Tasting wine can often feel super intimating, especially with the infinite array of options to choose from and the ever-changing landscape of the wine industry. There exists the stigma that only professionals can hold an educated palate, but the truth is everyone can be an expert wine taster. Humans are born with the genetic makeup to recognize, process and recall several thousand unique aromas and therefore it’s important to develop a deeper connection with wine, as if to open a window to the world.
The first step in adopting a mindful approach to tasting is understanding the science of sensory. Honor and hone the capacity to smell, analyze and discuss wine as an experience that utilizes the very complex and magical system of sight, smell, taste, emotion, and memory.
The great wines of the world leave us in awe of their sheer intensity and kaleidoscope of nuances. Take Chablis, Brunello di Montalcino or Cornas; all three completely different varietals, places, and styles, yet all have brilliant flavors that contribute to complexity, character, and beauty.
Being able to claim the quality and age worthiness of a wine is based on how the essence of aromas, flavors and structural elements all collide together. Karen MacNeil, author of The Wine Bible, compares wine to a harmonious symphony, rather than a group of instruments playing music together.
Restoring mindfulness when it comes to tasting wine can lead to better focus, increase awareness and a knowing of the people, vines and winemaking regions of the world. By tuning in to what’s in the glass, we naturally expand and connect. Here are the key markers to taste for quality and how to build the sensory muscles for an expansive relationship with our fermented friends we love so much.
The Science of Wine tasting
The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting by Neel Burton talks about how the flavor of a wine is an interpretation by the brain of several different stimuli from specialized sensory cells. Receptor neurons flash information to the olfactory bulb in the brain once they have traveled through the nostrils and the channel at the back of the mouth. This explains why much of tasting takes place retronasally within the mouth and pharynx, while orthonasal is the action of the nostrils and nose.
According to Neel Burton, the tongue has five thousand taste buds and the ability to detect temperature, fizziness, viscosity, and extract. The mouth feels the heat of alcohol, astringency of tannins, and waters with acidity. It is the taste receptors on the tongue that are responsible for the five primary tastes of sour, sweet, bitter, salty, and umami.
The Oxford Companion to Wine by Jancis Robinson discusses why smells and tastes can trigger big emotions, vivid memories and why humans can recall a memory with a scent. Jancis goes on to say that the human sense is extremely acute and can recognize and memorize 10,000 different aromas.
Everyone is built with the hardware to be an expert wine taster and the practice will fire and wire the capacity to do so. Simply noticing the saturation and color of a wine can lead to so much. Let’s look at a left bank Bordeaux. These wines are deep ruby or brick in color, have potential sediment and shows what gravel soils and sun-ripened Cabernet-based blends with oak from the Medoc look like.
The key to becoming mindful with wine is leveraging conscious intent because that will increase sensory endurance and understanding for the taster.
Being Mindful about Wine Tasting Technique
The practice of consciencely describing wine sensations upgrade and increase the neuropathways in the brain and we do this using language to relay our own interpretation of flavors in a wine. Utilize tools like blind tasting to taste without bias and allow for an honest evaluation, free of notions and pre-conceived beliefs.
Confidently give the wine a swirl and hold the glass up to your nose and mouth. Close your eyes and lightly inhale for a few short rounds. The human sensory organs are a powerful system and can translate thousands of aromas, but the nose and palate tire easily. Taste in a controlled environment because the more distractions, noises, and smells there are in a room, the less likely that you can pick up the cues and aromas from the wine.
Compare and contrast the structural elements in a wine and how acidity, astringency, alcohol, and sweetness effect the ecosystem of the mouth. Note the types and nuances of flavors and intensity of the finish.
Start layering in adjectives to fruit condition as a marker to understand quality and winemaking factors. The wines of Barolo often show notes of dried roses, fresh tar and sour cherries with firm, sticky tannins, and mouth-watering acidity.
It’s good practice to use a tasting grid as a guide and a journal as support. Allow time and space to connect and recall any emotions or memories that may arise. An open mind and calm, relaxed body during the process can connect us to what the wine is trying to convey. Much like a wine needs time to breathe to fully express its character, give yourself time to breathe as well!
The Importance of Practice
Tasting consistently can have extraordinary effects on mental clarity and bring consciousness to viticulture and winemaking. What’s left is a greater appreciation for the people and cultures that make the ever-evolving liquid in the glass possible.
Since the largest group of genes of the human genome are in fact the genes that code for olfaction, try a variety of wine that exhibit a range of aromas, flavors, and styles.
Classic wines of the world will deliver quality and sing with brilliance. For example, Pfalz Riesling brings vibrant lime zest, crushed shells, and ripe pineapple with a strong core of acidity and moderate alcohol to compliment the fruit and mineral driven nature. We can agree that the great wines of the world leave us fascinated and thirsty for more, and our work is to listen to what the wines are trying to convey.
Specifically, get familiar with secondary aromas like cream, pastry, and parmesan, as well as tertiary aromas like mushroom, dried fruit, and tobacco. Explore the decadent flavors found in Champagne, or wines that have aged on the lees or matured in oak barrels. High quality wines typically display a rich, decadent texture and a long, delicious finish.
The quality level and age-worthiness are important take-aways, proving the why behind style, and will reveal if a wine gets better with time. To age with finesse, a wine (and human!) must start with a solid foundation.
It’s a great reminder that consistent wine studies will build more awareness, naturally. It’s also important to note that everyone has a different taste tolerance, and my cherry might not be your cherry, so developing your palate is key.
Mindfulness in wine tasting can benefit the brain by creating infinite patterns of recognition, build confidence, and create awesome experiences along the way. One of the biggest joys of being human is the ability to eat, drink and be merry with people we love. Wine connects people to earth, brings us together and inevitably, closer to ourselves.