’ve been in a wine tasting mood of late, and over the last several months I’ve pulled from my refrigerated collection a wide variety of appellations, vintages and varietals.
Some were old (1998), some were new (2016); some required more aging, others were drink ready. All reds were decanted and aerated as needed—some for a few minutes and others for up to two hours. And as is the case at the Barras household, they were primarily uncorked to be enjoyed with food.
Even though they were a prelude to the evening’s dinner, I made a special effort to be more attentive in the assessments, because I also posted the results on Twitter and Instagram. In the early stages of this routine, I realized to do the job right I needed to brush up on the basic tasting protocol of See, Swirl, Sniff and Savor. More importantly, I needed to revisit the notions, basic and advanced, that underlie each of those steps.
Each of those wines, whether very young or on their plateau of timely enjoyment, reminded me that most of the critical information is gleaned in these two steps: See and Sniff. The first step, Swirling, which activates the aromatics, merely sets the stage for the olfactory evaluation, while the final step, Savoring, verifies and sums up the overall observation.
Since I did not taste them blind, there was no guess work as to vintage or varietal. The young wines, red or otherwise, all looked bright, clear, fruity and in good condition for their time in bottle. A 1998 Chateauneuf du Pape was showing more color loss than I expected from such a highly rated vintage, while 2005s from Bordeaux and Côte Rôtie were still quite deep, dark and vibrant looking. Also, there were no atypical, color surprises in the first step.
The Second step, sniffing or smelling the wine, is where the most important, and revealing information is gleaned. Aromas, typically associated with fruits and flowers, emanate from the wine’s underlying grape varietal. All young wines had fruity, representative, primary, varietal aromas. That is to say, Pinot Noirs smelled like Pinot Noirs, not like Zinfandels or Cabernets.
But it was when I moved from younger to older wines that the notions of secondary and tertiary aromas moved to the forefront. These are the scents and smells that arise from fermentation and aging. Those specific to fermentation and barrel aging are known as secondary, while those that are particular to bottle aging are known as tertiary.
And to be sure, this is the area within wine tasting that separates the newbie wine enthusiast from the veteran sniffer. To the inexperienced, most descriptors are simply fanciful and/or smugly esoteric. “Aren’t they just nuances?” my friend Scotty Don asks.
Common examples of secondary aromas are vanilla, dark chocolate, smoky, nutmeg, spicy, toasty, pepper, espresso. On balance, I would say that I detected most if not all of those aromas, particularly in red wines that were barrel aged in new oak. Virtually all the New World reds beamed with these descriptors.
But it was when I sampled the older French and Italian reds with seven to ten years of bottle aging that tertiary aromas became more perceptible.
Descriptors about tertiary scents are where beginners roll their eyes in disbelief, if not outright annoyance, because typical examples of bottle-aged wine aromas are dried fruits, nuts, truffles, mushrooms, underbrush, loam, earthy, wet leaves and forest floor. It may have been an overactive imagination, but I must admit that I did, in fact, sense many of the above descriptors.
To be sure, time in the bottle takes its toll. Many changes will occur between bottling and outright decay. Some are beneficial, others are not. And while not just any wine will evolve and improve with age, most from world-class appellations and producers do. The average, drinkable ones simply do not have that capability.
And finally, buying super premium quality wines and aging them for future enjoyment is but one of wine appreciation’s many aspects. While not for everyone, it does yield pleasures well beyond, “Gee, that tastes good!”