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Own your palate, Eagle County

Jessica Slosberg
Vail CO, Colorado
Illlustration by Steve Larson
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EAGLE COUNTY, Colorado ” Venturing into the wine world can no doubt be intimidating. Not only are there multiple colors to consider, but different regions, a multiude of varietals and countless styles. On top of that, wine experts seem to talk about wine in another language ” and they are. Luckily, most of the language is easy to learn, and once the vocabulary is mastered all that is left is the fun part ” the tasting. Sean Razee, master sommelier at the Ritz-Carlton Bachelor Gulch, said the first thing anyone looking to improve his or her wine palate must do is drink a lot of wine.

While a nearly-guaranteed good time, if you really want to learn about wine during a wine tasting, don’t let it end up a free for all.

“It needs to be a systematic approach to wine,” Razee said. Specifically strive to taste wines that aren’t in your usual repertoire.

A good way to expose yourself to a lot of different wines, without leaving the checking account dry, is to throw a wine-tasting party. Parties should be more organized than just the telling all your friends to bring a bottle. Razee said the problem with big parties is there is often no cohesiveness to the wines.

“Make sure you have some sort of theme,” he said, because in a tasting the goal is an academic approach to what you are drinking. “There needs to be a sense of structure.”

Razee suggests focusing on a certain varietal or a stylistic characteristic such as oaked white wines, which are wines fermented in barrels made either of French or American oak, or wines from Bordeaux, France, as an example.

“It is useful to start out with a varietal,” he said. You might have everyone bring a chardonnay. One person could bring an offering from California, another person something from France, another person a bottle from Australia and so on. From there the discussion can focus on the differences between the wines in terms of terrior, or the influence of the land they were grown in.

He cautions that in order to help ensure “varietal correctness” it is generally a good idea to look in the $20 to $30 range. Some regions always will be more expensive, so in the beginning it is a good idea to steer clear from them. An example of an area that is almost always in the higher price point is Burgundy, France.

Razee said he would suggest any beginner explore the Internet for tasting guides.

Erin Swain, a local sommelier who works at Vin48 and as a wine distributor, also suggests looking at a specific varietal and asking a trusted wine specialist for help identifying wines that demonstrate different characteristics for the best price.

Now that the party is assembled and the wine uncorked comes the best ” and hardest ” part: the tasting.

Compare the wines side by side and have the group discuss the differences between the wines. Make sure you keep track of how you came to each conclusion. Since wine tasting isn’t an exact science, be prepared for a variety of opinions.

“If we all had the same palate we would all be drinking the same wine,” Swain said.

Swain shared the method that the Court of Master Sommeliers uses in its tests called deductive tasting. The method involves five steps: sight, smell, taste, initial conclusion and final conclusion.

Sight gives the taster the first clue about the wine. Looking for clarity issues like sediment or bubbles, color, core and rim variation. When describing color Swain said there are only a few terms allowed such as garnet, ruby, purple and “brickish” red for red wines.

Smell, which refers to the wine’s aroma, is next. Most people will recognize this moment in the wine tasting process for the swirl. While it might look silly, swirling the wine in the glass is important. The action aerates the wine, which releases the aromas. There are two types of smells: the bouquet and the aroma. The bouquet gives clues to the winemaking practices. For example the use of oak or another wood in the aging process comes through in the bouquet. In comparison, aromas refer to other fruit characteristics that stem from the grape. For example, pinot noir is often identified with raspberry while white wines tend to display citrus and peach or nectarine aromas.

“Beginners are a lot of times better at identifying certain flavors because they are saying what they taste,” she said. Instead of just saying what they’ve been studying they actually say what they think. To help with this step Swain said there are tasting kits and a lot of books like “Wine For Dummies,” and “The Wine Bible” to use as a guide.

The next step is taste. During a wine tasting, a simple sip won’t cut it. In order to get the wine all over the palate or mouth, the taster has to swish the wine all over the mouth. This helps the wine to get to all the taste receptors on the tongue, which include bitter, sweet, sour, acid and savory. All of the receptors are necessary to “figure out what is going on,” she said.

The first three steps help the taster form their initial conclusion about whether the wine is fruit forward, Earth driven, how old the wine is and whether it’s from Europe or newer wine regions like California.

Next is the final conclusion where ideas are pinpointed, grapes are named and ages picked.

“All of the steps build on each other,” Razee said. Learning to asses a wine through sight, smell and taste is what wine tasting is all about.


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