Saturday, May 30, 2015

BRAMBLES: What am I Tasting?

It was innocent enough. "How do I taste?", she politely inquired, her elbows perched on the bar. Collecting myself, I said, "we all taste differently; although we use more or less the same facilities to access and evaluate tastes. Our human physiology, the way we are built, is unique to the individual, so we do not taste things identically."  Although casual tasting for enjoyment is a fun way to experience the diverse wonder of wine,  serious quaffers will easily become analytic over each pour and taste.  On those opportunities to taste wine blind(without knowing its identity), the exercise becomes a sensory discipline to rationally deduce what is being tasted. With practice, the best can typically offer a fairly accurate deduction of a wines identity and even its age. But for most of us, understanding what and how we taste can be a satisfying indication of what qualities are in the glass.

Inspecting wine by site requires a clear, clean glass that can be held against a white background in good indict light.  A wines purity of color, translucent to opaque, can be seen looking through the glass. In that instant, we can obviously and simply identify the wine as white, rose' or red, and eliminate most possible compositional grape varieties.  More than just chardonnay or zinfandel, a visual inspection of the wine can also indicate if it is well made and even its relative age, as older wines lose luster and show aged oxidation on their rim color.

Aromas sit on the top of the glass, so a good swirl will expose even more of these volatile compounds. Inhaled aromas will be instantly compared to the thousands of smells cataloged in our sensory memories, as the recognition of aromas and tastes are based in large part to a lifetime of what we have experienced.  Remember that Christmas fruitcake or the kitchen aromas when granny was baking your favorite pie?  It is our brain that interprets flavors through smell(olfactory), and taste(gustatory), along with tactile and even thermal impressions that create those flavors.  Sip and hold a small amount in the mouth, where it evolves to a chemical sense.  As it warms on the palate, flavor compounds and the wines structure send taste impressions thru to the olfactory bulb in our brain.  Again, as taste is a subjective science: those cataloged impressions are either sweet or salty,  sour or bitter, or savory(umami).  Aggressive alcohol warms the mouth and seeps into the nasal cavity, and strong acid puckers the front of the mouth, while the a wine's weight, or texture, blankets the palate and its taste receptors.  It is all happening at once, so we should linger a bit. Perhaps draw in some air thru a puckered mouth or chew the wine like it was porridge. As it lingers in the mouth, there is even more taste information being sent to the brain.

We all taste things differently. There are even 'supertasters', with their inherited high concentrations of taste receptors, but most of us evaluate a wine based on its prominent fruity personality or its lingering astringency.  My preference has evolved, just as my taste recognition has developed.  Wines of harmony, aromas to taste, get me interested.  If a wine has complexity and weight on my palate, there is more delicious material to savor and enjoy. And, if a wine offers balance in its expression and unfolds to a lingering finish that leaves me thirsty for more, I am hooked. 

There is so much contemporary wine to taste, particularly in California, by far the nation's top wine producer. Across the country, restaurants expand their wine by the glass listings, and an array of imports compete for tasters with quality wines from established and emerging American Viticultural Areas(AVA). It is a wine lovers treasure hunt!  Importantly, food pairings offer today's wines an opportunity to show their best, like a bib-overalled farmer wearing his Sunday suit. And just like that unique occasion, with each glass we can approach the unfolding mystery of what we are experiencing.

"There is so much contained in a glass of good wine. It is a gift of nature that tastes of man's foibles, his sense of the beautiful, his idealism and virtuosity." K.Lynch, Adventures on the Wine Route

Salute, and Good Health!