Before we dive, yet again, into the wonderful world of wine, let’s get one thing out in the open; this is not a sponsored post. This is a story of five men meeting in a dark cellar with the sincere intent of increasing our knowledge of wine.
We started our journey at the Vineyards Wine Bar Bistro, a very unique local restaurant situated at the heart of the Byward Market in Ottawa. Here, owner Barb Mireault and her team try to replicate an old fashioned British Wine Bar, and do so to great success.
The restaurant has over 175 different types of wines and a manager who knows almost everything about each one. We came out of this cellar slightly drunk (we were hammered) and with a new found appreciation for one of mankind’s oldest and most beloved drinks. Below, we’ll share some of the things we learned while we sipped, and in turn we hope you might drop in at Vineyards or another local wine bar for a wine tasting experience of your own.
Welcome to FMMS’ Fortnight of Wine! As the harvest season approaches, we thought it would be the perfect time to take a deep dive into that most wonderful of elixirs. Over the next two weeks, we’ll have a few more posts than usual as we explore wine’s ins and outs, after which we’ll be be back to our regularly scheduled programming. So grab a glass of your favourite and read on, for as Andre Simon said, “Wine makes every meal an occasion, every table more elegant, every day more civilized.”
Monday, September 15 – A Brief History of Wine
Wednesday, September 17 – Varieties of Wine
Friday, September 19 – Sangria
Monday, September 22 – Conversations with a Wine Connoisseur
Wednesday, September 24 – Our Wine Tasting Experience
Friday, September 26 – Conversations with a Winemaker
Wine Tasting 101
Properly tasting and understanding wine can be a daunting task. There are so many varieties, with so many distinct flavours and characteristics. In reality, however, wine tasting is not too complicated and really comes down to being aware of what you are experiencing from each glass of wine; from its appearance to its aroma, and taste, and what your overall impressions are. Like everything else, this takes practice, but who wouldn’t want to practice drinking wine!?
Experiencing a wine can be broken down into four categories; sight, smell, taste, and overall impressions.
Sight: The first step in your wine tasting experience is to take a look at the wine – a real good look. We don’t simply mean noticing whether the wine is white or red (if this part is hard, wine tasting may just not be for you…). If the wine is red, what kind of red (ruby, purple, etc.)? Is the wine clear or very opaque? Does the wine look appealing to you, or would you rather not take a sip? Take in all of this information. Some common characteristics are:
- Red wines can range from light red to ruby or purple.
- White wines can be very clear, yellow, or even slightly green-looking.
- Look to see if the wine is cloudy or clear and if it has any sparkle to it.
- Does the wine have legs? (This refers to lines of liquid forming down the glass after you swirl it and is generally an indication of a fuller bodied wine with higher alcohol content)
Smell: A wine’s scent will reveal quite a bit about its character. To properly smell the wine, swirl it in your glass for a couple of seconds in order to properly oxidize it and then take a good whiff. What type of aromas do you smell? Some common ones are:
- Fruits (Berries, figs, or black-currants are common in reds while apples and citrus fruits are common in whites)
- Floral (Do you smell different flowers or spices?)
- Earthy smells (These could include different minerals or even dirt)
- Oak notes (Is there an oaky or wood smell?)
After your first smell, swirl the wine again, and repeat. Have the aromas changed at all? Do you notice any aromas that you didn’t notice before? Can you confirm what you experienced with your first smell?
Taste: Finally, after observing and smelling the wine, you’ll actually get to taste it! Hooray! Your first taste should be a big mouthful that covers all of your taste buds (don’t be shy). Wine generally has five basic characteristics and this is where you will be able to really decipher them:
- Tannins: This compound gives wine a dry and somewhat bitter taste. Have you ever drank a glass of wine which left your mouth dried out? That’s the tannins at work. This compound gives flavour and colour to the wine and also acts as a preservative. They’re often described as being similar to rubbing a ball of cotton in your mouth or placing a soaked tea bag on your tongue. Tannins are usually only found in red wine.
- Fruit: Wines generally have an underlying fruit flavour. For example, red wines often taste of red or black fruits such as black-currants or other berries while white wines often have a citrus flavour.
- Body: This generally refers to the sense of alcohol in the wine and to how long the taste of wine lasts in your mouth after swallowing. Wines with higher alcohol by volume (ABV) are generally more full-bodied.
- Acidity: This gives wine a tart taste and leaves a tingly sensation in your palette.
- Sweetness: Wine can range from being very sweet to very dry tasting or anywhere in between.
The taste of wine can be further broken down into three stages: the attack, evolution, and finish.
- The Attack: This is the impression you get when you first taste the wine. You’ll first be able to note the tannins and the acidity of the wine. You’ll also be able to decipher whether the wine is sweet or dry and you should also be able to get a sense of the body, or the alcohol content. Is the wine dry or sweet? That should be easy to tell. Are there a lot of tannins in the wine, leaving your mouth and throat dry? Is there an acidic taste to the wine?
- The Evolution: After noticing these general characteristics, you’ll start to notice the actual taste profile of the wine. It is here where you’ll begin to detect any underlying fruit flavours. For red wine, you may start to notice berries, black-currants, and figs. For white wines, you’ll usually be able to make out citrus flavours or even apples. You’ll also begin to pick up on other unique flavours such as oak, nuts, or vanilla.
- The Finish: This phase refers to the taste of the wine after you’ve swallowed it. Essentially, the aftertaste. Here, you’ll get a better sense of the wine’s body. A light-bodied wine will generally go down like a glass of water, while medium and full-bodied wines are often compared to milk and cream, respectively. You’ll also be able to note how long the taste lasts. Is it short lived or does it linger a while?
Overall Impression: After tasting your wine, it’s important to note your overall impressions. If you find a truly exceptional wine, you’ll definitely want to remember it in the future while staying clear of wines you really didn’t enjoy. Take a bit of time to think about why you liked (or disliked) the wine and whether you would have it again.
Here are some resources we found quite useful:
Our Wine Tasting Experience
Recently, a few of us here at FMMS had dinner at Vineyards and tried some of their wine flights in the hopes of practicing our newfound wine tasting abilities. We found the flavours of certain wines easy to understand (The Riesling was sweet and had hints of citrus) while others remained complete mysteries. At one point, Brandon commented, “This wine smells vaguely like cheese?” What follows are some of our attempts at wine tasting.
I personally found the underlying flavours of the white wines to be easier to identify. I also chose to stay close to home, so I went with the “Canadian Challenger’s” wine flight which showcased white wines made in the province of Ontario. The flight had two wines from Niagara, a Chardonnay and a Riesling, as well as a Vidal from Picton (I never personally had vidal blanc grapes, so I was curious to see what they were all about).
Wine 1: 2012 Chardonnay, Konzelmann, Niagara
The first wine in my flight was a Chardonnay from the Niagara region of Southern Ontario.
Sight: This wine had a very light colour and was very clear.
Smell: I’m told that this wine had scents of banana and cantaloupe mixed with mild floral notes. Unfortunately, my untrained nose could only detect the floral notes. It was, however, quite pleasant.
Taste: This wine was quite dry with a lot of body and acidity. It also had a decently long finish with the flavours lasting long after the wine was gone.
Wine 2: 2009 Riesling, Strewn, Niagara
My second wine was a Riesling, also from the Niagara region.
Sight: This wine has more of a yellow to it than the Chardonnay, but was also quite clear.
Smell: I could sense hints of peach and citrus. Wait! That’s what it’s supposed to smell like?! Yay me!!!
Taste: This wine was much sweeter than the first wine and had little to no lingering acidity. A very refreshing wine.
Wine 3: 2011 Vidal, Dog House, Picton
The third, and final wine in this flight was a Vidal Blanc from the Picton area of Ontario. At this point, I’m also feeling a little happier than when I started. I wonder if it had anything to do with the wines…My writing is also a little less clear, but I think I can still read it.
Sight: This wine, like the Chardonnay, was very light and clear.
Smell: The Vidal Blanc had distinct citrus and floral scents.
Taste: This wine was also quite sweet and fruity with a slight taste of apples
Lasting Impressions: Canadian Challengers Flight
I enjoyed these wines quite a bit and found this flight to be a good showcase of what the Ontario wine regions can offer in terms if white wines. My favourite of the three was the Riesling since I like my white wines a little on the sweeter side.
I picked the Italian Romance flight because I’m a romantic Italian…well, only half-Italian, but the romantic part is true. Honestly though, I mainly chose this flight since I’ve been exposed to more Italian wines in my life and I thought this relative familiarity would help me pick out flavours.
How very wrong I was! As everyone warned, trying to pick out the different flavours between reds is somewhat harder than whites, especially when they’re all from the same country. Here are my notes:
Wine 1: 2011 Chianti, Leonardo, Vinci and Cerreto
Chianti is a famous old world wine, from the Tuscany region of Italy, that I recently had the chance to try firsthand when I was over there visiting. I was happy to see that the flavour was as I remembered it. It remains one of my favourites.
Sight: A ruby red colour with notable legs (the wine drips down when swirled indicating that it might have lots of body).
Smell: Strong (though not as strong as the next wine) and somewhat fruity. I would describe it as hints of cherry.
Taste: Black currants, oaky, and dry, with medium tannins (again, I can say this in comparison to the next wine, which is the natural benefit of flights!). Hints of pepper. Medium-bodied.
Wine 2: 2013 Primitivo, San Marzano, Puglia
A classic Primitivo wine is high in both alcohol and tannins, intensely flavoured, and deeply coloured. I would say that this one fits that bill, but it wasn’t to my tastes. Something about the smell and aftertaste didn’t agree with my palette.
Sight: A deep red wine.
Smell: Really had trouble describing the smell here, other than that it was similar to the Chianti, except with something that didn’t sit right with me (and no, the wine was not corked).
Taste: Similar medium-bodied mouthfeel as the Chianti, but with a more velvety texture and a slightly unpleasant aftertaste.
Wine 3: 2011 Montepulciano d’Abruzo, Ilico
This is a wine that’s quite popular in my family and having it on this flight was a nice way for me to compare the others to something I was more familiar with.
Sight: Deep red (this seems common in Italian red wine). In fact, I couldn’t discern a notable colour difference in all three, though this one had more distinct legs.
Smell: It smelled “earthy”, or at least what I would imagine a pleasant earthy smell to be like? Don’t judge me, this isn’t easy!
Taste: Dry, full-bodied, strong tannins, and intense. Definitely the driest and most intense of my flight.
Lasting Impressions: Italian Romance Flight
In hindsight, I should have taken the connoisseur’s advice and tried a white wine flight first, to get my palette accustomed to tasting the subtle differences. That being said, I did know beforehand that, ignoring food pairings, I prefer dry, red wines, and the flight I chose reflected that perfectly, with my favourite probably being the Chianti.
It may seem like wine tasting is a refined activity, reserved only for the snobby elite that look down their noses at us mere peasants (under their wine glasses, no less). Does it count that some of us FMMS peasants have very sophisticated-looking beards and moustaches?
The truth is, with a little practice, wine tasting is a pretty straightforward endeavour. The key is to use three senses that we use every day – sight, smell, and taste. We all take these ablities for granted when eating or drinking. By focusing these senses on the characteristics of wine, you can indeed train yourself to discern its complexities.
We hope that our descriptions and experiences have given you a good primer on how to go about wine tasting. The old adage, “Practice makes perfect.” is considerably true in this case. And after a good amount of practice, it’s fair to say that you’ll be confident enough in your wine tasting abilities. You’ll appreciate it more and have the added benefit of being able to impress those around you.
Unless of course, it’s just the wine talking.