Wine 101 – How to Taste Wine pt. 2 – Your Rosetta Stone Wine

In the comments, Cathy addresses something which is probably fairly common when people want to learn about wine:

This (finding different flavors in wine…ed.) is where I really have trouble. Maybe it’s just that I haven’t tasted enough wines and/or haven’t tasted them carefully enough. Most of the time wine tastes like wine to me. I have trouble distinguishing components of that taste and really have trouble naming them!

Don’t worry. This is common. Learning to taste can be a difficult process… learning to taste wine even more so. Don’t let this intimidate you when it comes to drinking wine. Remember the first rule when it comes to wine…Drink what you like. If you like the taste of wine, without being able to discern tastes and flavors that others can’t, that’s perfectly okay. Everyone has a different palate. Embrace yours.

Having said that, there are things you can do in order to help you find that taste. What you want to do is go on a quest for your Rosetta Stone wine.

Do you remember the Rosetta Stone? It was the stone that helped decipher Egyptian hieroglyphs as it had translations in of ancient text in Egyptian demotic script, Greek, and Egyptian hieroglyphs.

What you may want to do is find that one wine which helps you decipher others.

But first, an analogy.

Imagine yourself listening to a quartet (two violins, a cello, and a viola) playing a piece of classical music. You know it’s supposed to be a good piece, but you can’t understand why it’s supposed to be good. To you, it just sounds like a string quartet.

So let’s remove one component of the quartet, say…the viola. This will remove one variable and should decrease the complexity of the performance. Yes, it may feel like something is missing, but you should be able to hear the remaining individual parts a little clearer. You should also be able to notice how the whole of the piece has changed with the viola gone.

Let’s apply this to wines.

Out of the five tastes, wines generally focus on sweet, bitter and sour. Some may play with salty and umami, but sweet, bitter and sour dominate, with sweet (sugar) and bitter (tannins) being the two we want to examine.

Now in your mind, think of two “volume controls”, going on a scale between 0 thru 10. Most wines set their controls for sweet and bitter somewhere between 3-7. It’s this interplay that, in part, helps determine a particular varietals characteristics.

This is simplistic, to be sure, but it’s where we want to start.

Typically, it’s the tannins that add complexity. So my charge to those who wish to discover a Rosetta Stone wine, is to find wines that have low tannins, say between 0-3 on the volume meter.

As for the “sweet control”? I’ll leave that up to you. Just remember that when it comes to wine, sweet is in direct correlation to dry. On the “volume control” a zero means dry, a ten means excessively sweet. A typical wine will fall somewhere in between 1-9.

If you go to a wine store (and not the state liquor stores), and ask for help, they should be able to pick out a decent wine for you using these standards. For example, if you ask for a wine that’s about a 1 or 2 on the tannin level, and about eight or nine on the sweet level, they should be able to find a wine close to that.

Yes, I know this is going a long way to explain a point.

Now, whatever wine they give you, ask for a second bottle of the same varietal (be it a pinot grigio, riesling or whatever), but from a different winery.

Take both bottles home and hold your own tasting. Pour one glass of each and sit them side by side. Have a glass of water or crackers near by in order to cleanse your palate.

Take a drink from glass A. Note whatever tastes are there. Cleanse your palate, and take a drink from glass B. Instead of noting the tastes that are there, try to compare the wine against the first glass, and explain how they differ.

Is this difficult? It can be, depending upon the wineries you choose from. For example, if one wine tastes of “grapefruit” and the other tastes “lemony” you may miss that. However, if one wine tastes “floral” and the other “grapey”, then you’ve discovered that Wine A tastes of flowers. The key here is this: If you can discern one wine from the other, you’re at the cusp of understanding the flavor of both.

So you have two wines that taste different (even if only slightly). What next? Ask yourself repeatedly “How do they taste different?

“As I mentioned before, wine tasting is as much about having the vocabulary to explain the wine, as it is about tasting in general. It’s perfectly okay to do research on your wines, and that may give you a bit of a map for your tongue to follow. Type the name of your wine A into Google or Yahoo. See if you can find any tasting notes on them. Feel free to use these to see if you can find that taste. Then see if you can find that taste in wine B. If you can, catalog that taste in the back of your mind for later use. If you can’t that’s okay.

It takes practice. Honest it does. Try it this tact with different varietals. Sooner or later, you will find that one wine that makes you go “Ah HA! I get it now!”. Trust me, the search for your Rosetta Stone of wines will be worth it. Never has the cliche “It’s the journey, not the destination” been more appropriate.


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