Veraison - the grapes are starting to ripen.

Veraison - the grapes are starting to ripen.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Interpreting red wine tasting notes.


In last month’s posting I proposed that if you understand the code words in wine tasting notes, whether via critics’ reviews or bottle labels, you then will be more confident as to how it will look, smell and taste without undergoing the uncertainty or angst of buying it with hope and prayer. (Or worse yet, buying it because it has a pretty label!)  Those flavor and aroma descriptors arise either from the presence or the absence of some kind of oak seasoning, and in a very basic suggestion, it is either oaked and tastes like New World (grocery store) Chardonnay, or it is not oaked and reveals the character of the underlying grapes, whichever they may be.

The situation with respect to Red wines is considerably different, for most, if not all, of the top selling red wine varietals will experience some application of oak.  And the type to be utilized will be determined primarily by the nature and quality of the underlying grapes from which the wine is being produced, as well as (and quite importantly) the targeted aroma, flavor, texture and wine style (think structure) the winemaker has in mind. 

As most tooth-stained enthusiasts know, structure is the vehicle by which wine achieves its impact on your palate.  They also know that structure’s major components are alcohol (body), residual sugar (sweetness), acidity (tartness), and tannins (texture).  It is those elements acting in unison (sometimes in balance, sometimes not) that makes you aware that you have something far more substantial than colorful water in your mouth.  That impact can be in the form of a critically rated, large-scaled Shiraz or Cabernet, or a middle-of-the-road, modestly rated Merlot or Pinot Noir. 

The most typical code words for age-worthy, large-scaled reds are as follows: dense, bold, tannic, massive, muscular, concentrated, full-bodied, textured, complex, powerful and intense; these terms are usually linked to aroma/flavor terms like licorice, leather, tar, tobacco, chocolate, espresso, loam, forest floor, earth and cedar.  (New oak aging barrels, typically French, are the source for many of these qualities.)

Wines like these are usually rated in the (pricey) 95 and above brackets, and while drinkable with decanting and several hours of aeration, they will show better with food of similar size and scale.  Most require years of aging to reveal their promise, and typically are available only at the winery or at high quality retail wine stores. 

Tasting descriptors for smaller scaled, red wines that are not purse-busting are as follows: ripe, fruity, supple, easygoing, round, silky, plush, user-friendly, spicy oak, creamy, gentle and soft; these terms are usually linked to aroma/taste words like cherry, strawberry, blackberry, plum, blueberry and jammy.  Such wines are meant to be consumed immediately after release, and most can be found in the $10 and above price ranges at local supermarkets, with the most expensive on the top shelf and the least expensive on the bottom shelves.

Seasoned wine enthusiasts identify the above aroma tasting perceptions as either primary, secondary or tertiary. Primary aromas, also known as varietal aromas, are those that relate to the grape varietal underlying the wine.  Secondary aromas, also known as vinous aromas, are those derived from the fermentation process, and tertiary aromas are those that emanate from barrel aging as well as bottle aging.  Can you guess which style is more of a primary aroma type?

Finally, what triggered this and last month’s article was what a recent experience while cruising a few of the nearby Napa wineries.  My brief, unsuccessful quest was trying to locate white wines that were oak free, and not Chardonnay Wannabes.  One of the more outgoing tasting room employees quickly offered this spirited rejoinder: “Hey fella, you’re in the Napa Valley.  This is OAK country!”