With TOOT (Taste of our Town) upon us already, as the year 2017 is vanishing before our eyes, it occurred to me that when we discuss the “taste” of a wine, or any beverage really, there is a different meaning for every individual taster! However, while there may be wildly differing opinions of what “tastes” good in one wine when compared to others, the fact remains there are some standards we use in order to “judge” how good a wine tastes, at least in the relative sense of comparison with similar wines. I thought it might be useful to shed some light on what these standards may be, while also acknowledging that it is completely acceptable, and always will be, that what you like is what you like!
In general, it’s not about the “flavors” of wine we are judging when we assess whether it tastes good, but rather the structure and balance of a wine. For instance, you may prefer cherry flavors in your Pinot Noir while your friend may prefer raspberry, and so that will in part determine whether you “like” the wine. But, considering the “balance” of the wine for a moment, even though you may like cherry flavors in your pinot noir, you may not like the wine if it is an absolute cherry BOMB with high alcohol or stewed cherry notes, or even artificial-tasting cherry flavors. This is a matter of balance. And this plays a large role in the quality of the taste of wine. All wine tastes of fruit…some more of red fruit, some dark fruit and others black fruit…but in all cases, that fruit profile is balanced by structural components of the wine such as the body—or mouthfeel of the wine—or the acidity, or level of alcohol, or, in the case of red wines, the level of tannin in the wine. All of these components create a symphony of tastes and flavors that help create the overall experience of the wine and this is why we may say one wine “tastes” better than another. Going back to our example of someone who likes cherry flavors in wine, it is not enough that the wine taste of cherry, but rather it must have a “good” cherry taste and we can often recognize when the wine fails to accomplish this.
To illustrate a few of these components, Acidity, for instance, is important to adding freshness and mouthwatering lightness to a wine. This can be important especially if the wine is heavier with alcohol or displays richer, more intense flavors. The acidity adds brightness and makes a wine crisp. Without it, a wine can seem overbearing or cloyingly sweet (if there is sugar in the wine) or ponderously heavy in body. In the same way, Alcohol is important for adding weight and texture to a wine, in that it is denser than water and has more viscosity.
Alcohol can also be a vehicle for intensifying other flavors and it adds a round smoothness in the mouth to the wine. Without it, a wine may seem too light and lacking in character. In this way, you can see that most wines maintain a delicate balance between the fresh acidity and the powerful alcohol and an imbalance between the two can lead to a wine that is too tart and light and one that dominates the palate after a few sips. Thus, “balance” is often the key to a good “taste”.
To consider another example, all red wines contain a compound known as Tannin, which is also found in strong tea, pear skin, wood and many other plants. Tannin is responsible for adding a slight bitterness to wine in the back of the palate, but mostly its role is one of texture as it brings an often welcome astringency in the mouth, or a drying effect. When combined with protein in food, this can create a lovely experience. Tannin adds structure and “grip” to a red wine and it will often counterbalance strong, rich black fruit flavors in wines such as cabernet sauvignon or syrah. It is important that the amount of tannin in the wine matches the overall weight and intensity of the wine. For this reason, wines that are more delicate like a Pinot Noir or Gamay usually exhibit more gentle tannins to complement the elegant flavors, while wines like Merlot or Cabernet may show bigger tannins to balance the more intense flavors. A cabernet sauvignon that is rich and intense may seem too syrupy or sweet without its sturdy tannins, while at the same time, a wine that is more medium in body and intensity could likely seem too bitter and astringent with high tannins.
Again, most of the time, we merely think about whether or not we “like” the taste of a wine and this is fine and perfectly normal. I offer this short piece as perhaps a small look behind the curtain of your own taste buds to examine exactly WHY you like or don’t like what you are tasting. And while you’re tasting some of the great sweet, dark chocolate treats available during TOOT, maybe reach for a big burly cabernet to wash it down and you will soon see what we mean by “balance” in taste. Cheers!
– Brian McClure, director of food and beverage @ The Greenbrier. Hashtag #94. October 2017