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One Wine Four Cups

June 16, 2009

If you think Coke is better than Pepsi or if you prefer tea to coffee you can also learn to appreciate wine.  You clearly have taste preferences.  Now you need to figure out how those taste preferences relate to wine.

If you are like most people, when you have a sip of wine it tastes, well, it tastes like wine.  Maybe you’ll pick up the bottle and look at the back label for the winemaker’s description.  There you might find some words to help describe what you taste.  But likely they will just be a curiosity.  Tobacco?

And there are many people who will say, “Good wine is lost on me.”  Or perhaps, “It all tastes the same to me.”  My in-laws were just like that until they agreed to let me convince them they could indeed have a greater appreciation for wine.

All it takes is four glasses.

The way most people try to taste wines is problematic.  Let’s say you have a passing interest in wine and visit a winery.  You are given a glass, and they pour you samples of their wines from lightest to heaviest.  And when you are done, you may very well have a good feel for the house style.  You may have found a favorite wine from the line.  But you might not be able to identify how the pinot noir compared to the pinot at the winery down the road.

You may also be at a wine bar, where they have a well cared for selection of wines by the glass.  And let’s stick with pinot for the sake of example.  You order a first glass of wine.  It’s good, and then you branch out and try another.  It’s worse.  Maybe it’s because you don’t care for the style, or perhaps it has something to do with the physiology of taste.

It’s rather simple.  Wine will taste different depending on what you had in your mouth before it.  I was at one of my favorite wineries, which makes a gorgeous dusty pinot noir.  And on a particular visit to the tasting room they slotted an inexpensive big fruity and juicy wine into the line-up immediately before the pinot.  It was a real blunder because it made this fine delicate wine of finesse and beauty taste like a flat tart stinker.

I remain convinced that the best way to taste wines is with a structured vertical tasting, which is what I conducted for my in-laws.  This will prove that indeed you can taste the subtleties of wine you may never have noticed before.

You need four wines of the same varietal that are as similar as possible in vintage, geography and price.  And you need four wine glasses per person, hopefully all the same shape, and even better all with large bowls.

This allows you to taste in unique and useful ways.  By putting all four wines in front of you at once, all of the subtle differences that might be lost otherwise come shining through.  Before even tasting, by holding each wine up to the light you will notice differences in color.  Still before tasting, by smelling each of the glasses you will notice the smells that are the same, and the ones that are different will be much more readily apparent.  As you begin to taste, again the differences stand out.

It is important to do this first tasting with close friends or family.  I have found that people can become very uncomfortable talking aloud about wine tastes and smells lest they be perceived as snobbish or uninformed.  Remember you are just trying to explain how the wine tastes to you, not to anyone else.  But if you open yourself up to the experience and allow yourself to be wrong or disagreed with, talking out loud can help you collectively express what you are sensing into words.

At first you will taste each of the four wines, and you may have a clear favorite.  But then you can taste them out of order.  How does the first wine change if you try it after the second wine?  You may think that the fourth wine was your favorite, but when you try the fourth wine after the second wine, you taste a bit of mint that you find displeasing.  And now that you have identified it, you can taste that mint in the fourth glass regardless of what preceded it.

This may or may not sound like fun to you.  But I’m getting excited even writing it.

If you are paying close attention you might ask, “Can’t I still do all of that with just three glasses?”  Yes, you can.  The fourth glass adds another set of tasting permutations though, which is valuable.  It also creates a more interesting dynamic when everyone tries to rank their wines, which is a natural tendency.  Ranking three wines is a much easier task.  One was my favorite, and another was the worst, which leaves the third in the middle.  There is no middle of four.

For the tasting I conducted with the in-laws we stuck to wine under $15 that they would be able to find in the Pennsylvania state stores.  I chose California pinot noirs from the same vintage.  Two were designated as Sonoma Valley and the other two were of lower quality, designated solely as California.  We tasted the wines blind.

Their top two wines were the ones from Sonoma.  And of those, they shared a distinct preference for one of them – so much for not being able to taste the difference between better and lesser wines.

The secret was in the four glasses.

I would caution about trying to taste too many things.  Four wines is plenty.  Please, stay away from introducing food, especially cheeses, into the mix.  Some dry crusty bread and some water might be nice for palate cleansers as needed.  Think bland.  And avoid citrus in the water.

And remember, this tasting is not intended to be a contest or a trial.  It is to find out what wines you favor.  Taste is a very personal thing, and ultimately you should drink what you like.

Let me know when you are doing one, and I’ll come over to help.

One Comment leave one →
  1. June 18, 2009 10:28 pm

    Ok my dear, you have won me in narcissism. Coke > Pepsi and tea>coffee.

    I will give you this – in a wine tasting there are definitely flavors I can pick out that I prefer more than others. Generally I go for sugary to the point of cavities, but I do enjoy a good tasting to give depth and variations.

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