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Behind the Scenes column: Wine tasting logic

Suzanne Hoffman
Behind the Scenes
Cassandra Aguilar, wine steward at Osteria in Hermosillo, Sonora, Mexico, inhaling the aromas of a glass of red wine from which she can discern such things as fruit qualities, alcohol level, presence of wood and flaws, if any. The nose is responsible or 85 percent of taste.
Sergio Howland | Special to the Daily |

Editor’s note: This is the second column in a two-part series. To read the first installment, visit http://www.vaildaily.com.

In early November, I embarked on another educational experience. Just as I was a latecomer to the legal profession, I am a latecomer to sommelier certification. The certification process began with one of my most intensive — and enjoyable — educational experiences: the Court of Master Sommeliers introductory sommelier course and exam.

On a spectacular autumn day, I timidly walked into the ornate ballroom at the Bacara Resort in Santa Barbara, California, for the two-day course.



Usually one to sit in the last row at seminars, I was somehow drawn to the first of 20 rows of tables. At each place were four wine glasses, one small water glass and an inch thick, 226-page spiral bound workbook, our guide through the court’s blind tasting technique, basics of winemaking, all the world’s important wine regions, spirits, beer and service standards.

At 8:25 a.m., Aspen resident Jay Fletcher spoke. He was one of five master sommelier instructors who would tag team teach the course. After a few brief comments about the court’s history and philosophy, Fletcher, who is also Southern Wine & Spirits’ director of fine wines, dove into deductive tasting, the logic-based blind tasting technique central to the court’s certification program.



The dreaded blind tasting component comprises one third of each of the court’s three certification level exams beyond the introductory course. It’s not the most important — all three exam parts are crucial to achieving the court’s high standards — but for many candidates, it’s the most difficult and often the hardest to pass on the first try. For me, at 57, I wasn’t sure I could teach my old nose new tricks and succeed in the blind tasting part of the certified sommelier (Level II) exam. Since wine was involved, I was willing to try.

I found deductive tasting to be the most intriguing and challenging part of the course. Even if you’re not an aspiring sommelier, learning a few basics can enhance oenological experiences and help develop olfactory and taste memory. Fletcher’s lecture formed the foundation of the six blind tasting exercises — each consisting of four wines.



BLIND TASTING MURDER MYSTERY

The deductive tasting method consists of five criteria: sight, nose, palate, initial conclusion and final conclusion. Since each person perceives tastes and aromas differently, deductive tasting develops skills through repetition and benchmarking wine characteristics.

Over time, with diligent practice, sommeliers develop a “personal warehouse of descriptors” that once encountered again will help lead to proper conclusions about the wine and its characteristics. The Court’s goals of deductive tasting include “tasting with purpose rather than for pleasure,” “improve ability to describe and sell wine” and “understand classic and new archetypes of regional wines of the world.”

Fletcher likens the process to being a homicide detective. Line up all the usual suspects then logically use the process of elimination to arrive at a conclusion. It’s not about guessing. That’s a game played with friends, preferably around the dinner table. It’s about applying sensory memory, wine benchmarks and theoretical knowledge to the task at hand to arrive at the best possible conclusion. Think of it as the “CSI of Wine.” Use all the clues you discover in the glass to solve the mystery. Each clue is important and must be considered.

THE EYES HAVE IT

Sight is the first sense deployed in deductive tasting. Given that the eyes are incredibly crucial tools in wine tasting, deductive tasting is anything but blind. Color, clarity, concentration, legs and hue are but five of the initial clues that the eyes give to the brain. Something as simple as the concentration of the wine’s color can help eliminate some of the “usual suspects.”

To experience for yourself, fill a clean, well-buffed wine glass with about four ounces of red wine. Tilt the glass 45 degrees. Holding it by the stem in one hand, hold up the thumb of the other and place it on far side of the glass. Can you easily see your thumb or do you barely see it, if at all? If it’s the former, you can eliminate Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel and Syrah. Thin-skinned grapes like Pinot Noir, Sangiovese and Grenache will yield lighter red colors. In a similar experiment with white wine, tilt the glass and hold against a white background. Does the wine have greenish hues? If so, the wine is young so that clue will help in determining the age of the wine. With each tasting experience, blind or otherwise, your brain learns key clues, storing them for later sensory recognition to help solve wine mysteries. Remember, all clues are important.

NOSE KNOWS FIRST

With smell responsible for 85 percent of taste, the nose does the heaviest lifting in solving the mystery. Although we can only perceive five tastes — salt, sweet, sour, bitter and umami — Fletcher told us “new studies show humans can smell one trillion (or more) different aromas.” As such, the nose is crucial in supporting the palate to determine characteristics such as age (youthful versus vinous aromas), presence of oak, fruit descriptors that help identify the varietals as well as earthiness (for reds) or minerality (for whites).

Smell mint? Cabernet Sauvignon is a definite suspect. Smell slate? Make sure you consider German whites. What about pyroxenes (bell pepper smell)? Bordeaux’s a strong contender. The nose perceives flaws such as corkiness and oxidation or the presence of volatile acidity, the smell of nail polish or vinegar that can indicate poor winery hygiene.

With the many clues the eyes and nose provides to the brain, the palate then adds its own clues. Sweet red? Can’t be a Syrah, of course. What wines qualify based on the other clues? Bone dry white? Most likely not a Riesling. Does it feel like you’ve eaten a green banana after a sip of red wine? Could be Barolo with its high tannins. And so on until things such as alcohol and acidity levels, length of finish and complexity of aromas and flavors aggregate to help eliminate some possibilities and add others.

You might think it’s time to proceed to the final conclusion. It’s not. First comes the initial conclusion where evidence — identification keys — gleaned from the senses are employed to determine such things as old verses new world, climate where the grapes were grown, grape variety or blend, and the possible age range of the wine.

With those parameters, it’s much easier to make a logical conclusion of the varietal, country of origin, region, appellation and appellation quality level, if applicable, and vintage.

Practice is key to mastering deductive tasting. Who wouldn’t enjoy that sort of homework? Over time, repetition will reveal descriptors for certain grapes and styles and establish benchmarks for wines. It will become easier over time to take the clues that make a wine unique and improve your ability to blind taste with success and improve your overall enjoyment of wine.

JUST A TASTE

This was but an astronaut’s eye view of deductive tasting.

Perhaps I’ve piqued your interest and you want to sign up for this introductory course. I just wanted to give you a taste — pun intended — of the logic behind blind wine tasting and what sets it apart from guessing.

Want to learn more? Visit mastersommeliers.org or my blog at winefamilies.com. Salute!

For a Master Sommelier’s in-depth description of how to taste wine, visit http://www.timgaiser.com.

Suzanne Hoffman is a freelance writer specializing in food, wine and travel. Her blog is http://www.winefamilies.com.


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