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The anatomy of taste


Marc Millon

this article was first published in Italy Magazine

A load of nonsense
Quite a lot of nonsense is spoken and written about how to taste wine. It’s as if there is some dark and mysterious art, a secret ritual that one has to be initiated into. Or so the wine snobs and bores would have us think. Well, thankfully this is rarely the case in Italy, where it seems that the appreciation of wine is as natural and as universal as an innate understanding of Renaissance art and architecture or an aria by Puccini or Verdi. Here you don’t need to learn how to taste and appreciate wine: it’s something that is absorbed most naturally by breathing, by eating, by drinking, by living.

Indeed for me, tasting wine should never be about the one-upmanship of coming up with outrageous descriptions and the weirdest or most esoteric smell/flavour identifications. Above all, it’s about appreciating where a wine comes from, how it’s made, why it tastes the way it does. This does not mean learning some magical process; rather, it’s simply about taking the time to taste considerately and thoughtfully for such an approach adds both understanding and thus ultimately greater enjoyment to drinking wine. That is really what it’s all about, isn’t it?

Of course, sometimes we don’t want to consciously ‘taste’: in social situations where the wine is not centre stage but simply serves to lubricate conversation and good times, or over meals — everyday or special — where the wine may be simply one element of an overall dining experience. Yet undoubtedly from time to time it may be both instructive as well as an enjoyable activity in its own right to taste wines considerately and thoughtfully.

As easy as one, two, three
So, how to go about it? Often when we drink wine (as opposed to taste wine), it is easy to forget that we appreciate everything we taste through all of our senses. Thus, quite simply, the three steps to tasting wine considerately are 1) observe, 2) smell, 3) taste.

Take a good look
Take the time, first, to examine the appearance for indeed this alone can tell you a great deal about the wine in hand. Whites, for example, can vary from the palest, green-tinged water colour, through pale straw, yellow, gold, amber to a deep walnut brown. A very pale wine may indicate a fresh, uncomplicated style, while deeper tones of yellow to gold may indicate either bottle age or time spent in wood. A brownish wine on the other hand, might be oxidized, flabby and beyond its best, while a deep, dark walnut can indicate one of Italy’s great and unique dessert wines.

The colour of red wines similarly varies considerately, from bright, vivid, purple wines that are youthful and fruity, through tones of ruby, brick red, and eventually mahogany red for older wines. Different grape varieties display varying colours (Nebbiolo for example, though a full and powerful wine is by nature fairly light in colour). Colour in red wines, moreover, can diminish and change with age. The body of a wine (both white and red) may be indicated by its appearance: swirling a wine in its glass allows you to observe its weight as ‘legs’ indicate a fuller style, higher alcohol or glycerine, or possibly residual sweetness. A light effervescence, on the other hand, indicates that the wine is frizzante, a uniquely popular Italian style for both whites and reds.

Get your nose in
Next, holding the glass by its base, swirl the wine around vigorously, then stick your nose in the glass and inhale deeply. Then relax and try to analyse and identify some of the olfactory sensations. Smell plays an enormously important role in everything we taste (which is why when we have colds or nasal congestion, we don’t taste much at all). Smelling the primary aromas and more complex bouquet of a wine adds considerably to appreciation and enjoyment of a wine (it is also a way to pick up defects in a wine – corked wines, for example, are immediately apparent on the nose, even without tasting, while wines that have been over-sulphured may display a nasty rotten egg whiff).

At last...
Finally, having looked at the wine critically, having smelled its aroma and bouquet, it’s time to actually taste. Take a good mouthful of wine and swirl it all around your mouth, drawing in a little air as you do so (this helps to vaporize the volatile elements and releases aromas that travel through the back of the mouth and nose). You will note immediate primary flavours as the wine makes contact with your mouth. then as you swirl it around, drawing in air, you will experience both complex more complex tastes as well sense the mouth-feel of the wine, its body and texture, its tannin and grip, and its balance of acidity and sweetness.

To spit or not to spit, that is the question
Professionals, as everyone knows, don’t actually need to swallow a wine to know what it’s like analytically. But unless you have a large number of wines to taste or are worried about driving, then by all means swallow: I certainly find it much more enjoyable to do so. Once you have swallowed, the pleasure of a good wine is enhanced by its aftertaste, which may be incredibly long and complex.

Copyright © Marc Millon 2005


Copyright Marc Millon 2005-2009 All rights reserved
Images copyright Kim Millon 2005-2009 All rights reserved

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