Saturday, September 29, 2012

Smelling, Swirling, and Training Your Nose

What’s with smelling the wine?

Smelling is an important part of tasting because aromas and flavors are so closely linked.  We’ve all experienced this, when we’ve had stuffy noses and can’t taste food very well.  The food tastes bland because we are using only our sense of taste to perceive it, and we’re missing the aromatic component of the experience.  For more details on the relationship between taste and smell, check out this article.

Another reason to smell or “nose” the wine is that our sense of smell is actually stronger and more sensitive than our sense of taste.  We can only taste 4 different flavors – sweet, sour, salty, bitter (5 if you count umami) – but we have the potential to smell between 5,000 and 10,000 distinct aromas, if we develop that ability.  For more on how our sense of smell works, read this.

What’s with all the swirling?

Aromas in wine come from chemical compounds that are present in the grapes and/or created during the fermentation process.  When the wine is swirled, more of these compounds are exposed to oxygen and “volatilize,” which just means they evaporate into the air and directly up your nose, if you've positioned it at the top of the glass!  The swirling makes the wine aromas stronger, so we can smell them better.  For more detail on this subject, the Wikipedia page on wine aromas is a good resource.  And here’s a list of some of the chemical compounds, called esters, and what they smell like.

How to Train Your Nose

While some of us will naturally have a more or less acute sense of smell, we can all train our noses to work better!

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Facebook Page

Clear Lake Wine Tasting now has its own Facebook page!  We're converting from a personal page to a business page, so hopefully there won't be too many kinks to work out.  Please head over there and like us, if you participate in that sort of thing.  :)

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Tasting for Sweetness: Sweet or Fruity?

Wine beginners are often confused by the concept of a “sweet” wine versus a “fruity” wine.  Dry wines (meaning non-sweet wines) are fruity without being sweet.  The confusion comes because all wines are “fruity” to some degree, since wine is made from grapes.  We are used to fruit being sweet, so we sometimes assume that a fruity taste indicates a sweet wine.  However, this is not the case.

As wine is being made, the fermentation process converts sugar that occurs naturally in the grapes into alcohol.  If all the sugars are converted to alcohol, the wine is dry.  If the fermentation process is stopped before all the sugars are converted to alcohol, some sugar remains in the wine, giving it a degree of sweetness.  This is called “residual sugar.”

Further complicating this issue is that all of us have different palates and perceive sweetness to different degrees.  If you drink black coffee and unsweetened tea, you’re probably sensitive to sweet flavors, and perceive a wine with very little sugar in it as “sweet.”  If you drink sodas regularly, you’re used to drinks tasting sweet, so it might take a lot of sugar in a wine for you to perceive it as a sweet wine.

The sweetness of wine is usually described as dry, off-dry, medium-sweet, or sweet.  The chart below provides general guidelines for how much residual sugar (by percent) is present at each level, as well as some comparisons to non-alcoholic beverages.

If you’re still confused, just remember – most wine is dry!

Copyright © 2012 by Joanna Opaskar
All rights reserved.

The Big 6 and Where They're Hiding

Remember how I said the #1 factor that makes wines taste different from each other is which grape was used to make them?  And remember how I said that the majority of wines in the world are made from only 6 grapes?  Well here they are again, along with some notes on how they’re likely to taste:

With only 6 grapes to think about (for now), it’s pretty easy to determine which ones you like and which you don’t.  You may have already tasted most of these at some time or another.  Whether you want to taste them all to see which you like, or whether you know what you like already, you have to know where to find your preferred grapes – that is, in which bottles!

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Overview of Professional Wine Certifications

It's amazing how many wine certifications exist in the world.  Here's a listing of the principal ones available in the US, that I know of.  Please let me know if I've missed any.  This is why, when you ask a wine nerd "what certifications do you have?" you may be in for a lengthy answer!   (Note that I'm not reviewing local classes here - I'll do that in a future post.)

If you are interested in obtaining professional wine credentials, be sure to investigate which certifications will be most useful to your interest level or career path, as some are more education-focused and others are more service-focused.  Also, some of these certifications are offered in combination with a prep course, while some are only an exam, where applicants are expected to have prepared on their own.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Local Class: Wine Education at Rice

The Rice Glasscock School of Continuing Studies is offering a class called "Tasting and Enjoying Wine," taught by Houston wine expert Bear Dalton, who has been the head wine buyer for Spec's for over 16 years.  The class is open to the public and will be held on 5 Monday nights, from October 15 through November 12, from 7 - 9pm.  The cost is $295.

Here's the course description from the Rice School of Continuing Studies website:

Friday, September 14, 2012

What Makes One Wine Different from Another?

In my Wine Tasting and Food Pairing 101 class, I’m often asked this question, and it’s a good one.  It gets to the very heart of what wine is all about, and why it’s so amazing.  How is it possible that simple fermented grape juice can produce so many wildly different tastes and styles?

There are 3 main factors:

1)     Type of Grape

Each type of grape has unique physical characteristics (such as thickness of skin, acid content), growing requirements (amount of heat, sun, water, and time needed to full ripen), and aromas/flavors (strawberries? black current?  lemons?).

Most of the wines in the world are made from what are known as the international varieties.  These grapes have proven over hundreds of years that not only do they make excellent wine, but they can grow in a variety of regions all around the world, and retain certain signature qualities no matter where they are grown.  International varieties include 3 reds (Pinot Noir, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon) and 3 whites (Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, and Chardonnay).  Sometimes other grapes are included as well, but these are the big 6.

Though each of these grape varieties will express somewhat different characteristics when grown in different places (as we’ll see in #2), they will also retain key elements of their identity.  For example, a Sauvignon Blanc, whether it’s grown in France or New Zealand, will have its signature acidity and herbaceous or vegetal quality.  (Each of these 6 grapes will be profiled in detail in future posts.)

2)     Climate/Region

Wine growing regions around the world are extremely diverse.  Some are chilly and rainy, like the Bordeaux region of France or the state of Oregon.  Some are hot and dry, like most of Australia, or eastern Washington State.  Some have high altitude, like Mendoza in Argentina.  Some are hilly with steep slopes, like the Rhone Valley in France.  Some are flat, like central Spain.

These international varieties of grapes have proven they can grow in all kinds of places (though they each have their preferred conditions in which they perform their best), but these different climates alter the final product.  Wine made from grapes grown in a cooler climate tends to be lighter in body, higher in acid, lower in alcohol, and more earthy than fruity in flavor.  Wine made from grapes grown in a warmer climate tends to be the opposite – heavier in body, lower in acid, higher in alcohol, and richer in fruit flavor. 

To continue the Sauvignon Blanc example, if it comes from a cooler region (such as Bordeaux), it will express more of its vegetal qualities and high acid.  If it comes from a warmer region, such as California, it will express fewer vegetal aromas, its signature gooseberry flavor will be more apparent, and it will be lower in acid.

3)     Winemaker Choices

During the fermentation process, the winemaker has many choices to make which will determine the final character of the wine.  Should it be sweet or dry?  Still or sparkling?  Oaked or unoaked?  These decisions may be driven by the quality of the grapes when they reach the winery, the preferences of the winery’s customer base, or the winemaker’s own preferences. 

Additionally, some winemaking regions allow the winemaker to alter the sugar (or potential alcohol) levels and acid levels of the grapes, though this is not done in the best regions or to the best wines.

Keep in mind that decisions made in the vineyard before harvest time have already had a significant impact on the characteristics of the grapes, before they even reach the winery.  We’ll talk about those in a future post.

Here’s a handy reference chart:

Copyright © 2012 by Joanna Opaskar
All rights reserved.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Why Another Wine Blog?

There are lots of wine blogs in the world, so why start another one?

When I teach Wine Tasting and Food Pairing 101, I find the same questions come up again and again.  What's the difference between one wine and another?  Does it matter where the wine comes from?  What's the best wine with different foods?  How to serve it?  How to store it?  Does price matter?  What are all these crazy regional names?!

I want to provide some basic information that will help you navigate the world of wine more easily, learn what makes one wine different from another, determine what qualities you like in a wine and what you don't, and how to describe those qualities to a clerk in a wine store or a waiter or sommelier.  And in the end, hopefully you'll have a lot more confidence in selecting wine, and end up with exactly what you want a lot more often.

I'll be focusing on 3 main areas:

1)  General wine education.

2)  Tasting notes on wines that are available in the Houston/Clear Lake area.  (Have you ever noticed how lots of wines reviewed online can't be found where you live?)

3)  Summing up information using nifty infographics, because I love big-picture overviews and quick reference.

My goal is help you discover how to find and select wines you'll like, every time.  Because if you don't like what you're drinking, what's the point of wine anyway?

Please feel free to email me your questions, and I'll do my best to answer them in future posts!