Once you’re in your 20s, you can’t really get away with always ordering vodka raspberries at after-work drinks, because you’re afraid you can’t pronounce the word ‘sauvignon blanc’.
Sam Plunkett –
You might love the idea of a weekend away with girlfriends to the Hunter Valley to sip on wines and have a jolly good time, but you’re scared you might ask for the ‘pinkish white wine’ instead of a rosé – and if you do that, we’d be scared. Well, imagine if you could actually identify the difference between a shiraz and a cab sav. You’d totally impress Sarah who always flaunts her knowledge of ‘the best wine bars in Melbourne’ and her forced, try-hard Parisian lifestyle.
To sound like a wine expert and fit in with any cultured crowd, you’ll need to know some of the wanky terms used to taste and identify wines.
Winemaker Sam Plunkett grew up in the Strathbogie Ranges on the family farm where his father planted the first vines in the region.
His winemaking experience began at age 16 and after many years of experience and award-winning wines, led him to open his own winery and cellar door in 2012 with his wife Bronwyn Dunwoodie – Wine by Sam – in Seymour, Victoria. UK based customers of online retailer Naked Wines voted Sam Winemaker of the Year in 2020.
Our new friend Sam has shared his industry know-how and has cooked us up an exclusive recipe on how to sound like a wanker with wine at your next Hunter Valley trip with the girls. Piss off, Sarah!
• Colour: How a wine looks.
• Nose: How a wine smells.
• Palate: A whole bunch of sensations in the mouth, including how much acid, sugar and tannins can be sensed or tasted. Also, things like the body, mouthfeel and balance of a wine.
• Acid: There is often a scale used to describe wine characteristics. With acid, the scale might go from searingly acidic, to crisp, fresh and balanced, with soft and flabby at the other end of the scale. Acid is that sour mouth-watering sensation when chewing on a lemon.
• Sugar: Quite literally how dry or sweet a wine is.
• Body: Referring to the weight of a wine on the palate; usually described as light, medium or full bodied. Full bodied wines will be higher in alcohol and have more tannin than medium or light wines.
• Tannin: Phenolic compounds that add texture, and sometimes bitterness and astringency to wines. The tannins come from the pips and skins of grapes. That raspy drying sensation from drinking strong black tea is from tannin. Sometimes we soften harsh tannic wines by fining them with 1-2ml of milk per litre of wine. The protein in milk (casein) binds up some of the tannins. A white tea drinker – like me – is often happy to have a stronger brew than a black tea drinker, because we soften the raspy tannin with a splash of milk!
• Balanced: When the wine’s flavours and characteristics are in good proportion. Creating a balanced wine is part of the winemaker’s skill. For example, a highly acidic wine might feel more balanced if the ferment is stopped before all the sugar is turned into alcohol. The sugar takes the sting out of the otherwise sour acid. Nobody wants to drink liquid warheads!
• Complex: A wine which has layers of flavour. There may be fruity flavours from the grapes – different set of flavours which the yeast and fermentation contribute – plus smokey or wood smells from time spent in oak barrels. Generally, wines that have more layers of flavour and complexity are considered higher quality, but sometimes it’s a treat to drink something like a young riesling which is just a KAPOW of citrussy freshness and simplicity! Perfect for a Sunday sesh on a hot summer’s day.
1. Take a gander
The depth and tone of the colour can help identify the wine’s variety, age, or how it’s made. Let’s say you put a part-eaten apple down; after a while, the pale flesh goes golden and then brown. This is oxidation from exposure to air. A white wine with a pale colour is likely to be young because it hasn’t had much time for exposure to air. A golden coloured white wine could be older, or perhaps have spent time maturing in a barrel which breathes and lets a tiny bit of oxygen into the wine.
A red wine with pale colour is likely a thin skinned variety such as Pinot Noir. Inky dark colour will more likely be a thick skinned heavily pigmented variety such as cabernet sauvignon – a.k.a ‘cab sav’ as Michelle from work would say.
To really get a good look at a wine, I like to tip the glass forward and look through the shallow rim onto a white background.
2. Get a good sniff
Next up, it’s time to evaluate the wine by smell. Give the glass a little swirl to let the aromas lift out of the wine, stick your nose in, and get a good sniff.
This is the part where we start identifying characteristics of the wine through smell. I ask myself if the main smell is fruit, vegetable, wood, or a chemical smell. A chemical smell like nail polish remover or wet dog is a clue that something is not quite right with the wine – but in truth, it’s pretty rare to get a genuinely dodgy wine. Wines can have a range of fruit aromas like citrus (riesling) and passionfruit (sauvignon blanc) which are common in fresh white wines. Dark fruits like blackberries and blueberries are often found in shiraz, and stone fruits like peach are often found in chardonnay.
There is no wrong answer when smelling wine, and one wine can contain multiple fruit aromas; so go with your gut, or in this case, your nose.
You might also pick up aromas such as toast, smoke, vanilla, chocolate, espresso, roasted nuts, or even caramel in a wine. These are derived from the barrel the wine was aged in and are influenced by a multitude of factors such as the type of oak barrel used, its age, and how long the wine was in there.
One of the tricks with smelling wine is to try and go to the next level of description. For example, a fruit smelling white wine could be a whole bunch of things, but if the fruit smell is citrus then riesling is a possibility. If the type of citrus is more lime than lemon, I’d wonder if its Clare Valley riesling. But if it was a mandarin kind of citrus, I’d be thinking about riesling from the Mosel in Germany.
I’m getting ahead and talking about taste here, but bone dry and high acid would line up nicely with the Clare style of riesling if it had that lime flavour; while lower alcohol with some sugar plus the mandarin flavour would make Germany and Mosel Riesling a decent bet.
3. Taste (the best bit)
We’re finally ready to drink the wine. Take a decent sip and move it around your mouth to get all your taste buds involved. If you’d like to take it to an expert level (and don’t mind stares from strangers as you slurp like you would as a kid drinking a chocolate milkshake) suck in air through your teeth to aerate the wine in your mouth.
This has a similar effect as swirling before smelling, letting the flavours lift out of the wine and blast up your retro nasal passage to give a good tickle to the olfactory bulk, which is the thing that tells the brain what you are smelling.
At this stage, I’m also thinking about how sweet or dry the wine is. Does the acid poke out or is it in balance? Does the wine feel hot with alcohol? This next bit is harder to describe, but how do the tannins feel – is there a lot of tannin in the wine? Do these tannins feel plush and slippery, drying and grippy, or anywhere in-between?
I’m also asking the big questions, like is the wine in balance, and do I like it!?
There is a whole world of wine tasting techniques and specifics, including which glassware to use for which wine, the precise temperature to enjoy different varieties, and the list goes on.
While all these elements of wine tasting can be fun to learn, they are certainly not essential to enjoying a glass (or bottle).
Most importantly, learning to taste wine and identify characteristics will help you learn what you personally enjoy in a wine, making the selection process much easier over time.