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The big question is always
“What is a good wine? ”
The simple answer is
I like it, so it’s a good wine and that works at most casual levels of wine drinking.
For aspiring Master Sommeliers, who have a keen interest and thirst for more knowledge, we can dive down just a level deeper (for anything deeper, you will have to attend a professional sommelier class). Here are some factors to consider:
The first sense a wine provides you is that of sight: the appearance of wine is intriguing when it hits the glass. Red wines, when young are frequently a bright dark red or deep purple; of course there are exceptions when comparing say Burgundian Pinot Noir (lighter) vs Barossa Shiraz (darker). As red wines mature, the colour lightens, from dark purple to a dark red, to a lighter shade of red, to a brick-like colour, eventually to a light brown/rust-like colour. This is a natural progression, and don’t be shocked to see older wines exhibit this colour change on the edges of the wine (where it touches the glass). In white wines, the colour spectrum evolves from a water-clear with a slight tinge of green hue, to a light yellow/straw-like colour, then finally, to a honey-like, dark, golden colour when fully mature.
In conclusion, the colour of wine continues to evolve as it matures and gains complexity.
Also observe sediment/small particles in wine when it’s poured out. These may be lees, which are a mixture of dead yeast cells, proteins, stems, bits of skin, and other solid matter that has settled to the bottom of the fermentation tanks. The reason you find these: some winemakers leave wine on lees to allow the wine to develop more character and complexity. Fermentation can do wonders for flavour. Another form of sediment occurs in red wines – you will observe dark bits of sediment which settle at the base of your glass, which are formed from tannins which have broken down over time in the bottle.
- Tannin: A type of biomolecule which is an astringent with plant polyphenolic compound that binds and precipitates proteins and various other organic compounds and it is what gives that dried-out feeling in your mouth after a sip of red wine and this is known as ‘dryness’ of the wine. The higher level of tannin, the more “dry” a wine is;
Tannins are infused into the wine from oak barrels, grape seeds, skin and stem which provides the wine with structure which allow it to age. A cloudiness in the wine can also be indicators that the wine was unfiltered, a deliberate effort by some winemakers who believe the filtering process removes volatiles which add to wine complexity.
Legs, stilettos, gym, mini-skirts….not those leg (what were you thinking?) Legs in wines, contrary to popular belief is not an indication of quality (I don’t know where that came from) but it does give indicators to how much alcohol there is in the wine. High-alcohol wines will have a higher density of droplets on the sides of the glass than low-alcohol wines; higher density of droplets can also mean the wine is a sweet wine (higher sugar content hence more viscous) which is more viscous so watch how slowly those droplets fall. For those science majors out there, you would want to know the legs are caused by alcohol evaporation from the sides of the glass, fluid-alcohol surface tension theory – Marangoni Effect, google it.
- Legs: The tear drop shape of remaining bits of wine that flows downwards from the side of the glass after a twirl or two.
Now we have come to the second sense: Smell. First of all, use a clean glass which has been washed, and doesn’t smell of detergent either. Swirl and sniff. Swirl and sniff. Swirling is not to look cool although when done right in a Zalto Burg glass, looks very sexy. What you are trying to achieve is to get more oxygen into the wine, which most people call ‘opening up’. When this happens, the wine gives off its aromas and also softens, which makes it more accessible. For the exuberant swirlers (like lassoing a kerbau), please do it at home and practice with water, don’t do it in a restaurant…it’s obnoxious and you might stain your date’s dress (unless if that’s your main intention!). Next thing you want to do is….stick your nose into the glass. Don’t be shy, it’s perfectly acceptable and sniff the wine, not too hard, it’s not a line of powder. You need not touch the glass with your nose (you can if you want), and should tilt your head 45 degrees into the glass. Don’t instead tilt the glass towards you, I’ve seen some embarrassing moments with wine tipping out of the glass – not cool!
Next thing that should come to your mind is, what do you smell? Tobacco? Pepper? Strawberries? Mushrooms? Aromas are such a big part of wine, the most stellar examples release aromas you can smell from outside the glass. These aromas can be varietal-driven (typical smell of a certain varietal, Sauvignon Blanc like freshly-cut garden hose, Riesling like kerosene, Cabernet Sauvignon like green capsicum/peppers or Pinot Noir like under-ripe strawberries…..or aromas can be terroir-driven(ground/soil), of oak barrel and truffle. Sometimes wines smell like smoke or asphalt, is that because they drop bits of charcoal in the wine? No, because the fermentation process can create all kinds of surprises presenting varied aromas from medicinal herbs, fruits to old clothes left in a cupboard. I have never heard someone lift their head from a glass and say “Grapes, definitely grapes” – wonder why.
Lastly, there is one more smell which can be picked up and trust me, this is not a pleasant one – if you smell anything that is reminiscent of wet newspaper, a mouldy dank basement, old wet rags or wet dog, there’s a chance the wine is corked. If you are unsure, please ask those drinking with you if they pick up similar scents, and never be afraid to ask your server what they think, because if the bottle is corked, they should replace it.
- Corked: Scroll below to see the explanation on corked wine
astly, the sense of taste. Start by taking a sizeable sip, not too large that you look like a blowfish, but not too small that you don’t have enough wine to fill half your mouth. For the adventurous, try sucking on it as if pulling it through a straw. Ignore the stares of the uninitiated; this sucking is simply aerating the wine and releasing an explosion of aroma and flavour throughout your mouth.
So what are you looking for? Balance. A balanced wine should have three elements in perfect harmony – fruit, tannin and acid seamlessly integrated. No one single element should overpower the others, and more often than not, proper cellaring is the only way to achieve this – patience is needed. If a wine is too sour, too sugary, too astringent, too hot (alcoholic), too bitter, or too flabby (lack of acid) then it is not a well-balanced wine. If it is young, it is not likely to age well; if it is old, it may be falling apart or perhaps completely gone. It will take substantial wine drinking to figure this out. A young wine may have all the attributes but you will likely feel all the edges; they have not blended together. It’s a sign of very good winemaking when a young wine has already come together and presents its flavours harmoniously.
Smell aside, a corked wine is also not pleasant to drink; corked wine is often incorrectly referred to a situation when cork particles are floating around in the wine, where it is actually when wine is affected by TCA (trichloroanisole, a natural occurring fungi) which dulls the fruit flavours in the wine, and although safe, makes the wine thoroughly unenjoyable to consume. Another condition called ‘Brett’ gives wine a rather lacklustre leathery, damp wood smell which also kills the fruit in the wine – very dull.
Drinkers should also look for ‘complexity’ in wines, and that can mean many things to many people. Your ability to detect and appreciate complexity in wine will become a good gauge of your overall progress in learning how to taste wine. Many successful wine brands produce wines which are very ripe, jammy fruit and strong vanilla flavours – these are familiar and relatable flavours to many new wine drinkers, however, they do not offer complexity.
Complex wines to me is this constantly evolving flavours, in the glass over time, even as you’re tasting them. In older wines, these complexities sometimes evolve into the realm of the sublime. The length of a wine, whether old or young, is one good indication of complexity. Simply note how long the flavours linger after you swallow. Most beginners don’t give much thought to lingering flavours and the length of the finish. Savour it!
Good wine is the combo of all of the above, the sum of the parts; a complete wine is balanced, harmonious, complex and evolved, with a lingering, satisfying finish. Hope that was helpful – now time to drink some wines so place an order right now!