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Enhancing Your Enjoyment of Wine

We'd like to share some insights on the delights of tasting and imbibing wine.

There are so many aspects of wine to appreciate! First of all, we encourage you to approach wine -- and drink it -- in the way that's most comfortable for you. We're offering these thoughts, reflecting on a couple of decades of joyous professional (and personal) experience with wine, in the hope of making it easier for you to "get more out of" and "get more deeply into" every sip, every glass, every food and wine combination.

Wine can sometimes seem mysterious. We'll begin by being a bit analytical -- noting a few different facets of wine, to point your attention in directions you might not have explored. But ultimately we urge you to let go and focus on the overall presence of a wine -- simply, intuitively getting involved with it.

Focus on What A Wine Tastes Like

Noting what a wine's aromas and flavors remind you of will likely make it come more alive for you as you drink it and as you enjoy its interplay with the foods you're eating. And this way of paying attention to the wine will certainly make it easier for you to remember it later and to describe to a sommelier or wine merchant what you like in wine. It's the way most of us wine professionals keep track of and distinguish among the thousands of wines we taste in the course of a year.

The aromas and flavors in wines usually fall into ranges of notes that recall various foods, as well as other substances that we recognize by taste or smell. The following are meant to give you an idea of types of flavors that can be found in wine and stimulate your sensory attentiveness. Thanks to the enormous range of aromatic compounds naturally formed during the miraculous fermentation of grapes, there are thousands of things wine can taste like!

· Fruits - berries, pit fruits, melons, citrus fruits, figs, tropical fruits
(We've begun with fruits because wine is, after all, made from a fruit -- and flavors recalling other fruits are the most common aromatics in wine.)
· Vegetables - green beans, celery, asparagus, leafy vegetables
· Nuts - almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts, pecans, Brazil nuts, macadamia nuts
· chocolate, vanilla, coffee
· Lactic notes - butter, caramel, toffee
· Mineral notes - stones, chalk
· Earthy notes - forest underbrush, potting soil, plowed field
· Spices - black pepper, ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom
· Herbs - sage, mint, eucalyptus, tarragon, thyme
· Flowers - roses, honeysuckle, orange blossom, carnation, hyacinth, lilac
· Woodsmoke, char, smoked meats
· Animal notes - leather, horsebarn, chickenyard, cat pee (yes, really!)

Some of these, of course, occur more often in red wines, others usually in whites. Generally combinations of these different kinds of scents and tastes coexist in a wine.

These aromas and flavors will usually evolve as the wine remains in the glass and interacts with air; they will also evolve in the bottle over the course of an evening -- they are moving targets, if you're trying to "catch" them. Don't let that bother you -- go with the flow and pay the most attention to the ones you most enjoy or that most intrigue you.

Get to Know Wine Flaws

It helps to recognize the basic flaws that often occur in wine. This might seem to be odd advice. But we've often observed that people learning about wine will decide that they don't like a particular kind of wine because the first bottle they tasted of that type was flawed, and they didn't recognize the unpleasant aroma or flavor as a flaw. They then deny themselves the pleasure of all of the delicious bottles of that type of wine they'll never drink because of one bad experience. Wine flaws are, unfortunately, quite common.

· Corked bottles -- A problem so widespread that a growing number of quality-conscious producers are switching to screwcaps. We applaud that trend! A corked wine tastes musty in a kind of sharp way, like a combination of a dirty dishrag, a bitter herb and a cleaning chemical. If the "cork taint" is slight, the wine will have just a trace of that smell and taste but will be rather "mute" and stripped of its usual aromatics.

· Cooked bottles -- A wine subjected to moderate heat for a prolonged period of time or extreme heat for a shorter time will seem baked, dried out, pruny, dull, flat and lifeless on the palate.

· Over-sulphured bottles -- Even good producers sometimes add a bit more sulphur dioxide at bottling than they perhaps need to, to make sure the wine will be stable during shipping and afterward. Winemakers who work artisanally and with care and those who farm organically will tend to use less. But sulphur is capricious -- it can "surface" and be more noticeable at certain phases after a wine is bottled or shipped. Sulphur can smell and taste like sweaty socks, a burnt match or something vaguely fecal. Suffice it to say it's not pleasant.

· Oxydized bottles -- Exposure of a wine to air (through a bad cork, for example, or one that's shrunk due to drying or heat, letting air into the bottle) will impart flat nutty aromas and flavors to a wine and change its color toward brown -- rather like what happens to a slice of apple on a plate. It can be interesting, agreeable and part of a wine's natural evolution when these kinds of flavors develop slowly and subtly over a period of years in a wine that's meant to age. But a young white wine should hardly ever be deep yellow; a young red wine usually shouldn't be brownish.

Get a Feel for What "Dry" and "Sweet"
Mean to You
-- And Open Your Mind and Palate to the Full Range of Pleasurable Wine Sensations!

Each individual connects a different range of sensations and qualities with the words "sweet" and "dry" -- there's far less consensus on this than you might imagine. Whether someone is looking for a "dry" or a "sweet" wine is very frequently the first or most important feature mentioned to us -- often quite emphatically.

Most people who work with wine, though, love wines in the entire range from "dry" (meaning lacking residual sugar and having a pronounced level of acidity and tannin that add liveliness and/or structure) to "very sweet" (say, viscous rich dessert wines -- which can nonetheless still have some acidity or tannin in them to make them balanced and/or long-lived). We know through pleasurable experience that every type of wine has some kind of food with which it creates the perfect synergy.

To make it easier to obtain a wine that will please you in its level of dryness/sweetness:

· Make note to yourself of different types of wines that you find "too dry," "too sweet," or "just right" (see the tips below on recording what's on the label). If you can tell a wine merchant or sommelier that a particular type of wine -- or even a specific wine itself -- had just the degree of dryness you're looking for, it will help in matching a new wine to your taste.

· Focus above all on the balance of a wine. If it feels "just right" overall, enjoy it! Each wine has its own very individual balance of acidity, sweetness/ripeness and tannin (usually a feature of red wines) -- and what we look for is an equilibrium of those elements resulting in a seamless, delicious whole palate impression.

If you've got an aversion to sweetness -- as do many wine drinkers, because people in the USA have been bombarded for decades with cloying, unbalanced, synthetic-tasting sweet wines ranging from inexpensive jug wines on up to very pricy bottlings -- consider overcoming it! Often a wine with a bit of sweetness will be the most perfect match with a particular dish, especially spicy foods. Also, you might actually like more sweetness in wine than you think, because for a long time it's been considered so uncool to like sweetness in wine that many wine drinkers have simply convinced themselves to avoid it. And do keep in mind that definitely sweet wines provide an entire range of ways to enhance the enjoyment of dessert!

· Remember that wine will taste different depending on whether you drink it with food (historically the way wine was conceived to be enjoyed in the countries where it originated) or by itself. It can also be helpful to note how "dry" or "sweet" a wine seemed to you relative to the food it accompanied, or on its own.

Experience Wine with All of the Senses

Often the wines we remember best are those we encounter in a particularly pleasurable setting, when we're relaxed, in good company, celebrating a special occasion, on vacation where we're most open to new experiences -- in short, when we're most receptive and our senses are heightened. The ideal is to approach wine, at any time, with that kind of joyous openness.

The experience of drinking wine has something to offer to all of your senses. You might try focusing attentively on what each sense conveys:

· First, you can enjoy the sound of the cork being popped (if there's a cork) and the subtle sound of pouring -- these sounds stimulate the happy anticipation of imminent palate pleasures.

· Next, note the wine's color -- wine comes in a rainbow range of pale straw to deep gold, amber tones, myriad shades of pink, light to dark reds with more or less purple or brown in them -- and how opaque or clear it looks (if it's red); if it's bubbly, note the size of the bubbles, see how lively they are.

· Place your nose so it just hovers over the glass to take in the aromas before taking the first sip. This is a key part of the process -- most of what we taste -- the flavor -- is actually smell; the tongue mainly conveys sweetness, bitterness, saltiness or tartness. Swirl the wine gently in the glass -- you'll see how a little bit of air mixing with it makes the aromas bloom and come alive.

· Taste the wine fully -- in the front of the mouth first, then swirl it (discreetly) around and enjoy all of its flavors. As you swallow it, see how long the flavors linger after you swallow -- a long "finish" is a feature to look for in a fine wine.

· Feel the texture and weight of the wine in your mouth. It might be rough or smooth, "chewy" or silky; it might feel as light as water or rich, dense, voluminous or creamy.

Note the Information on the Label

When you encounter a wine you really like, if it's convenient, write down as much information from the wine's label as you can. You'll want to note at least some if not all of these items:

For an Old World wine -

· The winemaker/producer/winery name
· The appellation/place name
· The specific vineyard site name
· The particular name of the wine, if the winemaker has given it one
· The vintage date
· The grape variety, if noted
· The importer and/or distributor name (often on the back label)

For a New World wine -

· The winemaker/producer/winery name
· The grape variety
· The vintage
· Any special name of the cuvée
· The name of a specific vineyard site
· The importer and/or distributor name (check the back label)

This will help you find the wine later, at a shop or in a restaurant. Many people assume it will be easy to find a wine again by recognizing the label, but often this is an impractical method.

Revel in the Uniqueness of
Each Wine Experience

Do keep in mind that one experience with a given wine will not be the same as the next experience with even a wine that has the very same label. The occasion will be different, the food will be different, the bottle might be a bit different, too. Bottle variation -- originating at the winery or from shipping or storage conditions -- is a fact of wine life, all the more so with fine artisinally made individualistic wines. And you'll be feeling different, too....So enjoy the variety of experience -- vive la difference!