March 30, 2023

The Wino’s Geek Speak Part Deux

I began explaining some style definitions and descriptive terms commonly used by winemakers as they discuss and evaluate the labors of their fruit. Here I continue on with the topics of taste and smell that were cut from my last column to be pasted here for your enjoyment.

Bitterness, Astringency, and Tannins

What many people run in fear of when mistakenly saying a wine (particularly reds) is too dry are overly tannic wines that leave a bitter flavor and extreme puckering astringency. Many people confuse bitterness and astringency. Bitterness is a flavor. It’s somewhat difficult to describe without making you taste something bitter, but if you’ve ever swallowed one of those gigantic horse-pill medicines, you’ve experienced bitterness.

Astringency on the other hand is a textural sensation. It’s that roughened feeling you get in your mouth where it seems like all your saliva has mysteriously vanished and been replaced with gritty sandpaper. The two are easy to confuse as things that are bitter tend to be astringent, and vice versa. Just remember, one’s a flavor, one’s a sensation.

That brings us to tannins, which are the compounds in red wine that give it that drying, mouth roughening sensation. In well made wines, the tannins provide a rich, full, dense mouthfeel to the wine, and are often referred to as supple. Wines that have been over-extracted tend toward that harsh finish that produces tasting room moments which would make the producers of the bitter beer face commercials proud.

Fruit, and Spice, and Everything Nice

I’m sure many of you are familiar with the typical wine critic review, “Blah, blah, fruity, blah, blah, spicy, yada, yada, yada.”

I’ve heard many a wine taster ask, “How do they get the apple in there? Do they just add some in?” Grapes are fruit, so it’s not all that peculiar to have a wine that has a fruity flavor. Grapes are interesting in that they can produce a wide range of aromatic compounds that are similar to other fruit in how they smell and taste.

Toss in the compounds produced by yeast during fermentation, and the range of possibilities is huge. So all those pompous wine descriptions you read where the wine snob talks about cherries, and plums, and all sorts of other fruit terms, well there is some credence to that.

The same goes for spicy flavors like black pepper and anise. Since many wines are aged in charred oak barrels, you also tend to get many flavor compounds that are smoky, or have a sweet vanilla essence, which is formed when certain compounds in the wood break down during the roasting process in charring the barrels.

The trick to this descriptive method is training yourself to associate what, for instance, say a strawberry smells like with the word strawberry, since most people simply haven’t trained themselves to rely on smell as a distinct sense in defining things.

To prove the point, wear a blindfold the next time you rummage through your spice cabinet, and see how many smells you can associate with the name of the spice you stick under your nose (and this is with obvious standards that have no competition from other smells).

When in Sedona, be sure to visit:  Javelina Leap Vineyards and Winery, 1565 Page Springs Road, Cornville, AZ 86325 (928) 649-2681 • Open weekends or by appointment.


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