Different Tongues - Power of Suggestion - Printable Version

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- Jenaroo - 03-21-1999 10:10 PM

Thanks to all who posted re "Good Reading". Now I have another dilemna. I am told that certain varietels have certain flavours that should be evident to the palate. In our class we are actually shown these certain flavours and class mates then seem to be able to identify from what they've read. My novice tongue is very confused. Will this improve

- Randy Caparoso - 03-22-1999 02:57 AM

If you will, Jeneroo: Tasting varietal flavor has more to do with identifying, through memory, like descriptors than anything else. Chardonnay, for instance, is describe as appley, and sometimes pear-like or even pineappley. Of course, if you've never tasted -- or actually, smelled -- an apple, pear or pineapple, you'll never understand this. Fortunately, it's easy to understand.

In other words, a whether or not you're a wine tasting novice is not a detriment to learning to identify varietal characteristics because the language that we use to describe wine is pretty much the same as what we use to describe any food or beverage. What could be a detriment, however, is a refusal to apply your memory and language to describe foods and beverages which every average adult has already acquired. Wine tasting is pretty much an exercise in thinking and concentration -- which is what you normally do when you are actually enjoying (and thus wish to remember) what your are eating and/or drinking anyhow.

So let's talk about what is actually sensed as a wine is sipped: Flavor and its related sensation -- that of aroma, fragance, "bouquet," etc. -- is not really to be confused with the sensations of sweetness/dryness (due to presence of sugar, or lack thereof in dry wines), tartness (acidity), and bitterness/astingency (tannin) detected by the tongue. But Chardonnay, for instance, does tend to be a dry, full bodied wine; and so dryness is associated with Chardonnay. There are, however (in rare instances), such a thing as perceptively sweet Chardonnays. For instance, in New York recently I enjoyed a medium-sweet "Superior Late Harvest" Chardonnay made by Pannonia in Austria; a very, very rare experience indeed, since over 99.9% of Chardonnays are pretty much dry tasting to the average palate.

Another example: Riesling, which tends to be perfumey in a floral sort of way. So flowery is a varietal characteristic of Riesling. But grown, as it is, in virtually every place where wine grapes are grown, Riesling can be anything from very sweet to barely sweet to very, very dry. In Alsace and Germany, for instance, it veers towards the dry side. In Germany, it is usually at least a little sweet to balance out the tartness resulting from the colder climates; although "trocken" (dry) or "halbtrocken" (half-dry, which is almost dry) German Rieslings are being increasingly seen. In California, Rieslings are all over the map -- from very dry to lusciously sweet, from quite light and lithe in body to quite full and mouthfilling. In other words, although a little sweetness is associated with Riesling, the perception is not technically a "varietal" characteristic. Just the floral, fruity qualities that you smell, which translate into the "flavor" you taste through the interaction of smell-related sensations on the palate.

Confused you enough? Good. That's the reason you need to just open up as much variety of wines as possible, and just taste, experience, remember, and above all, enjoy!

- n144mann - 03-22-1999 09:59 AM

Randy, you make it all sound so easy. [img][/img] Jenaroo, as a fellow novice, don't get discouraged!! It does start to come with time and with a LOT of tasting. (which is why we started the process right?! we enjoy wine) Anyway, hang in there and even if it seems like everyone else can do it but you, you will get it eventually. A couple of things that help when I am it alone in a quiet area, NO distractions-just you and the wine and maybe some reviews by the big guys to help learn descriptors, and along that same route, closing my eyes seems to help me focus. Try it, looks a little silly, but you are supposed to be alone so who cares. As for the classmates who say they can already do it, who knows.....maybe they are faking it... [img][/img]

Enjoy the process!!

- Thomas - 03-22-1999 10:00 AM

Randy gives some good advice and information, but I dispute a little of it, which is what keeps wine such a confusing matter.

For instance, unless you are familiar with a particular malt ball candy, you might not taste the malt in some dry Chardonnays the way I do. Everyone I tell thinks I am nuts.

And of course, if you have never tasted certain berries you might not find Zinfandel berry-like.

So taste is a matter of experience and memory, yet there are definite characteristics that each grape variety possesses, and the trickn is to discover and remember them.

Incidentally, Randy, I have tasted scores of California Chardonnay that are definitely sweet -- usually the lower priced ones. And, as far as I am concerned, the best place in the United States for Riesling is New York State's Finger Lakes, but most people wouldn't know that because they don't explore New York State much, and there are scores of dry Rieslings in New York. Quite often, the so-called dry German Rieslings fail in the "balance" category.

- amshih - 03-22-1999 01:53 PM

All good suggestions here...

My personal "tasting" quirk is that I spend MUCH more time smelling a wine than tasting it. I find that I get a clearer impression of a wine through my nose. So, for "training", I smell everything in sight and try to file those aromas in my brain. I would love to be able to judge a wine just by smelling it!

- Randy Caparoso - 03-23-1999 03:59 AM

I agree with you 100%, foodie. I try to simplify things, but of course there are so many variables that it easily becomes complex. I agree, for instance, that tons of California Chardonnays are sweet edged and tutti-fruity. But to make it easier (not more complicated) to communicate concepts of dryness/sweetness to the average person, I find it convenient to generalize that 99.9% are basically "dry" (which they are to the vast majority of wine drinkers... who pay little attention to what they're drinking).

The other day I introduced a D'Arenberg "Custodian" Grenache from Australia to a friend, and I told him that I just love its jammy, peppery blackberry taste. He took one sniff and said, "What blackberry? This is blueberry all the way." I sniffed it, and by golly he was right. And so the next time I show the "Custodian," you can bet that I'll say that I love its jammy blueberryish taste... with hints of blackberry.

Amshih, one caveat: Stop and smell the roses, but it's a bad idea to get hung up on smells. Wine is ultimately drunk. I've met so many people over the years that go on and on about this wonderful aroma, that incredible bouquet, and those wonderful arrays of nuances and perfumes, blah, blah. But unfortunately, quite often the wines they're talking taste quite awful on the palate -- rough, lean, sharp, hot, thin, etc. While convincing themselves they're drinking wonderful wine (because of the smells), they often end up punishing themselves with wines that in reality are just barely drinkable.

Personally, I look for attractive aromas; but if a wine isn't invitingly smooth, layered and/or richly textured on the palate, it's a no-go. I've had to do this over the years because I buy wine for so many restaurants; and the average wine drinker just doesn't give a hoot about nuances and bouquets. They're too busy drinking!

By the way, foodie -- what IS that malt ball that gives you Chardonnay-like pleasure?

- Thomas - 03-23-1999 10:23 AM

The malt ball doesn't give me Chardonnay pleasure; it's the other way around. I haven't c lue what the name of that malt ball is -- it's a childhood memory, and I have traveled quite a ways from childhood by now.

Essentialy, you can't taste anything unless you can smell it first. Smell is taste is smell is taste...

- Jason - 03-23-1999 07:48 PM

Come on guys. The brand of malted milk ball is "Whoppers". Please do not confuse the aforementioned with Burger King.

- Thomas - 03-23-1999 08:27 PM


I shall take your word. As I said, too far away from childhood to trust my memmory on it, but I do remember that taste. Guess I should have said this before, but it is a taste that comes of course with some beers. Now there's a subject for ranting: Chardonnay tastes like beer!

- Randy Caparoso - 03-23-1999 09:26 PM

Foodie, I was just kidding. But now that you've guys brought it up (and I know we're supposed to be in the Novice section and not geeking out), I do notice that when some wineries go overly heavy on the toasted oak, ML and battonage (stirring of spent yeast cells as the wine ages in barrels, novices), Chardonnays develop a definite beery maltiness -- especially mid-temperature Napa Valley growths that probably can't really handle the full, natural Burgundian treatment. Mondavi Reserve Chardonnays, for example, were exactly like that for a few consecutive years in the late '80s, early '90s. Too bad they were "more filling" than "taste great." (Personally, I prefer my malt in chocolate shakes, for which I recommend by a soy/ginger marinated shortribs match).

But we're bringing out a good controversy: What's more important, nose or palate sensations, smell or taste? I say palate, of course, providing the smells are not unattractive. I can thoroughly enjoy a wine with a nice feel but neutral smell, but I can't abide a wine that smells nice but tastes rough. All aspects are important; but particularly in the context of food, balance and texture on the palate becomes even more essential.

- Jerry D Mead - 03-23-1999 09:48 PM

I can tell you it's almost impossible for a wine to win a medal at a competition without a nose. In that situation, judges use their noses to weed out the wheat from the chaf...if a wine doesn't make the nose cut, it has almost no chance of even being included in the finalists.


- Randy Caparoso - 03-23-1999 11:47 PM

Which is why there is such a thing as wines "made for show," and perfectly good, decent drinking wines which would never "show." Don't get me wrong, Curmudgeon, I think the shows are a great way for word to get out on wines that deserve consumers' attention. But the process itself is flawed in that:

1. The percentages of placing high are against wines that taste better on the palate than other wines, but which aren't as showy in the nose.

2. Especially since (and I'm sure even you'll agree) it's more important for wines to have better balance on the palate when it comes to food (ergo, the shows aren't highlighting the most food worthy wines, which is everyone's ticket to making wine more popular with the common man).

3. Common man does NOT taste wine like wine judges, which is the way cats eat food. I don't know about you, but if my wife catches me sniffing, snorting, and gargling at the table (which I do plenty of at work), I get slapped upside the head. Wine (AND food) is meant to be "taken by mouth" (as my blood pressure prescription instructs); not dribbled, scribbled, weeded and seeded, blah, blah.

For further evidence, one need look no further than the wines of Europe, and the wines of Australia. Everyone knows that the great wines of, say, France just aren't meant to be "rated" the way American wines are. In blind tasting after tasting -- Margaux vs. Mondavi Reserve Cab, Chateau Montelena Chard vs. Martray Corton Charlemagne, etc. -- American style wines invariably "win." But is Margaux and Bonneau du Martray thought of any less amongst us wine geeks? Of course not!

Conversely, in showings involving big, blustery Australian wines against, say, American and European wines, it's the Australians which invariably "come out on top." Does this mean Australia makes the greatest wines of the world? I don't even want to get into that.

But as I said, this is not meant to be critical of any judging process per se. These things serve their purpose -- especially in terms of publicizing specific wines and whole industries, which deserve such publicity. All I'm doing is pointing out the drawbacks of systems that favor nose over palate impressions; which, of course, can be balanced out by merchants and, God forbid, writers who can see it in their good heart to recommend stuff the competitions might not uncover.

Defense rests... with a glass of Pinot.

- Jerry D Mead - 03-24-1999 06:50 AM

Well, it's the nose that gets them considered...but THEN they have to taste good and be balanced too or they get eliminated during the tasting portion.

Wines which smell more or less neutral still get tasted and considered...but if the smell really bad I mark them with my own special code...DNPIM (do not place in mouth). And every time my nose tells me something is truly that bad and I go ahead and taste it to give the wine every possible chance...I never fail to regret it.

Bad smelling wine cannot taste good.

And at our show, at least, the Aussies do o.k. but sure don't steal the show.

Our judges a pretty well balanced an open to a wide variety of style...we gave golds to champagnes from both North Carolina and Mass. this years...and Gruet from New Mexico often does well. Our champion rose has had a Cucamonga Valley appellation for three years in a row...with two different producers.

We actually gave our sweepstakes to a Missouri Vignoles one year.


- Thomas - 03-24-1999 08:48 AM

If I write my deepest feelings about wine competitions WC will throw me outta here. Suffice to say, Randy makes good points, and points I hate to say that often prove why some of the wines winning top Golds either don't taste the same from the shelf, or aren't the same.

Having said that, I disagree, Randy, that taste on the palate is all -- it is, with regard to food, no doubt. But aroma is part of taste. Again, you can't taste something, truly, if you can't smell it. Or put another way, if it has no smell, the taste is likely weak.

As for swirling, I often catch myself swirling a cup of coffee or juice or water. Habit, what! But I haven't taken to sniffing ever liquid in my glass, at least not in public.

- Bucko - 03-24-1999 11:27 AM

FWIW, it is generally accepted that 80% of taste is due to smell.

I personally have gone full circuit on wine judgings. I once thought that they were the ultimate, gradually drifted away from them to the point that I thought they had no merit, and have now returned to the point that they do indeed have a good deal of merit. They get people away from Carlo Rossi and into fighting varietals, then on up the ladder.

Are judgings perfect? Of course not. Do showy wines or atypical wines often win medals? Yes. Do wines built for aging often win nothing? Yes. But far many more times than not, the wines that make it to the medal rounds are solid wines, worthy of your attention.

Judging these wines makes a person a bit humble when the winner of a round is often the least expensive wine. Too many people in America are trophy hunters, drummed on by Wine Spectator and Wine Advocate. Less that 90 points? Forget it buddy! Well let me tell you, there are a LOT of darn good 85 point wines out there selling for a fraction of the cult wines. A good example is the Forest Glen Sangiovese, $10, darn tasty. I turned my neighbor on to this wine and he thought the wheel was reinvented. A wine judging did this for him. That is what it is all about, and we should be striving to push these wines on the masses. How many times have I heard "Ugghh, I don't like wine." Of course they drank from a box. I love to see their eyes light up when I serve them a decent wine. Okay, enough soap box - sorry.


- Thomas - 03-24-1999 11:40 AM

You said a mouthful (pun intended) Bucko. In part of what you said lies some of the problem -- those ratings. I have a vision that with each high rating (not to mention price) the wine industry loses one more potential consumer. Why don't we have steak rating numbers or hamburger rating numbers? Because it is ridiculous, and it is not how everyday consumption is established.

Having said that, I do believe we need some sort of rating to set standards -- if only producers would halt from using them to sell wine FAT CHANCE!

- n144mann - 03-24-1999 12:38 PM

Well, I wasn't going to get involved in this, but since you are in the novice section, like I stay out no matter where you are, I will add my two cents worth.
Speaking as a novice here, the numbers do have some value for us. When you walk into a large retail shop, know nothing about wine, are too intimidated to ask the manager (not a problem I have had [img][/img] but I know some are), those little numbers help give you some idea where to start. As you learn they become less important and you realize that all is NOT wrapped up in the neat tidy little number package. Until you have the knowlege of the producers, the labels, the vintages, etc. etc. etc.,IMHO the numbers have it for a lot of people!!


- Randy Caparoso - 03-24-1999 04:31 PM

Thank goodness, consumers can still count on tons of wine stores across the country -- including one right down the street from me -- where they can always get good, solid recommendations, with nary a mention of scores and medals. A big daddy, in my book, is Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant in Berkeley, where you darn well that most of those wines would barely rate an 80 or 85, let along "finish" in a competition. They're too peculiarly French! But fascinating, and great with food, in their own intricate ways.

Foodie, you get me wrong. I do not contend that palate is "everything." I just say that it's slightly more important than nose, not the other way around. Of course, a nose has to be attractive, and the more complex and interesting the better. But I'm sorry, Bucko, but I think the balance of importance SHOULD be closer to 51%/49% in favor of palate. But keep in mind that I think of palate as a combination of tongue sensations, the aroma-related flavors that reach the olfactory through the back of the palate, and most important, the balance, texture and harmony of all the above.

It's on the palate where, say, a Chateau Margaux or La Tache really show their stuff. But if you stick such standbys in a blind tasting next to, say, a Caymus or Williams-Selyem, you know that there's a good chance that even the most seasoned tasters would "rank" the Californians higher. Especially if they can't resist the natural tendency to fixate on nose. You can say that that's how the cookie crumbles, but common sense tells you that there's more to it that, well meets the nose. If you're in a situation where you're called upon or forced to apply certain standards which you normally would not apply -- like simply "nosing" through 250 samples in order to eliminate the ones not "eligible" for medal consideration -- then you're bound to end up doing something outrageous... like eliminating a Margaux or La Tache. This may sound extreme, but I've personally seen it in private tastings -- in which a big year Margaux, a Montrachet or Pichon Lalande were cast to the bottom of a heap by people who normally enjoy them! Blind tastings are simply unnatural.

Nevertheless, Curmudgeon, judging from your recent results, it's obvious that your judges are getting better and better about overcoming these tendencies. In my life, I've only been in two large tasting situations (in the Sonoma County Fair and Kapalua, Maui), and I could clealy see that it takes a great deal of self-discipline to judge. One of the biggest constraints is time, which causes perfectly good wines to be flung unceremoniously by the wayside. And all it takes is one impatient, assertive panel member to destroy an entire group's willingness to keep an open mind, and not judge a book by its cover.

- Thomas - 03-24-1999 08:50 PM


If this novice went by a recent high rating (near 100) for Beringer Chardonnay, the wood in which would make a sawmill owner salivate, I would have been quite displeased with both the price tag and the way the wine ruined my dinner. Then, I would have been gun-shy to buy a rated wine, or perhaps any wine.
Ratings have an audience, no doubt about it, but at what price to the need for a wider audience?

- Randy Caparoso - 03-24-1999 09:50 PM

Well, foodie, even I really can't totally condemn scoring. What we really need is a total team effort -- writers, retailers, restaurateurs, the entire production and distribution industry, friends, neighbors, countrymen -- to help get the enjoyment of wine to the point where it's accepted as a food and a civilized part of everyday life that it is. At that point, I have a feeling that it will be easier for people to understand that a huge, opulent, 90+ point oak infused Napa Valley Chardonnay is NOT for drinking with normal white wine food. I'm sure, for instance, that the latest Beringer Private Reserve could be just fine with veal, sweetbreads or whole stuffed organic chicken in viscous, buttery, Chardonnay-laced natural juices. But this is the kind of knowledge that should come as naturally as knowing that you don't drive a limo onto the beach, let your daughter take the Lexus to a Marilyn Manson concert, or check into the Oscars in your lovably beat-up Deadhead van.

There's a time and place for all wines, from the cheapest White Zins to the most Parker-ized Cabs and Chards. I think we'll get there yet.