Deductive drinking in Vail
VAIL CO, Colorado
VAIL – Without any prior knowledge of attributes and varietals, appellations and vintages, there are three things you can determine upon your first taste of a glass of wine:
“I like it. I don’t like it. Or I would drink it if anyone else bought it,” said Joshua Wesson, a master sommelier who led a Taste of Vail wine seminar Saturday titled “Is the Price Right?”
The key, said Jay Fletcher, one of three master sommeliers who facilitated the “Taste Like a Master Sommelier” seminar Friday at Taste of Vail, is to learn everything you can about the attributes of each type of grape and then use that to deduce what you are drinking.
“It’s a game of logic,” said Fletcher, who also is chairman of the Court of Master Sommeliers.
So, do you have what it takes to be a master sommelier? Have a friend pour you a glass of wine and then, without seeing the label, follow this abbreviated course to figure out what you are drinking.
Hold the glass of wine up to the light. Roll it round in the glass to check for viscosity – thicker wines tend to have more alcohol. What color is the wine?
“Right away, you’re going to know something about that wine: whether it’s red or whether it’s white,” Fletcher said with a smile.
Check for brightness. This can help you determine the origin of the grapes. For instance, Fletcher said, German wines are often very shiny because they are filtered.
As for color, younger whites will often have a green tint because of residual chlorophyll in the wine. Older whites may be darker yellow in color due to oxidation or barrel aging. Older reds take on an orange hue when oxidized.
Because humans no longer use their sense of smell as a survival mechanism (this meat smells rancid; don’t eat it), we have somewhat lost our smell vocabulary, Fletcher said. We may only recognize obvious traits.
“This smells like peaches; this smells like apples … this smells like crap,” Fletch said.
Local master sommelier Sean Razee said that to build up his mental stores of smells, he smelled everything he could get his hands on – every kind of flower, fruit and mineral.
“I did all of these things to help me build my smell vocabulary,” Razee said.
The smell of a wine can give away flaws, such as the rotten mold smell of cork, wet dog or wet wool smell of sulfur dioxide or the dead mouse, sweaty saddle smell of brettanomyces, a strain of yeast, Fletcher said. It can also give you a clue to the wine’s alcohol concentration.
Stick your nose in the glass and give it a good, hard sniff.
“Does it make you cry?” Fletcher asked.
Higher levels of alcohol can make your nose burn and your eyes water. The aroma of a wine can also help you determine whether it has been aged in oak barrels.
“Oak is like makeup,” Wesson said. “When judiciously used, it makes the person more beautiful. When there’s too much, all you see is the makeup.”
Finally, fruit, spice and herb aromas can help you determine the origin of the wine. Tropical fruits point to a warmer climate, while stone and tree fruits may lead you to reason that the wine is from a more temperate climate.
After carefully studying the wine and smelling it for scent nuances, give it a taste. Use the tip of your tongue to test for acidity, Fletcher said.
“You can stick your tongue into the glass, but it doesn’t look so great,” he said. Instead, take a sip and hold the wine against the back of your teeth to taste it. Wines with high acidity will taste tart and make your mouth water.
Taste for fruit flavors. Feeling completely lost? Fletcher handed out a few freebies.
“There’s citrus in almost every white wine and there’s red cherries in almost every red wine,” he said.
In general, if what you taste is the same as what you smelled in the wine, you are on the right track.
Now it’s time to tap into your stores of knowledge. What do you remember about varietals you have tried in the past? Which ones had high acidity? Which ones tasted of pineapple or apricot or apples? Is it old or new? Is it from a warm or cool climate?
Take a stab at the grape variety, origin, quality level and vintage. Now do it with six different wines in 25 minutes. If you got the majority correct, down to finite details, you could be on your way to a career as a master sommelier. But in all likelihood, you were probably somewhat humiliated – it’s all part of the learning process.
“It’s an exercise in humility,” Wesson said.