Most of us usually have a fairly good idea of whether we like or dislike a particular wine we happen to be drinking. However, often much less clear is what it is we like or dislike about the wine and what it is that's happening to our senses when we drink it. Wine tasting courses introduce us to ways of detecting and analysing a wine's vital characteristics, as well as the impact a wine has on our sense of taste, smell etc. In addition to a wine's sweetness and alcohol levels, our experience of a wine is shaped by the following:
Acidity: Detected most strongly at the sides of the tongue, acidity gives wines their freshness. High acidity tends to be found in wines made from grapes ripened in cool conditions. White wines with high acidity levels include Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc and Riesling, while reds with relatively high levels of acidity include Sangiovese (Chianti), Barbera, Cabernet Franc and Pinot Noir.
Tannin: Tannin comes from the grape skins, pips and stems, and/or from the wood in which a wine was stored. Tannins bind to proteins in the saliva, causing a drying sensation which can be felt most clearly on the gums. Tannin is an essential element of red wine and is key to a red wine's ability to age. Wines which often have pronounced tannin include Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Nebbiolo and Mourvèdre.
Sugar: Dry wines should have sugar levels that are below our perception threshold (up to around 4 grams per litre). A wine that is basically dry in style, but which has a tiny amount of detectable sugar (5-9 grams per litre) is described as "off-dry".
Body: Body or "mouthfeel" refers to the weight of a wine in the mouth. Wines are either light or delicate, medium or full-bodied. High levels of tannin make a wine feel fuller-bodied while high acidity makes a wine feel lighter-bodied.
Flavour Intensity and Characteristics: The flavour characteristics of a wine should provide an indication of the grape variety/varieties that were used, as well as the way in which the wine was made. A wine's flavour characteristics might include berry, citrus, tropical and/or stone fruit flavours, as well as floral, spice or herbaceous flavours, while the use of oak barrels to mature the wine can impart toasty, nutty, vanilla or honey flavours to a wine, to name just a few. The intensity and complexity of a wine's flavour is often a clue as to its quality.
Finish (Aftertaste): The longer the finish, the better quality a wine is. Good-quality white wines should have a clean, crisp finish. Wines are referred to as having either a "long" or "short" finish.
Wine-making refers to all of the processes that occur following the harvesting of the grapes through to the maturation of the wine. Although broadly similar processes are applied to all red wines (e.g. skin contact for colour and tannin extraction) and white wines (e.g. cold fermentation), different variations in the production process reflect the style of wine a cellar-master wants to achieve. These variations start in the vineyard, where grapes are picked at different stages of maturity and at different times of day, and extend right through to the method and length of time that's used to mature a wine. Key winemaking techniques include the following:
Fermentation: An essential process in all wine production, fermentation can be expressed using the following formula: Grape sugar + yeast = alcohol + carbon dioxide.
Although wild yeasts occur naturally on grape skins, pure yeast culture is added during the production process. Fermentation will stop when the following conditions exist: (i) all the sugar has been converted into alcohol by the yeast; (ii) if the temperature of the grape must is too high or too low; and (iii) when the alcohol level gets too high.
Wood maturation: Wood is used to add complexity to a wine and is often responsible for giving a wine toasty, nutty, honey and vanilla flavours. It also helps to soften the tannins in a red wine and make them smoother/more rounded. Oak is the most frequently used type of wood. Most wine-producers have a preference for French and American oak, although Hungarian and "Yugoslavian" oak are also used. Premium red wines and some white wines (especially Chardonnay) tend to be aged in oak. Although the wine is commonly aged in oak barrels, sometimes oak staves or chips are added to the fermentation vats.
Several principles have been identified as key to understanding why certain food and wine combinations work well together, and why others don't. These can be summarised as follows: weight, flavour intensity and the impact of a wine on our taste buds.
Weight: The weight or "body" of the wine should match the weight of the accompanying food. Rich, hearty food needs to be paired with robust full-bodied wines. Light, delicate foods prefer light-bodied wines. Sauces often add to the weight of a dish.
Intensity: Intensity refers to the degree of flavour food or wine has. Powerfully flavoured food should be paired with powerfully flavoured wine otherwise one will end up overpowering the other.
Acidity: Acidity in food (think lemon juice, tomatoes or capers in vinegar) needs to be matched by a wine with equally high levels of acidity (e.g. Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling or Sangiovese). Wines that are less acidic than the accompanying food can taste flat and dull. Acidity in a wine can also cut through oily food.
Saltiness: Highly salty food can make wine taste more alcoholic than it is. It can also exacerbate the tannins in red wine. However, as Katinka says, "salt has an ongoing love affair with wines that have some sweetness... the saltier the food, the sweeter the wine can be" (think port or dessert wine with salty blue-veined cheeses). Highly salty food can make sweetish wines taste even sweeter.
Sweetness: Sweetness in food should be matched by wines that are at least as sweet, if not sweeter than the food. Wine that is less sweet than the accompanying food can taste sour and "drier" than it really is. Savoury food with a touch of sweetness (e.g. pork or duck with a sweet fruit sauce) can be paired with a medium-sweet wine.
Bitterness: Bitter foods (think rocket or endive leaves, chargrilled food or dark chocolate) can accentuate any bitterness in a wine. Bitterness in a wine comes from tannin (fruit tannin comes from the grape skins while wood tannin comes from the oak barrels in which the wine is matured). Acidity in a food or wine, or both, can help to combat the accentuating effects of bitter food on a wine.
Umami (Savouriness): Foods with high levels of glutamate (mushrooms, asparagus, tomatoes, Parmesan cheese, cured or smoked meats) are said to have an umami taste sensation. Umami in food increases the perception of bitterness in a wine, especially wines with high tannins. Such wines can often taste bitter and metallic. Suitable pairings for umami-rich foods include less-tannic fruitier wines, as well as those with higher levels of acidity.