Archive for August, 2010

Earlier in this series we mentioned that it`s not necessary to describe wine by comparing it to all sorts of other things (afterall, a cheeseburger tastes like a cheeseburger and not hints of summer rain) but many do and it can be fun.

There are thousands of different terms people use to describe wine (the taste, smell look and feel) – there are no firm rules here.  Knowing a list of common terms may help you build your own vocabulary – here’s a starting point that you can be liberal by adding to (printing a list like this and scanning it when you taste a wine can also help you learn the terms and the contents of your glass faster).  I have stayed away from terms that require a wine dictionary (Bernard Klem wrote one named WineSpeak which lists over 36,000 such terms – the digital copy can be purchased here):

  • acetic
  • apple
  • aroma
  • big
  • black current
  • burnt
  • balanced
  • bitter
  • bright
  • cat pee (couldn`t resist – slight amonia-type smell; not a bad thing)
  • cedar
  • cherry
  • clear
  • cloudy
  • corky
  • crisp
  • delicate
  • earthy
  • flat
  • flinty
  • fresh
  • gassy
  • hard
  • hot
  • light
  • mature
  • metallic
  • moldy
  • nutty
  • peppery
  • petrol (`diesel` used in North America on occasion to describe this faint smell)
  • pruney
  • rich
  • smoky
  • sulfury
  • sweet
  • tart
  • tobacco
  • vanilla
  • woody
  • yeasty
  • young

I`m hoping that the list above liberates some to use any term that comes to mind -with lists of more than 30,000 terms this is more about an art than a science.  Describing a wine is not about getting the `right`answer – your perception is as accurate as the next taster.


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Before discussing how to taste wine, let`s take a small step back and examine how we taste anything.   Our tongue has many taste buds and different part of our tongue specialize in perceiving different tastes.  It is believed we can only taste 4 separate things (a fifth is being proposed) and they are:

  • Sweet – the highest concentration is at the tip and front of tongue though there are some sensing spread right through the front three-quarters, though a few other zones are also here.
  • Salty – If sweet is the first 25%, salty is the second 25% of the  tongue
  • Sour – runs the outside of te tongue (both sides) and is about half the length of the tongue; behind the sweet zone and in front of the bitter (the middle `half`with 25% of tongue in front and behind it)
  • Bitter – Back of the tongue running the entire width.
  • There are expanding theories that we also taste something called umami, which is essentially savory although it`s not entirely accepted by science yet.

The geography of everyone`s mouth is indeed different and the wine I adore may be one you hate – and we can both be right.  Like the nose, you are also the expert of your own mouth and what you taste is, ultimately, what you taste.   When tasting wine, we must consider the different taste ranges of the mouth as well as how to get the most flavour from the wine.    A purist is very specific to the correct glass as it will affect where wine lands on the tongue and change how you perceive it`s flavour.  Many of us don`t have the luxury of a glass for all seasons but buying a few different styles (you don`t have to break the bank) can be a nice luxury.   There are at least 3 ways to taste wine other than firing a sip in your mouth and swallowing.  If you haven`t done any of these, you must try all 3 as each will have a different experience (you can combine as well).  I will do these through an entire glass (erm, or bottle) of wine:

  • Gently move the wine around your entire mouth, covering all regions of your tongue and created a more distributed taste.
  • Take a moderate sip and leave it coat your mouth for 3-5 seconds.  The wine will warm, your mouth will be coated and your olfactory senses will become engaged and the tastes will become much more transparent.
  • My favourite (do this over a sink your first few times as the abundance of taste is so dramatic that it can be overwhelming).  With a sip of wine in your mouth, part your lips a small bit (this won`t be noticeable to anyone watching).  Gently breathe in and tilt your head forward (if you stopped breathing the wine would come out the tiny opening of your mouth).  This quietly `gargles` the wine, adds a huge amount of oxygen to it and the flavours will explode in your mouth.  There are very few things in life that are as fun as showing someone how to do this for the first time.

From there, concentrate on your flavours.  The `real pros`examine things like sweetness, bitterness, amount of fruit (mostly from smell), aftertaste, acidity (in whites) and the tannins (in red, these make you pucker) and compare.  You may wish to move on to these types of examinations as you progress through tastings but just seeing what it `tastes like` is plenty of fun and a fine place to be indeed.   If you haven`t tried these techniques, I implore you to do so.  The experience of drinking wine will be forever changed and, in my opinion, just so much more fun.   Please share any experience or tips in the comments, we`d love to hear them!

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There was a delightful urban legend that the Inuit people of the Northern Hemisphere had hundreds or thousands of words to describe snow.  While the truth is that there are many flaws in this claim (including that there are several Inuit languages so the statement itself has a flawed assumption and that it`s recognized that the total amount roughly corresponds to the number we have in English), it is indeed a great analogy for why smell is so important.


  • We are capable of perceiving up to 4 different tastes
  • We can smell around 2,000 different smells
  • 90% of taste is actually rooted in smell

Smell is the most important part of tasting wine; and it is the one that is often neglected by many new to formal tasting.  I believe from personal experience and many conversations that a lot of this stems from confidence – that we feel somehow unqualified to `properly`smell becuase we aren`t experts or `wine snobs`.  Tasting wine, especially in public, can be intimidating for the uninitiated (I include myself in the number of people who can feel shy about tasting around others who `know more` than me).

We all have a nose; we just need to know a few things about how we can influence the wine so that we can use our olfactory sense to the maximum.  There are 3 essentials here:

  • If you are consuming at home, buy a big glass.  You don`t have to spend a fortune – many of our glasses are around $10 for 4.  A big glass allows you to stick your entire nose deep within it to get a full smell (many do this at the same time when drinking to be more discreet but there`s no need to hide the most important step of your tasting.
  • Smell the wine, swirl it in the glass for 5-15 seconds and small again (nose all the way in, please).  If you haven`t done this before, you won`t beleive the difference – and your ability to truly smell the wine.  Swirling increases the oxygen and magnifies the smell to an unbeleivable level. I swirl a wine from the start of the pour through my last sip.  If you`re concenred about spilling it, place your wine glass on a flat surface and make tiny circles with the glass and you`ll learn quickly.  You can also practice with water and big glasses also help.
  • Smell multiple times – I try to smell 3 times before tasting it.  Smelling multiple times will increase your perception and is part of savouring the wine – it`s not a race to the bottom of the glass (or to the first sip).

There is some contention on how to analyze the smells.  Some wine schools pass out lists of hundreds or thousands of words while others insist that you should learn the smells of major varieties of wine or grapes using analogies like `a tomato smells like a tomato so learn what a pinot noir smells like.`  Neither is wrong and adds further credence to the adage that your perception is, indeed, the `right` one.  What you smell is, indeed, what you smell.

I had the pleasure of walking through a tasting with one of our favourite winemakers, Norm Hardie.  Norm poured the room a glass of something white (a wine), and asked everyone to smell it.  He asked the group what smells they took from his offering.  He smiled a crooked smile before describing his own wine as smelling like `diesel.`  I laughed and realized that it was indeed what I smelled – I didn`t think it because I was restricting myself to the palette of wine terms I knew like citrus and floral and the like.

Norm taught me that it is what it is, remove preconceptions from your mind and commit to what it is that you smell.  You are, after all, the expert of your own nose.

If you want a formal list of wine terms, search Google or buy a wine book with a list – many have hundreds (or more) explored).  We`ll share a review of such a book in coming days.

Would love to know of your experiences or any other tips below as well.  🙂

Tomorrow we move onto the taste and a few simple tricks that will transform the flavours in the glass to a different level!

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Murphy’s Law.  Heading out the door on my way to Boston and back for a 36 hour road trip and a half-hour post just got eaten by the Internet.  It really was a stunner.

It’s almost a shame to begin to talk about the basics of tasting wine with the look.  It’s not that it’s not important – it’s just that it can be so subtle and the toughest place to start.  We’ll help you with that!

Before we begin though, let’s start with the Golden Rule of tasting:

  • Wine is what you perceive it to be.  There are no true rights and wrongs and most of us will never know a more formal rule than this.  Most experts are very open with this; at least the ones I choose to believe.  🙂  This is about fun – be confident and enjoy!

For many years there was a perception that certain colours were ‘better’ than others – particularly in different types of grapes.  This has been challenged in recent years as many wine regions and countries allow vintners (wine makers) to add colour to their product without listing it on their label.  This removes much of any argument that a ‘better’ colour equals a ‘better’ taste.

Wine ranges in colour for many natural reasons as well, including:

  • It’s age (typically older wines are darker)
  • The type of grape used
  • How it was aged (i.e. wine aged in oak is also often darker)
  • How much ice you put in it (this was a joke)

Typical colours of white wine range (from lightest to dark) as:

  • Pale (or Pale yellow-green)
  • Straw (Straw yellow is also used)
  • Yellow-Gold (light gold)
  • Gold
  • Old Gold (dark gold)
  • Yellow-Brown
  • Maderized (which is the result of oxidation typically used in a Spanish fortified wine named Maderia); not a term I’ve heard many say and you’re free to use your own description of course.
  • Brown

Red wine does not go from bright to dark – instead it goes from purple to bright red and then to dark, such as:

  • Purple
  • Ruby
  • Red
  • Dark Red (Brick Red)
  • Red-Brown
  • Brown

Most of us still can’t see the colour though.  Here’s a few tips that will make the colour more apparent:

  • The more wine that’s in a glass, the darker it will look (think of the depths of the ocean).  Pour a little at start to see its colour and note the difference as you add more to a glass.  A large glass also helps for this purpose (i.e. the wine will be further spread out and easier to see)
  • Tilt your glass to the side (this can be done very subtly).  You will see a prism of colour – from the outsides with little wine being lighter than the darkest core of the glass.
  • Hold your glass near a natural light source (be cautious of most indoor lights which are fairly yellow).
  • Imagine a chef serving a fine meal on a plaid plate..  The natural beauty of their plate would be obscured by the background.  As most wine glasses are clear you run the risk of whatever is behind the glass having the same effect.  Hold your glass in front of a white tablecloth or sheet of paper.  My favourite trick is agreeing to wear white to a wine event with a partner so we can subtly do the same trick.

This last tip is ridiculous, probably not relevant and absolutely untested but it is something I am going to start to do because I want to (and I thought I’d share at the risk of being shamed :)):

  • Keep a wine journal (not so ridiculous).  “Paint” a swatch of your wine (this will mostly apply to reds) in the journal.  Oxydization will change its colour over time and it feels a bit like scrap booking but could be a fun exercise.

Those tips should help you better ‘see’ the colour – but how do you learn one from another?  My chosen profession specializes in educating adults – and this is where I can help out with some level of expertise.

As adults we learn the fastest by comparison and contrast.  Learning colours one-at-a-time is a very difficult way to learn.  It requires you to compare the look of a glass in front of you to the memory of one from the week before – a very difficult task indeed.

Here’s some homework that will absolutely increase your ability to recognize and learn about the colours of wine:

  • At your next dinner party or social occasion that you plan to open two bottles or more, set extra glasses aside.  Save a bit of each bottle and pour it into a sample glass and keep the empty bottle and glass to the side.  As you go through the night, repeat the process and compare the glasses.  Use the cheat sheet above of different wine colours to draw your own conclusions.
  • Consider buying 2 or more small bottles so you can contrast even more samples (you will need a minimum of 2 bottles but don’t go past 5 or 6; two much comparison get’s very difficult to process and most of us can’t compare more than 5-7 things at a single time).
  • Buy multiple bottles from a single producer and compare their different types of wine.  Sometimes you can find blends as well and buy 3 bottles – 1 of each grape on it’s own and then a bottle that is a blend of two (this will not be possible at all or even most vintners).
  • Buy multiple bottles of the same type of grape from a single region and compare the differences in colour.
  • Buy multiple bottles of the same type of grape from multiple regions and compare the differences in colour.
  • Many of us store leftover portions in our fridge – consider opening two bottles and storing 2 remainders (if you plan to consume in short order).
  • Go to tasting events where multiple glasses can be tasted at the same time – this is an essential experience at most vineyards.
  • My least favourite: buy an “expert” book, judge the wine for yourself BEFORE reading (you will be influenced if you do it after.  This may help boost your confidence – or could erode it.  It’s not evil, it’s just that your perception is as correct as theirs.

I hope some of these tips have been useful – would love to hear any from out there and would adore hearing if anyone tries these and has success (or struggle).

Come back tomorrow for a largely neglected element of tasting – the smell.

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I am not a sommelier (heck I had to Google the spelling of it) nor am I any sort of wine expert.  I have taken a few courses here and there and consumed a number of bottles but my overall experience is fairly pedestrian.

It’s often that I hear (and I remember saying), “I don’t know much about wine – I like it but I don’t do all that ‘fancy’ stuff people do to taste” or “I can’t taste all those things that people claim to.”  In my experience, these two things are often connected.

Tasting wine can be intimidating when you start – I am hoping that sharing my relatively low expertise may remove some of the intimidation.  My first experience with formal tasting was anything but glamorous.  I was attending College for Travel and Tourism.  The school offered wine tasting which sounded like a lot of fun and a good excuse to get drunk at school; or so my 19-year old mind rationalized.  We paid our $15 to get tickets.

The school became concerned about drinking and driving.  Our school was in the middle of the country and there was no public transportation back and forth (this didn’t seem to bother them on pub nights but wine appeared to be the drink of the devil).  There was talk about cancelling the entire deal and a lot of scandal.

A peaceful accord was struck before the riots started; though it felt like a low blow for a teenager.  “Tomorrow’s Wine tasting has been moved from 3:00PM to 6:30AM.”  Early mornings are the ultimate weapon when battling youth – it’s like sun vs. a vampire; the same side will always win.  There were no refunds as financial commitments had been made to the wine makers.

It was in that first real exposure to wine that I learned two things:

  • I liked Merlot (more at the time than now)
  • Coffee and wine are a really tough combination but a guy’s gotta do what a guy’s gotta do.

It was many years later that I actually learned to taste wine and the day I learned that ‘all the fancy stuff experts do’ actually isn’t all that fancy, is rather scientific and will forever change how you appreciate wine.

Consider the following:

  • Up to 90% of our taste comes from smell.
  • Your tongue has at least four major zones of taste buds; each specializes in a range of tastes.
  • Many recognize that how food looks on a plate can change how we preceive it’s taste
  • Pouring a glass of wine into your mouth and swallowing may not be the best way all of your senses to properly capture the tastes contained within the bottle; it actually bypasses most of these items above.  Proper tasting accounts and maximizes each of these things; even if it looks a little odd.

You don’t need to be an expert to ‘properly’ taste wine; you simply have to engage the most of your senses that you possibly can.

The essentials of wine tasting comprises of 3 basic steps (some break this down further):

  • The look (sight)
  • The smell (smell)
  • The taste (vision)

I’m heading out-of-town this weekend – each day will feature a post on each step.  I assure you if you haven’t done “the fancy stuff” before, you will be stunned on what happens to the flavours of a bottle with a few simple (and even discreet) steps.

If you don’t like wine (and if so, I’m amazed you’re still reading), you may also find that it’s worth an extra effort if you haven’t tried this before.  More on that when we talk about taste.

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We had an awesome meal last evening – a mashup of ingredients straight from our garden with some great product from our CSA (Community Shared Agriculture program).

Here are some of the things I’ve learned this year:

  • Like puppies and a new job, it really is more work than I thought.
  • That work, when in the right mindset, is most pleasurable.  The more you do the task, the more you can develop the mindset.
  • Consistency is key.  I twice went without watering for a few days and almost killed the entire crop.  These two short faults definately hurt my harvest.
  • Big plants don’t necessarily mean bit yield.  I have two sets of tomato plans – one looks like a rain forest and the other like the Sahara.  The ‘desert’ ones have a higher yield than my pristine plant.
  • Knowing how much water is an art form.  I wasn’t using nearly enough early on and cost myself a tonne of veggies.
  • You can grow awesome plants in the shade – including ones that people claim need a lot of sun to thrive.  They just might not grow a lot of fruit.
  • Picking tomatoes is a two-handed task.  When I cheat I usually break a stem.
  • You can grow a cucumber plant up a wall and attach it to other vines.  More sun would have helped.
  • Never give up.  My hot pepper plant all but died before it really started to grow – yet it is in the best shape of all (and in the best spot for sun).
  • There is nothing like tomatoes off the vine.  I had remembered this intellectually but the taste is something that can’t be intellectually processed to be understood.
  • A few herb plants can be a lot of herbs.  I should have grown a greater variety and used them more often in my cooking
  • Fresh herbs that you’ve grown are also far more flavourful than those purchased.
  • A reminder: things you grow yourself just taste better.
  • While I can grow from seed, our apartment lifestyle is not ideal for it.  Starting with plants may be cheating – or may be practical.
  • Our yield has been relatively miniscule. I’ve also learned how to be ok with that and celebrate our successes first.
  • Ask more questions.

These are some of the lessons of the summer (so far)…

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When I grew up I knew Paramsean cheese as a mysterious powder-like substance that came in a towering cylinder and absorbed the most liquid bits of tomato sauce like that stuff you use at the gas station if you are a little overzealous at the pump.  That was Parmasean.

Most of North America has been turned on to Parmigiano-Reggiano in recent years with it`s push on mainstream television.  It seems to be a staple that I just can`t live without if I`m going to keep cooking with a crazy smile glued to my face (also a requirement, it would appear, from the same shows :)).

I have used the `real deal`for many years yet known little about it; including how to spell it.  Years of looking at the jar of powder (with label) have corrupted my spelling of the real deal (which label is printed on the rind but you don`t see in totality unless you buy the 1-ton wheel of cheese).  And the spelling is, indeed, a great giveaway to it`s origin:

Parmigiano-Reggiano is from one of 5 Italian Provinces:

  • Parma (yes the same one that produces the ham)
  • Reggio Emilia
  • Modena
  • Bologna
  • Mantova

To further confuse things (for us on the outside), Italy groups it`s provinces into 20 regions.  The first four provinces on the list above are from the region named Emilia-Romagna and the last is from Mantova.  Anything produced outside of these four regions cannot be called by this name so is given other names – including Paramasean and Parmesan.

Parmigiano is a term used to describe Parma while Reggiano describes Reggio Emilia.  Some purists (mostly from these two provinces) insist they are the only two products that are the `real deal.`

An a related topic, never throw out your rinds…  They make great addition to sauce; but that`s a story for another day…

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