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Have you ever came across a tasting note that describes the myriad flavors of a wine and after reading it, you still have no idea whether you’d enjoy drinking the aforementioned wine? Have you ever tried to make sense of wine parlance and perhaps feel irked by a wine writer for going overboard with wine descriptions that don’t help you one bit in grasping the true experience of a wine? Have you ever splurged on a 90 plus-point wine only to be disappointed by it? Yes, I have. Yes, me too. Yes to all of the above.
In the book Inventing Wine: A New History of One of the World’s Most Ancient Pleasures, Paul Lukacs wrote “just as beauty is often said to be in a beholder’s eye, delectability is on a taster’s palate.” Especially for wine, an egalitarian product with price range and flavor that cater to just about any budget and preference, everyone is entitled to have their own expectation. Besides expectation, our palate is also driven by memory, as what we hope to experience is largely built upon what we have experienced before. Fundamentally, wine tasting notes are subjective and shaped by the critic’s personal preference. As for wine score, an ambiguous number that represents the quality of a wine, it often takes into account and other times neglects factors that we as consumers might not care about or agree with. For example, Robert Parker, the heavyweight of wine scoring, is known to be swayed by wine color. For Wine Spectator, a wine rating is based on expected quality at its peak, regardless of how soon that will be. For Wine Enthusiast, price is not a factor in its scoring system.
So how can we make sense of wine score and evaluate wine in a more logical manner? For users of mobile apps like Vivino and Delectable, how can we write useful tasting notes that contribute positively to our crowdsourcing community? In Part I of Navigating The Wine World, I’ll share my personal markers for a good wine. Please note that these markers are based solely on my personal preference, and not directly influenced by wine critics and educators, which means some of the certified wine professionals out there may disagree with the following pointers. The intention of this article is to offer suggestions on how to articulate why we like or dislike a wine, and not to state hard-and-fast, academic rules for wine appreciation.
8 Attributes to Consider When Evaluating Wine
1. The aroma on the nose and taste in the mouth should share the same, if not most of the same, traits. I mean, come on, have you ever tasted TWG tea? Or any tea that smells so good but tastes nothing like the way it smells? That’s cheating. A good-smelling wine with taste that derails from its aroma and delivers much less intensity on the palate than on the nose makes me suspicious. Is there an intention to disguise and yearn for attention? Is everything that the wine possessed invested in the first impression on the nose? I can’t deal with that sort of makeup; it gets me paranoid.
2. It must be dominated by fruit. While I’m not partial to fruit bombs like an entry-level Californian Zinfandel, the fruit flavor should always be subtle and present because it’s a fruit product we are having here—not tea, not cigar, not a leather couch. That is not to say that a wine shouldn’t express characteristics of tea, cigar, or leather. Those characteristics can be excellent to have. My only gripe is when a wine expresses predominant secondary or tertiary flavours, with little to no fruit, that’s when I can’t appreciate it. That beast is past its prime. Or does it have a prime to begin with?
3. It must have an end palate. The longer the end palate, the finer I perceive the wine to be.
4. It must have a structure and direction. I like wine that opens up gradually and elegantly, expressing a triangular structure on the palate—soft and gentle on the front palate, expressive and bolder on the end palate. The other side of the story is a wine without structure and direction, which makes me feel raped in the mouth because it pokes at points and moments that I don’t want it to or I’m not ready for.
5. It must maintain an equilibrium. The sugar, acidity, tannins, body, primary fruit flavors, and aging characteristics must be balanced. The word “balance”, like “moderation”, is subjective and you can only arrive at your own definition after drinking a lot of wine and tasting the extremes—such as a fruit bomb of a Zinfandel; a young Croatian Teran that burns the gut; a freshly released Barolo with harsh tannins; and a simple Merlot that falls tiredly on the tongue like an unseasoned, old steak.
6. It must have a personality. While all elements of the wine should coalesce into one—which means it shouldn’t be too sweet, not too bitter, not too rough, and not too much of anything—the bonus point goes to a wine with a touch of idiosyncrasy that reflects either the winemaker or the terroir. A good wine, like your crush, needs to have traits that surprise and tantalise you, perhaps not always in the most pleasant way. As wine educator Stephen Reiss mentioned in his book Juice Jargon: How to Talk About Wine, “No vice, no virtue.” Fine wine is a product of the erratic nature coaxed into a bottle by human, not a lab product that checks off an ultra-rational list of notions.
7. A reasonable Quality-Price Ratio (QPR) is absolutely essential. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that more dollar increases the probability—but not certainty—of a higher quality, but the best find is a memorable wine with a price that doesn’t hurt your brain and heart. Don’t feel self-conscious and think that you’re being a cheapskate if you pick up a bargain that you enjoy drinking. If you find an affordable wine that you love, you win because you just beat the system. And that’s the foundation and most fun part about Exotic Wine Travel: to play the system and get more deliciousness from every buck.
8. The age-ability of a wine hardly bothers me. Most days, I buy wine for immediate drinking and instant pleasure. However when a wine is good and it shows the potential of being even better in the future, then it deserves a few brownie points. If it is fair to judge our future spouses and new hires based on perceived potential, why not do the same for wine? On the other hand, just because we may not see specific growth potential in some people or some things, especially when they are already so awesome, doesn’t mean we should discount their worth. Oh yes, that RdV Lost Mountain 2011 will look so good in my cellar for another decade.
There you have it, these are the eight attributes I use when explaining why I like or dislike a wine. Take the time to explore your preference and don’t be duped by marketing effort into thinking that you need to be snobbish about wine or have to second-guess your own palate. Wine evaluation is akin to dating—look at it, smell it, taste it, taste it a few times, decide if you like it or not, and explain why. To learn more about the technical language for observing and discussing wine characteristics, I highly recommend this video by Wine Folly.
In Part II of Navigating The Wine World, we’ll offer some perspective on how to keep your wine pleasure rolling and your wine knowledge growing.