am 10. April 2004
If you decide to read only one book about wine tasting, you can happily make it this one.
Unless you have tasted many wines, chances are that you have not yet found the 20 wines you would like the most in your price range. If you are like me, you don't want to spend thousands of dollars to locate wines you would like better than what you now drink. What can you do? Read this book, and start tasting along with some adventuresome friends!
In the mid-1970s, I was fortunate to work for Heublein which made and imported many fine wines. At dozens of tastings, I was introduced to hundreds of superb wines and had a chance to buy them very inexpensively. From that rich experience, I have been given the opportunity to select wines at many great restaurants and many social occasions. People always marvel at how much I know about wines.
Can I let you in on a little secret? If you use the process in How to Taste, you will probably exceed my wine knowledge in a few months. What's the reason? Well, I haven't tasted geographically as widely as this book suggests. I know a great deal about French, German, and California wines but relatively little about those coming from other locales. In fact, I plan to use this remarkable book to guide myself into a broadened palate.
Jancis Robinson is a wonderful wine tasting resource. She obviously knows her stuff. She breaks the most complicated issues down into simple, constituent pieces that can be easily grasped. She knows how to give you the experiences you need to find wines you will like better with a minimum of effort and expense. And she writes well, so the words go down easily.
Each chapter has theory and practice sections, along with tasting exercises (sometimes of common foods rather than wines). The bulk of the book has separate sections for the major grape varieties and wine types that builds on the basic knowledge she helped you build in the beginning (white -- Gewurztraminer, Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Semillon, Riesling, Chenin Blanc, and the Rhone Whites; red -- Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Gamay, Sirah, Grenache, and the southern French and Italian reds; sparkling; sherry; port).
The exercises usually involve "blind" tastings, so you'll need a partner. But that is what makes wine tasting fun! It's an enjoyable social event.
Did you know that the average adult can detect over 1000 distinct flavors? I was fascinated by the regional taste influences. Californians often detect "bell pepper" notes in their wines, for example, while others usually do not.
Taste is heavily influenced by smell. So you'll learn to taste when you sense is smell is very fine, and to be sure that the room and people are as odor free as possible. The tricks for helping the wine develop its bouquet are detailed here, especially having the right kind of glass with a stem for twirling and sniffing.
As to tastes themselves, the most significant are sweetness, sourness, saltiness, and bitterness. You will learn to detect where on your tongue you detect each one. You will also come to appreciate which balances of these qualities appeal the most to you. Sweetness without the right acidity lacks spark, for example. Naturally, with wines you also have the effect of how much alcohol the wine contains (weight), the impact of oak casks (when those are used for aging as with Chardonnays), and the various ways that wine can spoil (usually because of a cork failure).
Finally, mouth feel is part of the experience of tasting. The tiny bubbles of methode champignoise explode gently against all parts of your mouth while induced carbon dioxide bubbles leave wholes in the taste and seem coarse.
You will learn a way to test a wine for cleanliness, balance, length, and look and how to take notes so that you'll be able to "remember" your experience.
A big problem with wine tasting is that the more you taste, the more your tongue becomes anesthetized by the alcohol. You can also become tipsy. So tastings often feature spittoons or other places to expectorate. The book explains how to handle that. Soon, you will know "the noble art of spitting."
Each variety and wine type is then characterized by these taste qualities so you'll have some idea of what types of wines are likely to tickle your newly trained palate.
Now that you know what you want to taste, the book also directs you on when, where, and how to direct your tasting.
Once you have identified your favorites, Ms. Robinson goes on to suggest some unusual combinations of wines and foods that you may not have considered. Obviously, foods and wines can wonderfully compliment or negate one another. She also has some non-traditional ideas about red wines and fish that I suggest you try.
How to Taste is also delightfully enhanced by many beautiful color photographs. I particularly liked the ones that captured the subtle colors of the grape varieties and wines made from them.
After you have learned all of this about tasting, I suggest that you also put your new talent to work in identifying healthier foods that you can eat which will also make your dining tastier for you.
A votre sante!