For most of us, the answer is 'no.' Many of us enjoy wine just because it is alcoholic, and could not care less how it actually tastes. I am in the group of people who enjoy wine for the taste and the sensation of pleasure it provides from a lot of different perspectives - seeing it, swirling it, smelling it, the texture it provides against the inside of my cheeks being just a few of those sensations. However, I cannot do a decent job of describing how it tastes with regards to its flavor. There are people who can articulate most, if not all, characteristics of wine, and precisely define a multitude of flavors coming through. And, finally, there are the pure bullshitters who know that 95% of us don't have a clue, so they take a chance and try to impress us that they know. I love catching those liars out!
The highest certification you can achieve for wine tasting is the International Master of Wine (MW). This distinction means, you not only can taste the different nuances in many different wines, but that you can describe those nuances in a consistent manner with other MWs when writing or speaking about the wine. It also means you can identify the characteristics and have a good chance of identifying what country, or region of the world the wine comes from, describe the influence of its particular terroir, and have a vast lexicon of terms to describe the wines flavors (including '"cat's pee" for some Sauvignon Blancs!).
Becoming a MW requires a lot of study, practice and tasting. It is estimated that it costs about $200,000 in wine you are required to buy and taste to be able to pass the exams. Many MWs are naturally blessed and have 'super-taster' capabilities (25% - 40% more taste buds in their mouth than normal people), otherwise known as "cook's palate." But many are also just normal people, greatly dedicated to their craft and their passion.
There are less than 500 MWs in the world. I am certain that I will never become one. Heck, the cost of $200,000 to even attempt it is a road block for almost all of us. While I enjoy my wine greatly and enjoy writing and speaking about it and sharing experiences with others, I will just never put in that kind of dedication to achieve such a distinction.
I can describe how wine feels, if it is balanced, or if the tannins are fully integrated. I can also define if it has a long or short finish. But when it comes to defining flavor or taste, I have a limited ability of description. In my recent post on "Yatarnna Bin 144 - Penfolds White Grange," I describe the flavor of the 2006 Yatarnna as "powerful lemon flavors and some peach and grass flavor." The lemon was obvious to me for this wine, and 'it seemed' like a little bit of peach flavoring, or it could have been a bit of honeydew melon. I was not really sure. In the great book on Penfolds entitled "The Rewards of Patience," a group of wine reviewing experts, including Halliday, Mattinson and Hooke describe this wine as "Flinty pear/lemon curd/white peach aromas and fine pronounced tangy acidity." They tasted this wine four years before me, and I expect the wine changed markedly over time. For starters, the wine no longer has a tangy acidity. It has mellowed nicely. And was their 'curd peach,' my 'grass?'
Surprisingly, I did pretty well on this wine, but could not describe accurately most other wines. And most of you who taste wine less than I do could not either. Most of us don't even think about the flavor or other characteristics of the wine, yet we can still greatly enjoy a wine and are able to determine if it is a great, good, mediocre or bad wine. (To me, 'mediocre' is as bad as bad, so I won't bother with 'mediocre - life is too short!)
But I have over time developed a simple lexicon for trying to decipher and describe the flavor of the wine I am tasting. And it somewhat varies for red and white wines. There are some great books on wine tasting and some kits and flavor guides you can buy to help you along the way. However, there is no substitute for just trying a number of different wines next to each other and sharing and attempting to describe your experiences with friends. Another good way to learn more is to participate in winery tastings when they announce the new vintages. These are quite inexpensive and a great way to learn from the way the wine makers describe their wines. We have gotten 6 - 8 of us together to do this several times with great fun and success.
It may seem intimidating to do this around people you know are far more mature tasters than you are, but most wine lovers are delighted to enjoy and share a good bottle with you and derive great pleasure from assisting others learn and appreciate wine more. (And if they do, they fit my definition of a 'wine enthusiast', if they don't, then the are 'wine snobs!')
We have two friends who are wine judges and are studying for their MW. We are going to their place for lunch this coming Sunday. We have done this about five times in the last three years and have had them over to our place a similar number of times. We have shared some great meals and great wines together. Initially I felt a little extra pressure to be sure I selected some great wines to enjoy, but as we got to know each other and enjoy each others company and shared interest in good wine, we quickly found ourselves in a very comfortable and safe environment to try some special wines, and discuss them with relative experts.
Do not be afraid to just mix it up and give it a go! I remember the first time my wife tried a Tannat (secondary red grape), her reaction was "Wow- I can't describe it, but I love what it does to my mouth!" Needless to say, the wine maker was delighted by her response.
In Part 2, I will provide the simple lexicon I use to attempt to describe the flavor of both red and white wines, and hopefully provide some ideas on how you can describe wines also.