Question from Jim: How do you learn to pick out the different aromas in wine? My friends describe things like strawberry or vanilla, but it just smell like wine to me.Reply: You know, Jim, you have a lot of company! I’ve done countless tasting seminars in my career and when I start asking for descriptors folks tend to clam up. They’re afraid their perceptions are “wrong” (which is impossible – your perception is your perception). Or, the brave members of the group will look me straight in the eye and say “It smells like wine.” Bravo for them! That takes some courage. It seems we all think we’re supposed to shoot out of the womb as wine experts. People like me get so caught up in fruity, floral and barrel-derived characteristics that we forget how overwhelming fermentation aromas are. And, fermentation is what makes wine smell like wine. How to get past them? Practice. Becoming a perceptive taster is just like developing a good golf swing. It comes with practice and gives you pleasure. Without the second half of that sentence, the first is pointless. Since wine’s only purpose is to give us pleasure, if it’s not fun for you, don’t bother. The thing about wine is that we’re usually a bit handicapped by distractions when we drink it because it’s such a social beverage. You’re chatting with friends, probably nibbling on something, music’s playing, maybe some kids running around. You can’t balance your checkbook with all that going on and you can’t learn much about any given wine, either. All you have to do is take a quiet moment to really pay attention to the wine. And then just keep practicing – every time you have a glass of wine. When I’m at a noisy, distracting tasting like the annual ZAP tasting, where they serve what seems like a million Zinfandels, I get my small taste, thank the server and then walk away so I can quietly evaluate the wine for a few moments. I give the wine a little swirl, pop my nose all the way inside the glass and take a good, thoughtful whiff. Do I like it? What do I like about it? Is it a strong smell or a faint one? Any descriptors come to mind? Sometimes, closing your eyes helps. Then I go ahead and taste it. How does it feel in my mouth? Light like skim milk or heavy like heavy cream? Does it taste sweet or dry or somewhere in between? Is my mouth watering – the mark of a solid acidity – or is it drying out – which signals the presence of tannin. Do I like it? How much? Can I articulate why? Jim, I know that if you start taking a quiet minute each time you taste your wine, before long you’ll start to notice subtle characteristics that were elusive before. I call my blog The Tasting Group because I’m convinced that the best and most enjoyable way to learn more about wine and wine tasting is to form a tasting group that meets regularly, just like a book club, so you can practice! Maybe it’s time to write a post on tasting techniques – stay tuned!
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