Where You Drink a Wine Affects How it Tastes


Have you ever noticed that wines can taste really good at a restaurant, wine bar or especially at a winery? It's the whole experience, not just the aromas and flavors, that affect our sense of taste.

As I've discovered, a $15 bottle of wine, when served in a high-end restaurant (where they charge you $45 for that $15 bottle), will taste especially good. Somehow, the lavish surroundings, the great service and the wonderful company at the table just makes the whole wine experience so much better.

And, at a winery it can be even more powerful. You are typically in a beautiful setting surrounded by vineyards and being served by someone who is very knowledgeable about the wine or maybe even the winemaker. This experience can significantly heighten the taste of the wine.

This fact is well understood by the publications that do wine ratings. So much so, that they don't allow their tasters to review or rate wines at wineries or restaurants.  They ensure their tasters are in a neutral setting in order to allow them to focus only on the wine (which, by the way, they are tasting 'blind' with no knowledge of who produced the wine or what it costs).

So, keep in mind that the amazing bottle of wine you recently had at that fancy restaurant was probably made even better by all the other glamour around you. And, that's exactly what the wine experience is all about. Cheers!

Beyond the 5 S's of Wine Tasting

Drinking wine is a pleasurable experience that is quite simple. And, as winemaker Charles Smith puts it "It's just wine. Drink it." But for many people, wine tasting can be a very intimidating experience. But it shouldn't be.

In the past, I've written about how to visit wineries and how to have a great experience tasting wines. And whether it be at a winery, a restaurant, wine bar, or at home, there are simple things that you can do to enhance the simple enjoyment of a glass of wine.

The Five S's of wine have been written about many times by others but here's a quick review:

  1. See - Look at the wine in your glass and note the color and clarity. White wines can range from nearly clear to pale yellow, straw color, or golden. Red wines can be maroon, purple, ruby, garnet, or deep red. Both white and red wines can take on a brown hue with age.  All wines should be free of sediment.
  2. Swirl - By swirling the wine within the glass you give it an opportunity to gain further contact with air and release its aromas.  A wine right out of a bottle may need a little exposure to air. This exposure will quickly take away any sharp odors and can help soften or mellow the wine.
  3. Sniff - Stick your nose into the wine glass and take a sniff. You can get a very quick idea of what the wine will taste like and you may even detect some of the fruit aromas. Try sniffing with each individual nostril. You may find a real difference. And, by the way, there is no need to sniff the cork from the bottle. A wine server may present it to you, but you only need to take a brief look at it to ensure it doesn't show any obvious signs of leakage.
  4. Sip - Take a small sip, drawing in some air as you sip, and let it stay in your mouth for a while. You can even swish it around a bit in your mouth. This will give you an opportunity to really get all the flavors that the wine has to offer.
  5. Swallow - By allowing the wine to go through the back of your mouth and down your throat you will finally get the complete wine experience from your mouth and nasal passages.

But, in addition to these classic five S's, there are a few other things that can enhance your enjoyment of wine.  The glass itself is important. It should be clean and clear with a bowl large enough to hold a nice pour of wine (around 5 ounces) and still have plenty of room left. A wine glass should only be filled about one-third of the way. The remaining 'empty' space in the glass is left to capture the wine's aromas.

The wine also needs to be at the right temperature. Reds should not be served room temperature and whites should not come straight out of the kitchen refrigerator. A red should be served at cellar temperature, 58-62 degree F, and a white should be 45-50 degrees F.  These optimal temperatures allow you to best enjoy the wine's full flavors. I recently had a friend tell me he didn't like Chardonnay until a recent visit to a winery. What he learned was that his only experience with Chardonnay was drinking it at refrigerator temperature. When the winery served their Chardonnay at 48-50 F, it was an entirely different and better experience, allowing him to actually taste all the flavors in the wine.

Decanting a red wine can also make a big difference. It doesn't need to be a fancy decanter, just one that can hold an entire bottle of wine and give the wine lots of surface area exposed to air.  Filling a decanter up to the neck does little for the wine so find a vessel that has a broad bottom such that you are only filling it about halfway. Once you've poured the wine into the decanter, pour yourself a sip right away and note the wine's character.  Give it thirty minutes in the decanter and try it again. It should smooth out and soften. You can continue decanting for an hour our two, but beyond that the wine can become over oxidized and start to become a bit stale.

Once again you may be asking yourself "Why bother?"  Well, if you follow these simple steps you'll find that you will quickly start to understand the differences in wines and better determine your real wine preferences.

But, above all else, keep it simple, take wine tasting slowly, and enjoy! Cheers!




Oak and Its Effect on Wine's Flavor

Last time we discussed how all the fruit flavors get into wine. We discussed that wines don't actually contain fruit other than grapes, but the grapes, the soil they are grown in, the fermentation process, and the aging process can impart other fruit flavors.

Another way that flavors can be added to wine is through oak aging.  Oak barrels add additional quality, character and smoothness to wines and can create flavors of vanilla, butterscotch, coconut, toffee, caramel, butter, mocha, coffee and smokiness. 

The vanilla flavor in wines come directly from compounds in the oak itself. But often the interiors of wine barrels are 'toasted' over an open flame. This process affects the degree of flavor added to the wine. Barrels may be toasted light, medium or heavy. Light toasting of the barrels results in wines having flavors of butterscotch, toffee, caramel, coconut, and butter. Wine flavors of mocha, coffee and smokiness are brought out of the oak by heavier toasting of the barrels. 

Oak barrel aging is used for most red and white wines of the world. But, it comes with a cost.  French oak, which is considered the 'gold standard' of oak barrels, can cost $800 to $4000 dollars each.  And an oak barrel is only able to add flavors to wines through two to three uses. After that, oak barrels become 'neutral' and are simply used as vessels for storing wines with little or no flavor being added. Oak barrels from the U.S. cost $350 - $500 each and, like French oak, only impart flavor during their first two to three uses.

One oak tree can only produce enough wood for approximately two barrels, or 50 cases of wine. And, when aging wine in a barrel, the wine only comes in contact with the oak on the inside of the barrel. So, winemakers seek alternative ways of getting oak flavors in their wines. Options include adding oak chips, oak cubes or oak staves directly into the wine as it ages in stainless steel tanks. This allows the entire surface area of the oak to be in contact the wine and is much less costly than barrels.

So start paying attention to these wonderful flavors in your wines. And remember, all the flavors are coming from grapes, yeast and sometimes oak.  Cheers!

How Do All Those Flavors Get Into Wine?

Last time we took a quick run through how wine is made. And you may have noticed that there are only two ingredients in wine: grapes and yeast.  Yet, white wines can be described as having flavors that include lemon, lime, grapefruit, apple, peach, pear and orange.  And red wines can be described as having flavors of cherry, raspberry, strawberry, blackberry, blueberry, plum and fig.  And then there are descriptions of vanilla, butterscotch, caramel, chocolate, tobacco, leather, and even tar, just to name a few.  But, if wine is only made from grapes and yeast, how do wines get all those other flavors? 

To answer this, we need to review taste, smell and flavor. First, let's start with taste.  If you recall, the taste buds on your tongue are able to distinguish sweet, sour, bitter, and salty. You also have nerves in your mouth that give you additional senses such as temperature and texture or feel.  These nerves can yield sensations of smooth, creamy, or dry, for example.  So these are the senses inside your mouth.  

Then secondly, and most importantly, is smell or aroma. Aroma is what is detected in your nose and nasal passages.  As you eat or drink, aromas pass up through your nasal passages where you get additional information about what you are consuming.

And finally flavor is how the brain puts together the senses of taste and smell.

So then back to wine. When you sip a wine you are getting information from your tongue, nose and nasal passages. And while there are only the four tastes being detected by your tongue there are a multitude of aromas being detected by your nose and nasal passages. The aromas get released by the wine through the alcohol, which is lighter than air, and evaporates easily from your glass.  Your brain then puts together the information on the tastes and smells of the wine and equates them with tastes and smells that you already know. Thus, those amazing little grapes are able to cause your brain to sense additional fruit flavors without even a trace of the fruits actually being in the wine.

Aging wine in oak barrels also adds many other dimensions to the flavors in wines. And we'll discuss those next time.

But for now, remember the four S's of wine tasting (1) Swirl your wine in the glass to release all the aromas, (2) Smell the wine's bouquet, (3) Sip the wine and leave it in your mouth briefly, and then (4) Swallow (or Spit) and experience the wine's lingering 'finish.'  Then try to name all the wonderful fruit flavors that you experience. All just from grapes! Cheers!