This is the first installment of Leggy and Luscious, wherein Jill Billante, a Senior Producer at AC360°, studies at the American Sommelier Association. She's quite tall and she enjoys great wine.
I love to drink wine and I love it enough to know that I have a lot more to learn. There is an ocean of knowledge and producers beyond the mass-produced wines with clever names and flashy labels, cramming the shelves of my wine shop. I want to know how to describe the kind I like to drink, ask for it at a wine store, or a restaurant - and stay within a certain price range.
With that in mind, I signed up for the very basic foundation course at the American Sommelier Association. This seemed like the right place for me to start, since I realized a few weeks ago that I've been mispronouncing the word oenophile when describing myself. The proper pronunciation for the Greek term describing a lover of wine is EE-no-file. Kind of a phony don't you think? It's time to get legitimate.
The foundation course is a little overwhelming, but let's begin with the building blocks that will allow you to understand your palate and why you like the wine you do.
Wine is fermented grape juice. The juice is fermented by the addition of yeast. Wild yeast is growing on grapes while they're on the vine. Wine producers kill this yeast using chemicals, unless they are an organic vineyard, and add their own yeast once the grapes have been harvested.
The basic formula for producing alcohol sugar plus yeast generates heat then produces alcohol and CO2. The grapes provide the sugar, the yeast eats the sugar and produces the heat. The more sugar in the grape, the more alcohol the wine will have if it fermented dry (to less than 2% residual sugar).
1. Smell the wine.
2. Sip the wine and stop. The fist sip primes your palate and removes traces of what was left by from food or previous wine. Take at least two more tasting sips.
3. After sipping, keep your tongue behind your teeth and pay attention to what's going on in your mouth.
What's Your Tongue Telling You?
There are four basic taste regions on the tongue. Yes, five, if you're hip to umami, but we're keeping it basic. The very tip of the tongue is responsible for sensing sweet. The sides of the tongue, the portions flush with your gums, pick up salty and sour and also detect the amount of acid in a wine.
The back of your tongue is where you pick up bitter. The sides on top of the tongue, behind the tip, are where you pick up fruit flavors in a wine that doesn't have any residual sugar. Some winemakers stop the fermentation process before all of the sugar has been converted to alcohol. That is known as residual sugar.
Finally, there is the dead zone. This is the middle portion of the top of the tongue where you pick up the weight of the wine, whether it is full, medium or light-bodied. Listen to your tongue, it's trying to tell you more about the wine than just how it tastes. It will help you decide which foods will work with the wine and which to avoid. When tasting wine, begin with white and move to red. Your palate will thank you.
Smell, smell, smell.
The nose, the bouquet - it's all fancy talk for smell. But what's wrong with being able to talk the talk?
There is a lot of nuance in a glass of wine. There are lots of words to describe the smell and taste of a wine. Being able to describe what you taste and smell is challenging. It takes a lot of practice. As noted above, your tongue picks up the basics, but to get all of the complexity out of a wine, your nose has got to do the heavy lifting first and tell your tongue what's coming. The nose flags fruit, leather, spice, smoke and vanilla to name a few.
To smell wine like a sommelier does, don't swirl. Instead, tilt the glass at an angle and gently turn the glass to coat the inside. Put your nose into the bowl of the glass, bring the wine toward it and sniff.
This Week's Assignment
Buy four bottles of wine that you like and pour a small amount of each into a glass. Begin by smelling each and noticing the differences between them. Taste them following these suggestions and notice what you may have missed before.
Sancerre White 2009
Riesling Germany Spatlese Trocken 2009 or 2010
Sniff, sip and leave your impressions in the comments below. We'll chat about 'em in future Leggy and Luscious installments and in the meantime - happy drinking!
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