What sets a great wine apart from the rest? Isn’t a good wine simply the bottle that you like to drink? Or is it a ranking of 4.0 (and above) on Vivino? Yes – but there’s more to it than that.
Burgundy is the most fascinating, the most complex and the most intricate fine-wine region in the world. It is also the most personal and the most individual. Burgundy means different things to different people; For some it’s all about wines from Puligny-Montrachet, a Chardonnay without equal. For others it’s the white from Meursault. There are those whose pleasure comes only from the reds of Gevrey, Chambolle or even Volnay.
Fine wines detach themselves from the rest not by their pretensions but by their conversation. To do that is to first learn how to judge a wine.
Setting the right environment
Judging wine needs time and concentration, a lack of interruption and ideally, a comfortable environment to be as relaxed as possible. One should not be hungry nor tired, and most importantly, the taste-buds should not already be saturated, especially food with strong odor (e.g. durian, sambal chili or even garlic etc.)
Pour a tasting measure (60ml or 2 seconds for simple measure), the vessel provides the wine a proper aeration; enough oxygen in contact with the wine. Sight your glass with a 45° inclination on white background.
Here are a few things you’d observe:
- Color tells about the age and complexity of the wine. The older a wine, the more it will turn to brown (both for white and red wine), and the rim variation will be deeper (Wine Folly makes an excellent illustration above).
- Viscosity (“Thickness”): Swirl the glass and pay attention to its viscosity. If it’s like water, the wines are generally light and fresh and likely high in acidity. Thicker viscosity, similar to ‘syrup’ that is dense is usually an indication of richer and fuller-bodied wines that is higher in alcohol
You don’t really need to spend more than 5 seconds on this step but a lot of clues about a wine are buried in its appearance. If you are tasting different wines be sure to compare them with the same quantity and same type of glass.
The nose is a good clue to your palate; try holding your nose while you swallow a mouthful of wine, you will find that most of the flavor is muted. The ability to sniff out and untangle the subtle threads that weave beneath a complex wine aroma is essential for tasting.
Swirl the wine before smelling it to release more aromas of the wine. Take a series of quick, short sniffs,and let the information filter. Look for the following aromas, which will help you better understand the wine’s characteristics:
- Primary aromas such as Fruit, herbs, floral notes
- Secondary aromas are mainly from the winemaking process: bread, yoghurt, cream soda
- Tertiary aromas from the ageing in the oak/bottle: Oak, vanilla, tobacco, leather, chocolate
This will take time. As you begin to develop, you’ll learn the ability to isolate flavors
Tip: If the scent of the wine is similar to a moist cardboard (as much as you could imagine), there is a probable chance that the wine is corked and therefore, no good. Sorry.
“The only way to learn, is to taste more”
Truly, as much as one can read about wine or a region, there is simply no substitute for tasting. While it’s the most complicated part in this 3 step process, this is a skill that can be acquired by anyone with reasonable sensory experience.
The complication of tasting is bounded in the fact that aromas and flavours do not exist in isolation, but interact with each other. For example, sweetness disguises acidity and enhances alcohol. This interaction distorts wine and will need time to integrate in order for the wine to show its true quality.
For starters, here are some common characteristics to look out for:
- Taste: Sharp, creamy, ripe fruits (berries/pears)
- Weight: Heavy or light?
- Texture: is it grippy such that your lips stick to teeth, similar to the sensation when you bit into the grape seeds? This is an indication that the wine has high in tannins
Finding balance is the key to judging burgundy wine. No single characteristic should dominate (fruit, tannins, acidity), but rather they should coincide harmoniously. This is where burgundy wines remain individualistic, what constitutes balance is often subjective. However a reliable guide to a wine’s quality is its length and complexity: how long the flavours linger after and how the taste evolves with every sip.
Words could never do justice to the nuances of a good wine, and perhaps this is how it should be. Great wines are hard to come by, but the effort to understand it would be highly compensated by its ultimate purpose, the pleasure of drinking and conversing about it.