I slammed shut my volume of Encyclopedia Americana and muttered to myself, “This makes absolutely no sense!”
I had just returned home from seeing the latest Bond thriller. 007 was drinking a dark red wine which he referred to as a “Claret.” However, according to my research, a Clairette is a white Rhone varietal. Being a good Catholic boy, I also knew that the word, claret, was derived from the Latin word for “clear.” Could agent 007 be in error? If so, this would be a threat to my world! I decided that in the morning I would jump into my car and venture out to the Rancho Cucamonga Valley. I knew full well that I would find my answer with a visit to the J. Filippi Winery.
Upon entry to the J. Filippi tasting room, I was greeted by Pete. Instantly we hit it off, and he was quick to share his knowledge of wines. I learned that in the 14th and 15th centuries, Bordeaux wines were much lighter in color, very similar in look to a Rose. Even more interesting, I learned that in the Middle Ages, “claret” was heated, then filtered through a bag of spices. Lastly, Pete shared with me that it wasn’t until the 1700s that Bordeaux wines began taking on their now recognizeable color.
Pete also allowed me to sneak the occasional sip so I could better understand the differences in grape varietals. Not only did I become Pete’s protege, I began working in the tasting room as his assistant. By law, I was not old enough to serve wine, but this certainly did not preclude me from washing glasses. After working with Pete a couple of weeks, it turned out that he had gone to school with my Uncle Joe, and after meeting me, Pete was assured by my uncle, that he gave his blessing with regard to furthering my knowledge of wines.
What I particularly enjoyed about working with Pete, was watching how he taught. During tastings, he was not arrogant or condescending. His method was to ask questions and opinions. He never told people what they should taste, Pete left that to self discovery. In turn, he would share his knowledge. What I most admired about my mentor was that he was quick to let people know how much he cared, not brag about how much he knew.
Let me begin with a question. “You know how to drink wine, but do you really know how to taste it?” To experience the true flavor of a wine, one must take advantage of the senses we were all given by the wine gods. These are sight, smell, touch, as well as taste.
The all important glass is imperative to our tasting. It should of course be clean, and pay particular attention to the rim. It should bend slightly inwards. Why? Such a design will help to channel the aromas to the nose. It will also allow you to easily swirl your wine without spilling. There is a proper way to hold a wine glass, and that is by the stem. To grasp the glass by the bowl will only serve to heat the wine. Your hand does give off enough heat to make a noticeable difference.
Next we want to look at the wine, especially around the edges. Do not be afraid to hold it up to the light and admire the hues, and striations in the wine’s color. It is vital that we learn to appreciate the subtle beauty of wine. We also want to look for color and clarity, however, take it a step further. White wines become darker with age, while time causes red wines to lose their color, turning more brownish. An Important point to remember with red wines is not to be intimidated by a small amount of harmless sediment in the bottom of the glass or bottle. I will alert you to off odors and colors as this might be an indication the wine is spoiled. “Corked” as we say in wine speak.
Now for the all important swirl. On many occasion I have been asked, why is it important to swirl the wine? This is an important step in that it aerates the wine. As oxygen enters the glass, the wine is allowed to open up and display its bouquet. Take particular notice of the streaks of wine as they slowly recede down the side of the glass. This is known as the wine’s “legs.” The legs are important because they can give a good indication of a wine’s viscosity.
Did you know that 80% of our sense of taste is actually from our nose? There are proper ways to best appreciate a wine’s aromas. Some connoisseurs prefer to sniff with one nostril at a time, while others take two or three quick sniffs. Then there are those who believe it is much better to keep your nose out of the glass, and catch the aromas as they permeate the air. I prefer diving right in, so to speak. I find that I can better appreciate the complexity of aromas the deeper I am into the glass. In this way, I feel the aromas are more floral, fruitier, and richer. Regardless of your preferred method, what is a must is that you learn to totally appreciate a wine’s bouquet.
Finally it is time to sip and taste. However, before we enjoy our first sip, it is also important to understand the role of the tongue when assessing a wine. The tip of the tongue detects sweetness, the inner sides of the tongue detect acidity, while the outer tongue detects saltiness.
The remaining question is to sip or swallow? Most professional wine tasters prefer to spit, especially if they are planning to taste several wines. Once you have taken a sip, it is important to roll the wine around in your mouth to expose it to all your taste buds. Pay particular attention to the texture, weight, and body of the wine. Professionals will also aspirate through the wine. As you exhale, this will better liberate the aromas of the wine which enables you to better experience all that the wine has to offer. Another technique is to slurp as you sip. This will introduce air and help you appreciate the subtle differences in flavor and texture. Take particular notice of the aftertaste. How long does the finish last? Do you like the taste?
It is also important to take good notes when tasting wine. This will force you to pay attention to the subtleties of the wine while your impressions are still fresh in your mind. I for one, hate when professionals break my concentration by trying to impress me with the their knowledge or attempt to tell me what I am supposed to smell or taste.
Remember, there are no hard fast rules when it comes to tasting. The purpose to discover your palate by introducing you to the aromas, characteristics, and subtle nuances of this living breathing entity we call wine.
Next up, we will cover my ritual Friday night tasting with six lovely ladies, who have only recently been introduced to the wonderful world of wines … “But that my friends, is another story … “