Food and Wine Pairings V: Thoughts from an expert

Recently, the Oxford Blind Tasting Society was very privileged to host Jan Konetzki, Head Sommelier at three-Michelin-starred Restaurant Gordon Ramsay and winner of the Moët UK Sommelier of the Year 2012. As a sommelier, you not only have to put together a restaurant’s wine list, price the wine sensibly, and be able to sell wine to customers, but you need to understand which wine to recommend to people to go with their food. Gone are the days when you can just go with the “classics”, people want new and exciting wines nowadays, and wines which are interesting. Given my interest in food and wine pairing, I was excited to see which wines he brought, and to pick his brain on food-wine matching.

The Whites

The wines he bought did not disappoint. I think it’s fair to say that they were a bit off-the-beaten-track, with the most mainstream probably being an Austrian Blaufrankish. Other wines included a Riesling from Sicily, built on the volcanic soils of Mount Etna, a Sangiovese from Australia (a grape variety that is almost exclusively grown in Italy), and a beautiful sweet wine from Jurançon in France. Needless to say we weren’t guessing many of the wines correctly, but it was really fun to try and figure these out.

What was particularly interesting were some of the common themes of these wines. All of them were reasonably “complex”, in that they had many different things going on, but a few qualities stood out. Firstly, all of the wines had relatively high acidity. Acidity helps a wine cut through the fat in food, and at a top restaurant, for rich sauces and high-quality cuts, acidity will be key. Secondly, most of the wines had seen a small amount of oak, even wines typically not oaked- like the Riesling. Perhaps this makes the wine more robust, and gives it an extra dimension with the food. Lastly, was that all the wines had a herbal quality, or some “greenness”. This might provide a different seasoning to the food. Unfortunately we didn’t get to try any food with the wines, but I will look for some of these qualities in the future.

The Reds

Jan also shared some thoughts on serving wine, something I had not given large amount of though to before. Particularly, he was focused on the temperature of the wine. On the night of our tasting, he was moved wines around the fridge and asked for some warm water just to warm the wines up a couple of degrees before serving. He noted that there is around 4 degrees difference between a fridge door and the back of the fridge, which makes a big difference in changing the wine characteristics. Aromatic wines like Riesling want to be cooler than average, and oakier wines slightly warmer than average. By changing the temperature of the wine, you change how it expresses itself. Jan thought temperature was more important than wine glass shape, and considering he had over 20 different wine glass shapes available at the resaurant, that says a lot.

After the tasting, we had some discussion on food-wine pairing. When asked what part of the dish he looked at first, Jan (perhaps unsurprisingly) was focused on the dish as a whole, but then spent a lot of time discussing seasoning. How prominent each flavour is, and how it develops in the dish, largely factor into the wine choice. Similarly, how cooked the meat would be (even in a good restaurant, people would like the meat well-done), would change slightly how fatty the meat was, with a less-cooked cut having more fat. All little things which changed the character of the dish.

Lastly, the discussion turned to cheese. “Cheese kills everything”, a popular opinion, was confirmed by Jan. However, you are not totally lost. He supported the idea of regionality, so if you are stuck with a pairing, picking a wine from the same region as the cheese is often not a bad call. He wasn’t so keen on red wines with cheese though. Interestingly, fortified wines played a big part here, suggesting a sherry with mimolette, and indeed that a nice glass of Madeira will keep most people happy with cheese. But, as was the underlying theme throughout the evening, the food-wine pairing was about what the customer liked- if the customer wants a wine a certain way, that’s fine. Experiment with what you like, and find out what works for you.

The Wines

If you are interested in food-wine pairings, check out my other posts on food-wine pairings, The Blind Tasting Black Tie Dinner, Wines for a Wedding, Creating a meal around sweet wines, and Regionality. Also, The Wine Society has a great section on food-wine pairings, and a good food-wine matcher.

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The 60th Varsity Match

Yesterday saw the 60th Anniversary Oxford-Cambridge wine tasting competition, sponsored by Pol Roger. We had a brilliant day, with Oxford taking the trophy, Oxford taster Tom Arnold winning top taster (along with a Cambridge taster) and myself winning the reserve match.  Pol Roger really outdid themselves with the food, wines, and the event itself- really, a beautiful day. Since the Oxford celebrations, er, went on a bit late, instead of a full match report, here are some photos from the day which should give you a taste of the fun we had.

Who doesn't want Riesling at 8am in the morning? Oxford captain Ren handing out glasses on the train to London.

Who doesn’t want Riesling at 8am in the morning? Oxford captain Ren Lim handing out glasses on the train to London.

We then arrived at the Oxford and Cambridge club, and went to the pre-match briefing. Nerves tense all around the room.

We then arrived at the Oxford and Cambridge club, and went to the pre-match briefing. Nerves tense all around the room.

Having tasted the six white wines, we moved on to the reds. Little did I know at the time just what quality of wines were in front of me.

Having tasted the six white wines, we moved on to the reds. Little did I know at the time just what quality of wines were in front of me.

Tasting finished, waiting for the sheets to be marked and results announced, we headed to the pub. Serious wine people at the local with a pint.

Tasting finished, waiting for the sheets to be marked and results announced, we headed to the pub. Serious wine people at the local with a pint.

Now in the cellars of Berry Bros. & Rudd, a glass of Pol Roger 2002 for the combatants. The announcements that I had won the reserve prize, and Oxford had won the match followed. Great relief and enthusiasm followed.

Now in the cellars of Berry Bros. & Rudd, a glass of Pol Roger 2002 for the combatants. The announcements followed that I had won the reserve prize, and Oxford had won the match. Great relief and enthusiasm followed.

Some very cool stuff in the cellars of Berry Bros. & Rudd.

Some very cool stuff in the cellars of Berry Bros. & Rudd.

The setting for lunch, and the wines set out. A lovely setting.

The setting for lunch, and the wines set out. A lovely setting.

The wines we had to try and identify blind- including a 1953 Rioja, to fit with the 60 years theme. To say they were a stunning set is an understatement. It's not often when you are more than 50 years out on your vintage guess...

The wines we had to try and identify blind- including a 1953 Rioja, to fit with the 60 years theme. To say they were a stunning set is an understatement. It’s not often when you are more than 50 years out on your vintage guess…

The starter. John Dory with curry, coconut, and cauliflower, paired with a grand cru Alsace Riesling. Delicious.

The starter. John Dory with curry, coconut, and cauliflower, paired with a grand cru Alsace Riesling. Delicious.

The main. Venison, bacon panna cotta, and sprouts. Came with a brilliant 1999 Burgundy. Lovely.

The main. Venison, bacon panna cotta, and sprouts. Came with a brilliant 1999 Burgundy. Lovely.

Caramel sponge, apple and walnut. Paired with a Sauternes. Yum.

Caramel sponge, apple and walnut. Paired with a Sauternes. Yum.

The red wine we had came in Methusaleh. Everybody present then signed the bottle, a lovely memento from the day.

The red wine we had came in Methusaleh. Everybody present then signed the bottle, a lovely memento from the day.

Last but not least, to continue on the 60th anniversary theme, some 1953 Hine brandy. Formal proceedings then finished, with the day not much better for Oxford. As winners of the match, we will get to go Champagne to take on the French champions. France here we come!

Last but not least, to continue on the 60th anniversary theme, some 1953 Hine brandy. Formal proceedings then finished, with the day not much better for Oxford. As winners of the match, we will get to go Champagne to take on the French champions. France here we come!

Varsity Wine-Tasting Preview

Tasting Glasses

This week will see the 60th varsity wine tasting match between Oxford and Cambridge universities, sponsored by Pol Roger, at the Oxford and Cambridge Club in London. For the Oxford Blind Tasting Society, this is far and away the most important event of the year. After a year of training hard to try to learn more about wine identification, a few weeks ago I was thrilled to learn I would be a part of the Oxford team. So I thought I would do a little preview of the match coming up, as it has been such a large focus for me the past few months. As it’s been about a year since I started blind tasting, I also thought I’d give some reflections on a year learning about wine.

The 60th varisty blind tasting match

The match itself is fundamentally very simple. There are twelve wines (six white and six red), and your job is to identify them.

The first job in identifying them is to write your tasting note. The note should include the appearance of the wine (colour, intensity, etc.), the aromas you get from the wine (citrus, minerality, herbaciousness, etc.), and, the wine’s structural elements. Five points are up for grabs for the tasting note, then you’ve got to make your guess. Your guess includes dominant grape variety, country, main viticultural region, sub-region, and vintage. For example, a tasting note I wrote recently looked was

Pale yellow wine. Aromatic wine. Citrus, melon, stone fruit. Some floral/herbally flavours.
Dry, med body, med alcohol, crisp acidity, med finish, no new oak.
Guess: Albariño, Spain, Galacia, Rias Biaxas, 2010

It turned out to be all correct except for the vintage, which was 2011, but I was pretty pleased.

There are fifteen total points available for the guess, but you might get some points for a sensible guess that is wrong. Twenty points total per wine then gives 240 total points available. It’s unlikely, especially for a rookie like me, that you’ll get anywhere close to that total of 240 though. If I have a score over triple digits, I think I’ll have done okay.

So what are the wines like? Well, some are straightforward, known as the “bankers”, as you should be able to bank on getting them right. Of course, some are much more difficult. As a first-timer, my focus is on getting all of the bankers right, and then making sensible guesses for everything else. If I don’t get the Piqpoul de Pinet? Fine. But if I miss the Loire Sauvignon Blanc, I’m going to be annoyed.

The team that wins is then the team with the highest total score among their six main tasters. If it’s a draw, the reserve seventh taster score (this year, that’s me) comes in to play. Then, we all go out to lunch. Last year Oxford won the competition, and many of the tasters that were a part of that team are returning for this year. We know very little about the Cambridge team, so all we can do is go our and do our best. Exciting stuff. I’ll post about the results on Friday.

Tasting Sheet

Reflections on a year blind tasting and learning about wine

Before joining the blind tasting society, I definitely had a keen interest in wine, but I think my efforts were very misguided. I used The Wine Society as my springboard for learning about different wine styles, sampling their own labels to try to get “textbook” wines of given regions. I didn’t really build up a picture of why I liked a wine, but more just whether or not I enjoyed that particular bottle. I didn’t (and still don’t) have a large budget for wine, so for regions like Burgundy or Bordeaux, I couldn’t afford what I might now consider “reasonable” wines from those regions. Even worse, I pretty much only drank French wine. Not a very good (and certainly not complete) picture of the world of wine.

By tasting wines blind, though, the picture you build up has to be objective. You have to figure out what makes a Chardonnay French as opposed to Australian, for example. You can really like wines that cost £5, and really dislike wines that cost £20, without knowing what the price is. With the varsity competition having wines from all over the world, you practice with wines all over the world. I’d like to think I’ve lost a lot of my pre-conceptions about wine, and built up a much better idea about tastes of all sorts of wines.

In particular I’ve noticed a profound change in my attitude towards wine. Instead of knowing what wines I like and what I don’t like, I’ll happily drink anything now. My focus instead is on how well the wine is made, how all the different structural elements are balanced, and the representation of the grape variety. If the wine is “interesting”, it’s likely something I will enjoy drinking. I won’t scoff at the American Chardonnay like I used to, but I don’t have the same passion for French country wines like I once did.

It’s hard to describe here the number of tastings I’ve been to and quite how much I’ve learned. So lastly I’d just like to say a large thanks to those who have been involved in my year of learning about wine. The effort of the Blind Tasting Society committee and everybody else in the society giving up their time to source wines, do administration, set up, and clean up is very much appreciated. The depth of knowledge at the society has pushed me to work harder at my own wine understanding. Similarly, those wine professionals who came to the society to teach and share their passion for wine really made a difference. Lastly, thanks to Pol Roger for their sponsorship of the varsity match and the society, as this not only allows to activity of the society to flourish, but to give it a prestige. The experience I’ve had this year from inexperience to competing as part of the varsity team will be one I will remember for a long time.

My Tasting Notes

New York State Wines and Chateau Musar

I really enjoy going to wine tastings from more obscure wine growing regions. From developing wine regions, you get to sample their latest and best wines, and get a good feel for what is worth buying now, and what to look for in the future. From regions which have a wine-growing tradition, but aren’t usually seen in the UK market, you get a chance to taste some of the culture and history of the region, and perhaps some grape varieties you’ve never seen before. These tastings are always a great learning experience, whatever you think of the wines.

Recently, the Oxford Blind Tasting Society was visited by Sue Chambers, who is the UK’s sole importer of New York State wines. She brought along a mixture of red and white wines, all international grape varieties, and a good deal of literature which was very helpful in picking apart New York State wines. There are a number of key wine regions, but the ones we tasted from (and the ones I had heard of previously) were the Finger Lakes, and Long Island. Because of the hilly geography, I’ve heard the Finger Lakes compared climatically to the Mosel in Germany, and because of the coastal influence, Long Island compared to Bordeaux. Impressive comparisons, if the wines can live up to them.

The white wines we tasted, I have to say, didn’t get me excited. The rieslings from the Finger Lakes were great on the nose, peachy and floral, but disappointing on the palate. The off-dry version in particular was a little sugar syrup-y. I usually have no problem blind tasting sauvignon blanc, but I completely missed the NY state one, as it was missing the greenness, and ended up, I thought, pretty bland. Don’t get me wrong, they weren’t bad wines, but, for the price, I wouldn’t choose these over their French or German competitors.

The reds on the other hand, were a complete eye-opener. The first wine was a cabernet franc, which most people thought was a pinot noir, that’s how fruity, soft, and elegant it was- not much like the terse and leafy French counterpart. Next was a pinot noir, generous and fruity, but well structured. Lastly were three merlots, the flagship grape of Long Island, and all three were great. Spicy, plummy, drinking these was almost like drinking a fruitcake. Combined with the natural acidity that comes from the maritime influence, these wines would make great food wines, and apparently have very good ageing potential. Even though they weren’t cheap, I think they were good value for money, and worth looking into.

New York State wines we tasted at the Oxford Blind Tasting Society. Photo courtesy of LJ Ruan.

Some of the New York State wines we tasted at the Oxford Blind Tasting Society. Photo courtesy of LJ Ruan.

From one of the world’s newer wine regions to one of the world’s oldest: Chateau Musar in Lebanon. At another Oxford University wine society, Bacchus, Ralph Hochar, the third-generation owner of Chateau Musar, came to do a tasting and present some of their wines, and to say he was enthusiastic about wines and wine-making is putting it lightly. He mentioned Musar have recently launched a new range of wines, “Musar Jeune”, meant to be more approachable, easier drinking wines, which I was excited to try. For those who don’t know Chateau Musar, they have a cult following in the wine world, and represent excellent value for money- we had their Hochar on St Catherine’s MCR wine list at one point. You can buy some of their wines from The Wine Society.

Although Chateau Musar has only been producing wines since the seventies, Lebanon has a long wine-growing tradition, witnessed by temples to Bacchus (the god, not the wine society…) built by the Romans, and has several indigenous grapes. Being a warm country, they can produce a large selection of grape varieties, in particular the grape cinsault, which needs hot dry climates to flourish. The wines are incredibly fruity, and with altitude, they can produce wines with good acidity which help the ageing potential. Interestingly, Chateau Musar only release wines around seven years after the vintage, with their latest release being 2005, choosing to store the wines themselves. Lebanese wine-making also has an unusual complication, with wars every now and then, which mean some vintages don’t end up being produced.

Since I’ve tasted a good number of their red wines previously, they were what I expected. Fruit-driven, crisp acidity, soft elegant tannins, lovely to drink. The whites and rosés were very interesting though. Very dark, almost amber, in colour, the whites (from 2004 and 2000) tasted a little like a Bordeaux blend, with a waxy, citrussy quality. The 2004 rosé was my star of the evening, with such a fine delicate strawberry flavour, I’ve been looking to see where I can get hold of some. Their new range, the “Musar Jeune”, I thought were well made wines, but not for me. Easy drinking they were, very fruity, but nothing really complex going on. If you like that style, they are worth a look.

Overall, a couple of interesting tastings and interesting wines. I’ll continue to keep a watch on New York State wine-making, particularly the reds, and tasting some of Musar’s range I hadn’t seen before was very exciting. If you regularly buy from one region or one grape variety, try something different and off-the-beaten-track next time.

Food and Wine Pairings IV: Regionality

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about regionality when it comes to food-wine pairing. My theory is this: that if you are cooking a dish from a certain region, using ingredients from that region, then a wine grown there will pair well with the food.

I came about this idea not through reasoning, but through experience. Trying to find some charcuterie and cheeses to have with leftover wines at a wine tasting, I’d originally just bought a selection that I’d liked. But the winner was some leftover Sancerre, which is sauvignon blanc from the Loire in France, with my favourite goats’ cheese, a Clochette. Some northern Italy salami went very well with the dregs of a Chianti Classico, also in northern Italy. This got me thinking- it this a particular example of foods and wines that work, or a general trend? Since then I’ve been experimenting with regional pairings, for example duck confit in south-west France, a Valpollicella from northern Italy with spag-bol, or even Normandy cider with a Normandy apple tart.

In some sense, the idea of pairing a food with a local wine might seem obvious, and why wouldn’t it? Firstly, you might expect the regional cuisine to evolve with the regional wines. Until recently, when logistics allow for people to eat and drink whatever wine they want, you would drink the wine that was produced locally, with the food that was grown locally. Winemaking styles and preferred grape varieties would be chosen based on how much people enjoyed them, which would likely include how well they paired with local food. Perhaps history has already figured out this for us.

A selection of Italian Foods and Wines

A selection of Italian food and wines.

Secondly, there are climatic factors which would make you want to pair food and wine regionally. ‘Terroir’ is the French phrase for the expression of the landscape in the climate, soils, altitude, and so on. The idea of ‘terroir’ is usually applied to growing of grapes, but there is no reason that it shouldn’t be applied to other produce of the region. In the same way that southern Italy wines are soft and fruity, we see tomatoes from southern Italy are fruity, ripe, and sweet. This will likely extend to milk and cheeses as well- the grass cows or goats eat will be affected by climate and soils too. Loire goats’ cheeses are austere and subtle, as are their wines. So far, so good.

However, food-wine pairing is never quite that simple. The biggest thing that makes food-wine pairing tricky is considering every part of the meal. Take my porcini and scallops tartlets, for instance. Porcini mushrooms, crispy bacon, chestnuts- the main flavours in the dish- are all things that might make you think of pairing an northern Italian wine, as these ingredients are often found there. But then you’ve got a creamy mushroom sauce and puff pastry, which are fatty, and so need a lighter wine with acidity- back to the drawing board. In the end I went for a pinot noir from Burgundy, falling back on food-wine pairing experience, rather than ploughing ahead with something regional.

Furthermore, for many regions, there is quite a lot of variation just within those regions. I am continually shocked at just how much Argentian Malbec can vary, from restrained, low-alcohol wines, to high-alcohol fruit bombs. But when you think about how much altitude varies- and the temperature changes that go with it- it’s not surprising the wines come out so different. Wine-making styles may have changed as the market has changed, and so the time-evolved food-wine pairings may just not apply anymore, at least unless you know exactly what is coming out of the bottle you’ve bought. Similarly, food styles are evolving very quickly with globalisation. Just looking at the spread of Indian cuisine in the UK, or the hotch-potch of cuisines we see in the USA, I would guess that changes in viticulture can’t keep up. Don’t think that it can be difficult to source proper ingredients too. If you are using local British tomatoes to make your lasagne, you will get a different flavour profile than had you used Italian tomatoes.

A selection of French food and wines.

A selection of French food and wines.

Finally, the idea of regionality is only really helpful, though, for countries that have a wine-growing tradition. If you are looking for something to pair with an Indian curry, or Thai cuisine, the ideas here don’t really take you very far. But is there a way you could take some of the principles here- looking for a wine growing country with a similar climate, for example- to get a good wine pairing? I have to say, I’m not so sure. I’ve recently become a fan of pairing the Argentinian grape ‘Torrontés’ with curries, with it’s acidity, florality, citrus flavours, and lack of sweetness, it makes a great match. Can I somehow justify that Torrontés has a similar ‘regional flavour’ as something that might come from India, or Thailand? Any link would be pretty tenuous. In my experience, for regional cuisines without regional wines, you have to fall back on other food-wine pairing principles.

Overall, I think this idea works well, if you restrict the application to more traditional fare. If you are cooking something very traditional, like the southern French ‘cassoulet‘, in a traditional manner with local ingredients- great, go for a Languedoc bottle, or other southern French wine. But as you move away from this, perhaps using beans sourced from somewhere else, and British vegetables, the wine-pairing may not do as much for you. I suppose, though, that’s all part of the fun. Experiment, have fun with food-wine pairing, and see what works and what doesn’t. At the end of the day, if you don’t like the food you are eating, or the wine that is going with it, it’s not worth putting the effort in.

If you are interested in food-wine pairings, check out my other posts on food-wine pairings, Food and Wine Pairings: The Blind Tasting Black Tie Dinner, and Food and Wine Pairings II: Wines for a Wedding, and Food and Wine piarings III: Creating a meal around sweet wines. Also, The Wine Society has a great section on food-wine pairings, and a good food-wine matcher.

Book review: Vino Italiano

Italian wines can be confusing at the best of times, and with a large number of different grape varieties that aren’t grown much outside of Italy, it can be difficult to know where to start. Vino Italiano, by Joseph Bastianich and David Lynch, fills this hole nicely. It breaks down Italian wine region by region, discussing red, white, sparkling and sweet wines, and the different methods and regional styles for each. There are many useful wine maps, both of Italy and given regions, and well designed summary pages for each region, which are useful if you just want to use the book as a reference.

What jumped out at me though was the book’s accessibility. It doesn’t assume you know anything about Italian wines or grape varieties. Each chapter begins with an anecdote about the region of interest, talking about the people, climate, and history, so you really get a taste for the region, rather than just a list of facts. For each region, there are designed tastings, so that you can go through some wines with guidance if you want, and a section on food with the wine, with recipes for local cuisine. There is serious discussion on wine-making and viticulture too, with a discussion on a few producers thrown in if you want to go deeper.

If one thing disappointed, it was that this book is clearly written for an American audience. Often there was discussion about what was or wasn’t imported in the US, or current US wine trends. All of the guided tastings are designed to be wines you can get in the US, and the recipes for the local cuisine are measured in cups. Obviously the content about the wine and grapes is country independent, but if you are looking to access some of the tasting material, this is worth considering.

Overall though, I was very pleased with the book, and at the price I paid for it (around £8), it represents excellent value for money. I learnt a lot about Italian wine, and, rare for a long wine book, was able to read it cover to cover. If you are looking to learn something about Italian wine, it is difficult to see a better place to start. 9/10.

Introduction to Wine Structure

Most of us have some idea about which wines they like and which they don’t. But when we’re asked why- why you like Merlot, or why you like Shiraz- often we don’t have a good answer for it. Wine structure is what you get when you strip away the appearance and flavours- the texture, it could be called. It’s really important to the quality of the wine- a bottle of wine might cost a lot more just for a longer finish, for example. I’ve always preached that it’s important to drink wine you like, so you need to know what wine you like. Learning about wine structure can help you identify why you like a wine.

Similarly, for identifying wine blind, structure is very important. A tasting note might say “dry, medium body, medium acidity, long finish, medium alcohol, evidence of new French oak”, and you’ve probably whittled it down to only several grape varieties already. I’ve often blind-tasted a wine and had no idea what it was from the smell, but figured out the structure, and guessed the most likely grape variety from the structure, and what do you know- that’s what it was. Structure doesn’t lie.

Also important to mention is how important wine structure is to food-wine pairing. For example, if you’ve bought a nice delicate fish, and cooked it properly, you’ll want to drink a nice wine with it. But pick a full-bodied, highly acidic, over-oaked white? You’re not going to taste that fish over the wine. Equally, if your delicate pinot noir gets drunk with steak, it’s not going to be delicate anymore. Making the right wine match will make or break a dish, and learning about wine structure will help you to do that.

Here are the seven main structural components that we focus on in blind tasting. Next time you try a wine, try to figure out how much it has of each of these components, and see whether or not that is what you like. Because at the end of the day, it’s figuring out what you like, and why you like it, that is important.

Acidity
When a wine is really acidic, you’ll know it- like drinking lemon juice. Acidity is important in the wine, it’s a bit like the wine’s backbone. It’s also key for food-wine pairing, as acidity cuts through fat, so if you have a fatty meal, then  you’ll want an acidic wine. It tends to be that cooler climate wines with lower alcohol and lower body have high acidity, with a couple of notable exceptions. If you like acidic wines, you might like riesling, some chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, or pinot noir. If you like less acidic wines, you might like sémillon, merlot, or some malbec.

Alcohol
Alcohol is one of the structural components that’s easier to find out- it’s right there on the bottle. But if you don’t have the alcohol, you can detect it by considering how much heat you get on the back of your throat when you drink the wine. High alcohol wines will feel hot, lesser alcohol wines less so. You want to have the alcohol in balance with the wine- too much alcohol relative to, for example, the body will be unpleasant. It’s worth figuring out whether you like higher alcohol wines- just because it has more alcohol in doesn’t mean it is better!

Body
One of the most common questions I get asked when giving wine tastings is what is meant by a “full-bodied” or “light-bodied” wine, and it is actually surprisingly hard to answer. Often I answer in terms of viscocity. Full-bodied wines will be more like honey, whereas light-bodied wines are more like water. But when you taste a light-bodied wine together with a full-bodied wine, it’s pretty obvious which is which. So have a think about whether or not you enjoy big wines or smaller wines. If you like big wines, you might like new world malbec, merlot, or viognier. Similarly, those who like lighter bodied wines might like pinot noir, riesling or French sauvignon blanc.

Finish
Finish is how long the flavours and texture of a wine stays in your mouth. A wine’s finish can either be short, medium, or long. Sometimes a long finish is very pleasant, but sometimes strange flavours can come out in the finish, like bitterness, spice, or sweetness. As with the alcohol, you want the finish to be in balance with the rest of the wine. A full-bodied wine with lots of alcohol might feel very strange if all the flavours fell away very quickly. It’s also easy to confuse acidity with finish, as the acidity can often linger. The finish is sometimes a mark of the quality of a wine.

Oak
A lot of wines will be fermented in oak barrels. There are two common types of oak used in barrels: French and American. French oak gives a sweet, vanilla, buttery toast note, whereas American oak is more intense and spicy. Oak provides flavour and tannins, which are useful for ageing of wine, but how much you detect the oak will vary considerably. Some wines- particularly new world chardonnay- can have, in my experience, too much oak to be pleasant; when tasting the wines, I have found it hard to taste much more than the oak. Over-oaking can hide other problems with the wine, which is sometimes why wines are made in this style.

Sweetness
Sweetness isn’t whether or not you get sweet flavours like peach or honey, but whether or not there is actual residual sugar in the wine. Most wines don’t have residual sugar, so would be classed as ‘dry’. Common wines which might be ‘off-dry’ or ‘sweet’ are dessert wines like muscat or Sauternes, some riesling from the Mosel in Germany, or some chenin blanc from the Loire in France. Sweet wines are often very pleasant- not alcoholic fruit juice as often thought- but for some reason are out of fashion at the minute. Some new world producers are actually leaving a small amount of residual sugar in wines that are typically left dry, trying to create a style popular with modern tastes. If you haven’t had a proper sweet wine, they are a lot of fun, and worth trying.

Tannins
It’s also tricky to try and explain tannins. Tannins are chemical that are in grape stalks and wood, and they produce a drying effect in your mouth, sucking out the saliva. They coat the inside of your mouth, and build up as you drink the glass, their drying effect increasing. Tannins soften over time- they are actually what polymerise into sediment in the bottle- so an older wine often won’t have such a harsh feel to it. Tannins can have a lot of character, being long, silky, round, small, grippy, chewy, green, or rustic, for example, and this character can be quite important when identifying a wine blind. Some grape varieties naturally have more tannins, like cabernet sauvignon or the aptly named tannat. Equally, some grape varieties like pinot noir or any white grapes have few tannins.

If you are interested in other posts on wine, I’ve written an Introduction to French Red Wines, an Introduction to French White Wines, and food-wine pairing posts on Fine Dining, Wines for a Wedding, and Food to go with Sweet Wines. I’ve also done reviews on The Wine Society and wine books Essential Winetasting and Judgment of Paris.

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