Thursday, March 29, 2012

Wine Education 411: Learn Your Wine Sensory 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 Courseby 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.)  

Try out your taste buds!
(Photo from Google Images)

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) in water
  • Sour/Acidic --> Lemon juice (either freshly squeezed or bought from a bottle) or Tartaric Acid in water
  • Astringency --> Alum in water or Lipton black tea soaked into a cup of water for several minutes (+10 minutes)
  • Bitter --> Black coffee (no cream or sugar) or Food Grade Caffeine in water
  • Alcohol --> Smirnoff Vodka (no flavors) or Gin (no flavors)
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.  This may have something to do with the fact that people have several different bitter receptors, so what is bitter for one person may not be bitter to your neighbor.

The only one of those that is not a true taste is astringency.  Astringency is a tactile sensation that makes your mouth dry.  You will literally feel like you need water!  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.  (Seriously, try this with Earl Grey tea and while ignoring the aroma/flavor, there is a LOT of astringency there!)

Cup of Tea
(Photo from Google Images)

The sour/acidic attribute makes your mouth water.  If you pay attention, you can actually feel your mouth fill up with saliva.  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 start to water itself.  Of course, you'll also have to blank out the lemon taste.

Lemon juice is sour
(Photo from Google Images)

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, coffee, or even some medicines.  Coffee is notorious for being bitter - try a little bit of Starbucks bold coffee, black.  That lingering taste is bitter (but try to ignore 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).  We also use milk (to cover up the astringency) and sugar (to cover up the bitterness) in tea and coffee.

Bitter, black coffee
(Photo from Google Images)

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.  What's interesting about sweetness is that over time you can ween yourself off sugar.  Take tea for example.  Most people may add about 2 teaspoons of sugar to a cup of tea.  Try slowly decreasing the amount of sugar.  It may be replusive at first, but you'll start to prefer the lower concentration of sugar.  Eventually, over a month's time, I'll bet you can get yourself off the sugar and add a hint of lemon or milk to the tea instead.  At that point, try going back to your 2 teaspoons of sugar.  You'll hate it!!!

(Photo from Google Images)

Alcohol, at higher levels, will cause a burning tactile sensation on the palate as well.  I find that many Americans are not aware of the higher alcohol sensation in wines.  In fact, many seem to prefer it without realizing how much of a blanding affect it can have on the wine's aroma and flavor.

(Photo from Google Images)

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., especially in those hotter regions like California.  However, higher alcohol locks aromas and flavors, and it hinders your ability to taste these beautiful nuances.  Alcohol is also fatiguing.  By this I mean, after awhile, you can only taste the alcohol. 

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!)  This simple exercise can help you discover where you are with your taste buds once you start paying attention.

What's the alcohol concentration?
(Photo from Google Images)

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

No comments:

Post a Comment