, again liberating odorous particles.
The term finish refers to the final sensations a wine leaves on the palate after it has left the mouth. It is a key element in evaluating the overall quality of a wine. The main aspects of finish to consider are aftertaste and length.
Is a generally a negative term which refers to unpleasant flavors - most commonly bitter tastes - which remain in the mouth after the wine has been swallowed or spat out. Aftertastes can be caused by:
Is the term used to describe the persistence of the flavor and aroma of a wine. "Intense aromatic persistence" is a sensation which can be measured in seconds and is a recognized index of quality. The length on the palate of gustatory sensations indicate the degree of balance, elegance and finesse of a wine