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Sip like a pro: Tips from Taste of Vail’s Blind Tasting seminar

Melanie Wong Henson
Special to the Daily
What's in a pour? Participants at the Taste of Vail's Blind Tasting Seminar on April 8 inspected, sniffed and sipped their way through six wines, learning to deconstruct the tastes and aromas that came with each glass.
Ben Henson | Special to the Daily |

Wine Words

At a loss for adjectives? Sound like a sommelier with some of these wine descriptors.

Black Currant

Bubblegum

Cured meat

Grass

Inky

Jammy

Lavender

Leather

Lime

Mushroom

Musty cardboard

Pepper

Petroleum

Potting soil

Roses

Smoke

Sour cherry

Sweaty leather saddle

Tart

Toasted

Violets

Wet gravel

Wood

Swirl, sniff, sip.

Those three simple steps can tell a wine drinker vast amounts of information about what they’re drinking. With a little practice, these steps can help you gain a deeper appreciation for your vino, said advanced sommelier Jeremy Campbell, director and owner of Vail Village’s Root and Flower wine bar.

There’s no doubt the art of wine tasting can be a pretentious affair and the descriptors experts and wine bottles come up with can seem wholly mysterious. Campbell argues it doesn’t have to be that way. With the right tools, regular wine enthusiasts can develop their palate and knowledge.

At the Taste of Vail Blind Tasting seminar led by Campbell on Saturday, advanced sommeliers were tested in a blind tasting, where candidates must identify six wines, give an accurate description of the smell, taste and character, the grape varietal, country and region of origin, and vintage year. Yes, all from a few whiffs and sips.

“To some people, it sounds like a magic trick,” Campbell said. “However, it’s actually a logical way of deductively tasting a wine. When you start learning about wine tasting, at first you’re just grasping for whatever adjectives pop into your mind. This is a more effective way to break down a wine.”

Want to taste like a pro? Campbell walked us through the basics of blind tasting and some exercises to get amateur wine connoisseurs started.

Color

A wine’s hue is affected by many factors. White wines tend to lose color with age, while red wine gains color with time. A hot climate increases color in both whites and reds, while grapes grown in cooler climates take on a lighter color. Oaked wines also tend to be darker.

Start by holding your wine up against a light or white surface. When describing whites, look for color ranging from straw yellow to deep gold. When looking at reds, ask, “Can I see my fingers through the wine? Is it more of a bright red, which might indicate a pinot noir, tempranillo or grenache, or dark purple, suggesting a cabernet sauvignon or malbec?”

Viscosity

If you’ve ever been around wine folks, then you may have heard of tearing — the thick drips of wine that drizzle down the side of the glass when the wine is swirled. What does that tell you? Not much, according to Campbell.

“Tearing is caused by residual sugars, and it basically tells you there’s alcohol in it, which we already know,” he said.

Smell

Aromatics tell you much about a wine — sometimes just as much as actually tasting it. Start by giving the wine a gentle swirl, then putting the glass up to your nose. Campbell encourages tasters to “put the blinders on” and start by naming the smells evoked in your mind, regardless of how you think the wine is supposed to smell. Start by naming fruits, then qualifying those fruits. For example, you may smell apple. Ask yourself, “What kind of apple? Is it ripe or under ripe? Is It baked into a warm apple pie, or is it a tart granny smith?”

Next, look for earthy scents. Distinguish between organic smells, such as dirt, and inorganic smells, such as salty sea air, which indicate minerality.

Next, smell for oak, a term that means the wine has been aged in an oak barrel.

“What you’re actually smelling is the toasting process used to prepare the inside of the barrel, not the oak itself,” Campbell said. “It smells like toasted vanilla and other baking spices. It can be described as sugary or caramel smell.”

Tasting

Now for the fun part. Some wines taste like they smell, while others might give your palate a surprise. Besides fruits, spices and sweetness, also look for tastes like tobacco, coffee or leather, which can develop as a wine ages. Also, taste for tannins and acidity. Tannins are created from the inclusion of grape skins, stems and seeds in the wine making process, and create a tell-tale dry mouth sensation after a sip. Acidity is marked by tartness, or a puckering sensation.

Assessing balance and length is tougher to master, but very important qualities for wine experts. For balance, ask yourself, “Do all the flavors work together? Does one taste overpower all the others?” Length (usually described as long, medium or short) refers to how long the taste of the wine persists on your palate after you’ve taken a sip.

Ready to pour?

Of course, seasoned wine experts can tell much more about a wine at a glance than the casual sipper, but Campbell encourages wine enthusiasts to test their palates and dig deeper. Start with some well-known types of wine from their classic regions — Rieslings from Germany or Alsace, France, pinot noirs from Oregon, California or France, or cabernets sauvignons from Napa or Bordeaux. Get to know these classic tastes and learn what tastes and smells differentiate the wines.

Of course, don’t forget to enjoy the wine itself.

“At the end the day, it’s wine, so don’t think too much about it — just drink it,” Campbell said.


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