Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Wine Ed 411: Wine Sensory: Learning Your Taste Buds

In graduate school, we used a book for the undergraduate "Wines and Vines" course to teach kids sensory evaluation of wine.  It was called The University Wine Course by Marian Baldy.  My advisor recommended the book to students, explaining that it was incredibly thorough and easy to read, but otherwise "a bit long winded."  (I'd actually have to agree.  Although the information is wonderful, Marian does like to write.)  Regardless, it's an incredible wine sensory reference.

The reason I point this book out is to emphasize how to teach yourself to identify the different taste components in wine: sweet, acidic/sour, astringency, bitter, and alcohol.  (Of course there is also body or volume, but that's a little more complicated to make up and taste.)  

The purpose of such evaluations is to teach yourself what it is you are actually tasting.  It helps you identify what professionals use to describe wine.  You can find basic food items to manipulate such taste components and then add them to water.  The fact that water is relatively neutral will allow you to really see where such attributes fall on your palate. 
  • Sweetness --> Sugar (white granular sugar)
  • Sour/Acidic --> Lemon juice (either freshly squeezed or bought from a bottle) or Tartaric Acid
  • Astringency --> Alum or Lipton black tea soaked into a cup of water for several minutes
  • Bitter --> Black coffee or Food Grade Caffeine
  • Alcohol --> Smirnoff Vodka
The bitter component is difficult to make.  I have actually found club soda to be slightly bitter, as well.  Most people struggle with the difference between sour, astringency, and bitterness.  The only one of those that is not a true taste is astringency.  Astringency is a tactile sensation that makes your mouth dry.  This is especially noticeable when you make a cup of tea, leave the tea bag in the water, and when you finally get to the bottom of the cup, the solution is incredibly mouth-drying.  That is astringency.

The sour/acidic attribute makes your mouth water.  The best example of this is eating Sour Patch Kids.  These candies area sour, but not astringent or bitter.  However, lemon juice will get the job done.  Lemon juice is sour, but it's not astringent or bitter.  And it should, after tasting it, make your mouth dry.  Of course, you'll also have to blank out the lemon taste.

Bitterness usually lingers after you swallow something.  I commonly taste bitter in the back of my palate or it lingers in my throat.  Typically, it has a very unappealing taste.  It's not pleasant.  It's usually what makes people dislike vegetables or coffee.  Coffee is notorious for being bitter - try a little bit of Starbucks bold coffee, black.  That lingering taste is bitter (but not the burnt flavor).  Caffeine is also bitter in nature.  This is probably why sodas have so much sugar in them (to balance out the bitterness), and why we use milk (to cover up the astringency) and sugar (to cover up the bitterness) in tea and coffee.

Sweetness is an easy one.  You can simply tell if something is sweet or not sweet.  Adding a sugar cube to a little bit of water makes it incredibly sweet. 

Alcohol, at higher levels, will cause a burning tactile sensation on the palate as well.  Wine, by definition, is not supposed to be greater than 17% alcohol, although we've continued to see higher alcohol wines became a trend in the U.S.  However, higher alcohol locks in aromas and flavors, and it hinders your ability to taste things as it is fatiguing.  By adding little quantities of alcohol from 40% vodka to a 12% wine (like box wine), you can actually start to taste the burning sensation from the increased concentration of alcohol.  (And to make matters more complicated, higher alcohol concentrations contribute to wine volume, sweetness in the finish, and bitterness!) 

I challenge you to try these exercises at home or with friends.  After all, you have to start somewhere!

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