FINDING THE WORDS IN YOUR WINE
By Elias Fernandez
At this time of year my boys lament that there’s nothing fun going on. The holidays are behind us, summer is still far off and right now it’s just school, school, school.
This season reminds me though of some of my happiest school memories, when I was studying winemaking at U.C. Davis. Each Friday night four or five friends, also in the winemaking program, would enjoy a simple evening of wine, food and memorable conversation.
The format was a blind tasting. We’d choose a theme, such as Merlot, Cabernet Franc or another varietal; we’d taste the wines, making notes on flavor and aroma and then we’d exchange opinions on what we liked or disliked about each bottle.
Each of us brought our own backgrounds to these tastings as we struggled to find the words to describe complex flavors and aromas. Once I described a wine as having a burnt tortilla scent, a familiar aroma from my childhood.
Looking back I realize that it was crucial to have combined my academic learning with the relaxed, fun, education of those tastings. Both expanded my understanding of wine.
Creating your own wine tasting group can be simple. Pick a theme wine such as, Syrah, that’s produced throughout the world so wines will be easy to find. Invite a small group – about six friends – to bring a bottle each. On arrival place each bottle in a paper bag and secure the bag around the neck of the bottle. Number each bag so you can keep track of which is which.
The idea is to sample the wine “blind,” enjoying the aromas and flavors without being influenced by the perceptions of value that come with a label.
Sit down together, make sure everyone is using the same stemware, and spend 15 to 20 minutes tasting the wines and noting the aromas, color, mouthfeel, and flavors. It’s important to do this quietly, because it will help you to sort through the myriad tastes and smells stealing into your senses.
To really have fun it’s best to acquire a vocabulary for communicating flavors and aromas in a way that everyone in your group can understand. What I first called burnt tortilla, I later learned to describe as char or toast (for the benefit of those who didn’t grow up in my mother’s kitchen). A great vocab-building tool to have on hand is called an aroma wheel, developed by Ann Noble, one of my professors at U.C. Davis. Also, you can find lists of good descriptors at www.aromadictionary.com.
When it comes time to compare your feelings about each bottle you’ll discover that wine is very subjective. Whether you’re tasting with a group of newbies or with seasoned wine critics, consensus is rare. Most often each wine will gather its own fans and inspire hecklers.
What you’ll ultimately discover is that there are few things more fun to learn about than wine. The combination of good friends, delicious whites and reds, tasty food and the great conversations that only wine inspires – it’s the best that life has to offer.