After assessing the appearance and nose of a wine, we can finally taste it, which will tell us the wine quality and its ageing potential.
We normally have the misconception that we can taste flavour – for example, that we can taste orange or peach flavours in our mouth. Actually, this is not correct. Our tongue can only sense four elements: sweetness, saltiness, sourness and bitterness. The reason why we think we can taste a certain flavour is because of the body’s retronasal route. Our palate is linked to our nasal fossae at the back, so when we taste a food or drink, the flavour goes back to our nose via this channel in order for us to sense the flavour (hence we have the impression that we can taste the flavour).
Nevertheless, the palate should confirm what we smell, so wine critics often remark that “aromas follow through to the palate”. If the perception of an aroma on the palate is weaker than expected, the wine is not as intense and concentrated. If the wine also has a short length, say only a few seconds, it is for drinking now instead of for ageing. Length refers to the pleasant aroma, not the drying tannin, that stays in the throat after wine is swallowed. Intensity and length are clues to determine if a wine has potential for ageing.
Balance is the most important element to be assessed on the palate. Fruit is the flesh of a wine and must be supported by backbone. The components that form the backbone of a wine are acidity, alcohol, sweetness and tannin, which can all be sensed on the palate. Tannin is a drying or astringent sensation. These components must be well integrated with the fruit, and no one of them should jump above the others. If a sweet wine is cloying, there is not enough acidity to support it. If we can feel the heat of the alcohol or if a red wine is too astringent, there is not enough fruit to balance it.
Alcohol and sugar give wine weight on they palate, but they don’t indicate quality. A full-bodied dry wine is likely from a warm-growing region, while a light-bodied wine is likely from a cooler region. A full-bodied wine must be supported by enough fruit and acidity; otherwise it will only taste hot and flabby. Similarly, a light-bodied wine needs ripe fruit and residual sugar to balance the high acidity in order to avoid tasting sour.
For sparkling wine, we can assess the bubbles on the palate too. As mentioned in the Sight article, sparkling wine made in the traditional champagne method has fine bubbles. Sparkling wine that has spent a long time ageing on lees has finer bubbles that give a pleasant tingling sensation. Most of the bubbles may have dissipated in a good-quality aged sparkling wine, but the wine should have a very complex bouquet, and it can be enjoyed like an aged still white wine.
Serving temperature affects palate assessment. Tannin is more pronounced when a wine is too cold, but if it is too warm, the alcohol will be exaggerated. The ideal serving temperature for red wine is 16–18ºC in order to balance the tannin and alcohol. Acidity becomes flabby and sweetness jumps out at high temperatures, so white and rosé wines should be served at a lower temperature of 8–10ºC. For sparkling wine, the bubbles are better preserved at low temperatures, so it is best served at around 6–8ºC, slightly colder than white wine. However, wine should not be served too cold (4–6ºC) because the fruit will be muted and all that will be left in the wine are acidity and tannin.
So we can now systematically assess a wine like all wine experts through appearance, nose and palate. No doubt this way of tasting can help us to appreciate and better understand wine. However, don’t overdo it – wine is about lifestyle, enjoyment and sharing with friends. The last thing we want to do is intimidate our friends by showing off or, even worse, being overly critical of a wine.
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