How to describe what you’re tasting.
There was an ill-formed question from an anxious undergrad on the fourth week of class. Essentially he was asking, “How do you do this? How do you taste?”
I think he sensed a disjoint about what we were doing in class, and what he knew he would have to produce in the tasting exam just two months away. “We have to start somewhere,” I replied.
So today’s task was to find and describe the differences between two Italian reds. A Valpolicella and a Chianti Classico. “That you can readily find differences is already good,” I say. “You could have told me that they both smell like red wine!”
I focus on the intensity of the nose, but that word assumes accumulated knowledge so I resort to ‘little’ versus ‘big’ nose. The Valpolicella ‘smell’ leaps out of the glass at you, while you nearly need to get into the glass to get a sense of the Chianti.
As the class tastes the first wine, some faces screw up. “Try to put that expression into words,” I say, “because you are making a definite statement about the wine already. Or give it a shape, if you can’t find a descriptor. I won’t pry and read your notes, but please just write something, something to help you identify and remember the sensations you are experiencing.”
I also say that in a month, they will look back and wonder how they could have used those words, because they will be feeling so much more confident with their wine vocabulary.
Next, how to actually feel the wine in your mouth. Think about food, for we taste food and wine in very similar ways – salt, sour, sweet and bitter. Do you need to add a pinch of salt (or a splash of soy) to that dish? Do you need to add a pinch of sugar? Or are they perfectly balanced in your mouth?
One student says the Valpolicella is “spicy”. We conclude she means that perhaps the alcohol is slightly out of balance and she is experiencing something warming and a touch prickly in the throat. Today she has said “spicy” but she will remember that sensation and next time, hopefully, comment that the alcohol is a little too high and lacking integration, that the wine is out of balance. Balance. That word keeps coming up in class. “That,” I say, “is what you are ultimately looking for”.
Students are again challenged to say which of the two reds is the most balanced. And then, is the wine they prefer the best quality of the two, or can they counter subjectivity with objectivity. Some indeed can, and at that moment, their confidence begins to fly.
Asked which of the reds they preferred, someone proffers that it was actually the Asti Spumante (7.5%) which we tasted beforehand. “And why is that,” I ask? Because it tastes like a soft drink, because it’s sweet, because it’s so easy to drink. Exactly – I could not put that better myself. Another important landmark, for that student, going forward.
Annabel Jackson has been involved in the wine industry for more than 20 years, variously as educator, writer, public relations consultant and event organiser.
Read past Out of School columns here.