Tuesday, May 18, 2010
Wine Food & Flavor
Often during wine seminars I am asked “the” question about flavor in wine. It usually comes as a sincere quest for knowledge and understanding. The question is usually centered on the difficulty many have in describing, in defined terms, the flavors one is experiencing. In every wine seminar I encourage the audience to describe what they are tasting in specific terms. Most can not get past the general adjectives of fruity, sweet or dry and many are unwilling or unable to take a stab at pinpointing these general terms with specifics. It is safe ground for people to rest on simple answers that when “I” say a wine tastes like fruit, it does; or know that if “I” say it tastes dry, it is; yet this is not enough.
If you really want the experience of tasting wine to count, in my opinion, then we all have to dive off the deep end. We need to put our flavor experiences regarding food to work in order to better understand what we taste, why it pairs with specific food groups better than others, and how this will develop our wine & food knowledge past the novice stage. All of this has its beginnings in food. We became a nation of food inhalers and chose the drive-through over sitting at the table. When this happened flavor ceased being important and we lost our ability to describe what was in our mouths. This shows up very often in my wine classes as the inability to discuss texture, aroma and flavor. Should I put any guest on the spot the “deer in the headlights” look comes over them with horrifying facial expressions. It is my belief that every wine event should begin with a descriptive hour where every person attending has to specifically pinpoint 1-3 flavors in a wine. I use these numbers because wine has three parts that make up the finished product. Follow along and use this method the next time you taste any wine. It may help you understand what you are sipping.
The first part to wine is fruit. Red or white, depending on the color and within that set the wine will mimic the fruit flavors of its color. In white wine one may taste anything from citrus to stone fruit, lemons, oranges, apples of every variety, and pears all the way up to the tropical sets of papaya, mango and passion fruit. In red wine the flavors encompass all the red fruit varieties from cherry, blueberry, blackberry, plum, to fig and prune. The best of the tasters will not only suggest wine “X” has a cherry note, but involve Bing or Queen Anne cherry by name. When one gets really good at this you can begin to see types of fruit within wine sets. Gala apples, Meyer lemons for example and when one tastes enough wine, the layers of fruit flavor become more easily revealed. You must practice somewhat to eventually “get it”.
The second part to wine is spice and this is harder to grasp because we do not as a population spend any time around oak forests to see subtle nuances. Coco, chocolate, vanilla, caramel, clove, anise, black tea, coffee, tobacco are the flavor spectrum the barrel imparts. The toast grade and wood type will leave these flavor imprints in a wine depending on the maturation time in the barrel, the newness of the oak, oak type and barrel cleanliness. When no wood is used these nuances will be somewhat absent from the wine experience, although wine has a spice nature to it, the flavor spectrum will be overshadowed by the fruit and yeast.
Lastly there is a dairy component in wine. One will taste a creamy nature and may detect oiliness; butter, cheese, olive oil, and sweet cream. This is what the yeast will impart in the wine. The longer the contact through malolactic or secondary fermentation, extended lees contact and stirring of the lees the more a pronounced dairy note will exist in the wine. This is most evident in new world wines with low acidity and high alcohol. When a California Chardonnay, as an example, is noted as being buttery, this happens through extended yeast contact and possible lees stirring which helps break down harsh tannins and acid. The result is a wine with pronounced butter or cream notes in the mouth layered with ripe fruit flavors and an absence of any finishing acid which makes a wine seem more silken or velvety.
When you can place these three components together you will have a complete wine experience. Now practice discussing these attributes with friends. Allow your food experiences discover the definitive flavors and you are on your way. This last part is the tricky issue. We become unsure of our own palate and opinions. We then begin to lean towards an “authority” to tell us what we taste. I say LET GO! The basic high school education should be enough to describe what flavors you smell and taste and only practice will make you perfect. Food and temperature will change flavors in the mouth as you taste and either open or close off multiple layers of wine flavor as you eat and taste. It is important to experiment with as many combinations as you and your friends can create. The ultimate goal is to open your mind and let your vocabulary loose as you discover flavors. Do not be shy or concerned with another’s opinion as no answer is wrong. It is all subjective to you and your palate. There are two new books recently released which will help direct you towards these definitive tasting skills.
They are: Wine Drinking for Inspired Thinking – by Michael Gelb (Running Press Publishers), and Daring Pairings – by Evan Goldstein (University of California Press).
Both publications will lead you towards wine & food flavor pairing and the practice of using an expanded vocabulary that will be definitive and help you pinpoint what you taste and how you express it. The next step is for you to stage a tasting group and practice what you read. Cheers.
Posted by George Parkinson at 4:15 AM