If you enjoy tasting a variety of wines and also gastronomical grazing (munching through small quantities of different types of cuisine), no need to wait for the perfect event. Create your own. Convene your own panel of judges (friends, spouses, children, whatever) and have a semi-formal wine tasting at home with a cross-section of cheeses, breads, hors d’ oeuvres and small plates of food to go with the wines.
The concept is to taste through a strategic selection of wines for education, enlightenment and, of course fun. For example, we just had a tasting for eight people and did four whites in one flight (David Bruce 2008 California Chardonnay $14, Groth 2009 Napa Sauvignon Blanc $14, Tahbilk 2009 Australian Viognier $10 and a Bichot 2009 Chablis Premier Cru, Vaucopins, $24) and four reds in a second flight (Carl Roy 2008 Napa Cabernet Sauvignon $28, Road 31 2008 Napa Pinot Noir $38, Rombauer 2000 Napa Cabernet – a gift from 2004 – and 2005 Clerc Milon from Pauillac, $50 as a future purchase, which is a blend of Cabernet, Merlot and Cabernet Franc).
We used the 20-point UC Davis scale (score sheet attached) to evaluate the wines based on how they looked, smelled and tasted. This is best done in blind tastings, where the source of the wines and varietals are unknown. In this approach, tasters aren’t unduly influenced by labels and famous names. Our wines were concealed in numbered brown paper bags. We used corks from other wines so snoopy guests wouldn’t try to game the tasting.
Before starting the tasting, I covered what I feel is a major philosophical point about wine tasting: it doesn’t matter what other people think about a wine. Wine rankings by the so-called experts can be a general guideline to find new wines to try. We all have the same basic equipment (eyes, nose, palate). From that foundation, we are all blessed with different sensitivities and preferences developed over time — like tastes in art, music, cuisine, brands of diet cola, whatever. Bottom line: if you like it, it’s good.
Tastings can be orchestrated to help individuals sample a range to find out what they like or taste offerings in the same category at different price ranges (e.g. eight Chardonnays ranging from $10 to $50 in price). For example, the challenge in the whites listed above was to identify the two wines made from the same grape (Chardonnay) and then delve into the differences among the wines in aroma and even color (the Sauvignon Blanc was typically pale straw in color, versus more golden for the Chardonnays). Even though four of the eight had never tried to compare and contrast wines in a tasting, they joined the others in quickly identifying the Sauvignon Blanc. Two identified the two Chardonnay wines. The others thought the California Chardonnay and Aussie Viognier were the same grape.
We also asked for first and second place votes and there was unanimity on the first place (the David Bruce Chardonnay, $14) and a split for second among the others. We discussed what people were experiencing with each wine and individual perceptions before revealing the labels.
With the reds, the challenges were to identify the odd grape (Pinot Noir), the youngest and oldest wines (by color) and the imported blend. Tasters unanimously outed the Pinot Noir and identified the oldest wine (purple fading to red and amber on the edges). Half nailed the imported blend. The 2000 Cabernet took the majority of first place votes, followed by the Clerc Milon.
Now for the fun. Use the score sheet and assume that a wine is perfect is each category and work down in half-point (.5) increments, rather than starting with zero and working up. Check all the colors first to determine the range. Do the same for the aroma and bouquet of each wine. This creates a frame of reference and quick impression of what might stand out from the crowd. Make brief notes on the score sheet as you go along. Then, evaluate each wine in total: how it looks, smells, tastes and overall impression. Add more notes. Smell and taste again. Adjust scores if needed. Select your top wine, then second place. Here are the categories and what they mean.
Appearance and Color
With modern technology, the “look” of a wine is rarely wrong. The obvious aberrations are white wines that are turning brown from oxidation, red wines that are much too thin and watery for the style, and any wine that is cloudy from bacteria.
– There is nothing wrong with sediment. Decant the wine and enjoy!
– There is nothing wrong with tartrate crystals, which can form on the cork or in the bottom of wine that hasn’t been cold stabilized.
Aroma and Bouquet
There are two parts to this: the aroma of the grape varietal (Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, etc.); and the nuances in the bouquet from regional characteristics such as soil (the French refer to it as terroir), aging in different types of wood and for varying lengths of time and winemaking methods (open-top fermentation, for example, gives Pinot Noir what some call a “stemmy nose”). Does the wine have a distinct style, or is it just grape juice? What raises it above the ordinary and expected?
Vinegariness is rare; it shouldn’t be there. It can happen when bad corks let air into the bottle or the wine sits around too long (over four or five days seems to be the cutoff point before a wine starts to turn).
Wines should be appropriate to the style of wine
and category. Dry wines (Cabernet, Pinot Noir, Barolo, Bordeaux) should be dry – fitting the category – and dessert wines (Sauternes) should be sweet. There are many levels in between, whether it’s a German Mosel (Spatlese, Auslese, etc.), French Champagne (Brut, Dry, Extra Dry, etc.), Alsatian Gewurztraminer, Australian Riesling, whatever.
On body, the feel should also be appropriate to the style (a powerful Rhone or Barolo, a subtle Burgundy, delicate Chablis, a complex Bordeaux, etc.).
On flavor, the acids, sugar, body and fruit come together for an impression. Is it balanced and rich, or lower on your quality scale? Does it taste good? To you? Not to anyone else.
Astringency refers to the tannins you feel on the edge of your palate (tongue), particularly in young red wines. Tannins in themselves are not a fault because they contribute to a red wine’s ability to age. Again, is it appropriate to the wine, its age, style, origin, grape, and official designation?
It’s top rank and you really like it enough to set aside a case for your cellar or storage closet at home or even buy a few bottles for dinner with friends? Is it in the middle range, but decent dollar value (always a consideration)? Or will you dismiss it as a learning experience and move on?
The most important concept: you are the judge. Our palates have individual personalities. Some people are more sensitive to sugars while others pick up more readily on acids, tannins or oak aging nuances. Your range of scores may be higher or lower than your friends or spouse. No matter. It’s your range. The more you taste and broaden your frames of reference, the more your sensitivities and wine personality will evolve. Along the way, you can’t be wrong. It is your palate and judgment. Someone else may have a sensitivity that makes a different opinion right for them. So revel in your continuous education and enjoy!