UNDERSTANDING WINEOver the past 20 years, the level of dining sophistication among Americans hasrisen dramatically. The offerings by restaurants, specialty foodshops, and evengeneric grocery stores have expanded to an extent that avails truly fine dining toanyone with the requisite interest. Ours may be an "age of anxiety" in somerespects, but we are also unquestionably in the midst of this country’sgastronomic renaissance. A natural consequence of this trend has been anincreasing awareness of the contribution of wine to the pleasures of the table.As part of a meal, wine (chimayo cocktail)should not only be delicious, but alsoserve to amplify the better qualities of the food, refresh the palate between bites,and enhance the conviviality of those participating. An excellent wine should alsocaptivate one’s intellectual interest, drawing us back throughout the meal, and
afterwards, to experience the wine’s character and evolving profile. Once oneroutinely begins to drink good wine with meals, its absence substantiallydiminishes the pleasure of eating.Despite our increasing familiarity with wine, Americans, in general, are somewhatintimidated by the prospect of "understanding" wine. The terminology, theintricate and sometimes alien descriptors, and the air of exalted refinement inwhich some in the industry have cloaked the subject, all have discouraged manywho know that wine is something they would like to know more about. Theyknow they are missing something, but lack the confidence to engage a subjectsometimes portrayed as the culinary equivalent of quantum physics or medievalpoetry.Learning about the enjoyment and preparation of food, of course, presents fewerissues. It is simply an extension of a lifetime of experience; whereas, fine winewas put before us as adults and, unfortunately, usually in a complex format. Inrecent years, the food and wine establishment has recognized these barriers andis making a concerted effort to "demystify" wine. This is a good thing. Knowledgeof wine, like most subjects, can be enjoyed at several levels. It is not necessary tobe able to identify trace aromas of underbrush or white peaches in a wine inorder to appreciate its quality, anymore than one needs to identify all of thestringed instruments performing a Mozart symphony. It can be fascinating to doso, but is not essential to a highly discriminating appreciation of wine, particularlyin the context of a wonderful meal. Once a basic appreciation is learned, there is astrong tendency to develop one’s knowledge and taste sensitivity further—andthe journey is as delightfully stimulating as the destination.What is essential in experiencing and assessing the quality of wine is giving thewine some focused attention. One needs to be sensitive to the fundamentalcharacteristics of body, texture, balance, and the depth and concentration ofaromas/flavors in order to have a useful and pleasurable understanding of wine.These elements are not very difficult, and an awareness of them in every wine
you drink will enhance your tasting sensitivity and increasingly enable you todistinguish an excellent wine from a mediocre one, and certainly from a bad one.These characteristics are discussed below. Excellent wine also possesses goodstructure, complexity and finish. These attributes are not easily defined andusually require some tasting instruction to be critically aware of them. I’ve chosento defer these concepts for later.Most discussions of fundamental wine appreciation begin with tasting techniques:observing the color, concentration and viscosity of the wine; swirling the wine inthe glass to release the aromas; absorbing the aromas; tasting the wine; andsavoring its finish. Technique is very important to optimizing the experience, butI’ve elected to begin with the wine itself, and will return to techniques in a futurearticle.The term BODY refers to the sensation of weight and fullness of the wine in yourmouth. A wine is generally described as light-bodied, medium-bodied or full-bodied, with gradations in between; e.g. medium- to full-bodied. Several writers,including Karen MacNeil and Andrea Immer, draw parallels to milk: skim, whole,half & half. These all have a familiar mouth-feel and are useful in categorizing thebody of a wine. Body is largely a function of the amount of alcohol in the wine,but its importance lies more in what style you enjoy for a particular occasion andwhat types of food will complement a specific body-style. You would rarely pair adelicate dish with a full-bodied wine. Conversely, a light, elegant wine will do littlefor a braised beef daube, and will get lost in the combination. As always, there arewines that transcend such easy categorization. Champagne and Rieslings fromGermany and Alsace can hold their own with most cuisines, though I’m nottempted to serve them with beef.There is a similar correlation with the seasons. As the weather grows warmer, ourappetites move toward lighter fare. This translates into wines that are lighter-bodied, lively and refreshing. The colder months beg for comfort food and full-bodied wines.
TEXTURE is related to body, and is included by some authorities in the definitionof body. That can be confusing, however, and underplay the importance oftexture. Like body, texture has to do with mouth-feel. It is the tactile sensationcreated on the surface of the mouth, as we taste the wine. Just as you might rubyour hand along the surface of an object or bite into a custard, so too can youdiscern the silky or creamy or brambly texture of a wine. Fabrics are often used todescribe texture, from silk to velvet to wool to burlap. Without identifying it assuch, I believe most people gravitate toward wines possessing a texture theyparticularly enjoy, and that is certainly a valid priority. The silky, almost polishedtexture of a fine red Burgundy is one of its most alluring qualities.In the context of this article, DEPTH and CONCENTRATION refer to the degree towhich the flavors and aromas of the wine are expressed. Depth is sometimes usedsomewhat synonymously with the term "complexity," referring to the intensityand multiplicity of flavors and intellectual intrigue of the wine. Avoiding thedifficulty of complexity at this point, simply focus on what the wine is giving you interms of pure, precise, concentrated aromas and flavors. Is it predominantlyfruits, earthy (e.g., mushrooms, tobacco, leather) or floral; is it adequatelyintense; is it pleasing?Wine has various major components — fruit, alcohol, acid and tannin — which inproper combination (along with other possible components, such as oak andsugar) largely determine the wine’s quality. When these properties areharmoniously blended, through viticultural practices as well as wine-making, thewine is said to be in BALANCE. None of the components is dominating the wine. Awine that tastes like crème brulee may be pleasing to some, but it is out ofbalance because of overexposure to oak, which imparts a vanilla taste. If thetexture of the wine is "flabby", or lacking vitality, it is probably deficient in acid. Awell-crafted, beautifully balanced wine, regardless of body style, will feel almostsuspended in your mouth and will present a clean, flavorful and satisfyingsensation.