Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars
Constructive Deconstruction: Understanding Sensory Evaluation
Breaking a healthy wine into bits is not destructive. It creates a clear picture of why favorite wines please and in what ways less agreeable bottles leave something to be desired. Useful sensory evaluation requires only a reliable vocabulary and a personal memory bank.
For many, how a food – liquid or solid – feels in your mouth matters more than exact flavors and aromas. Principal contributors to texture in wine (and some words associated with them) are: acid (crisp, tart, sour at the high end; soft, bland, flabby at the low); sugar (juicy, rich, cloying); alcohol (juicy, rich, warm, hot, fiery) and tannin (firm, rough, drying, gritty, bitter). Tannin shows soonest between the inside of the upper lip and the front teeth. Acidity bites the sides of the tongue. Alcohol is felt readily at the back of the throat.
Individual preferences differ. People who love unsweetened grapefruit juice enjoy sharper acidity than people who think apple juice is not sweet enough. Some enjoy alcohol’s heat at whiskey-ish levels; others resist it.
Classic opposites among red wines are Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon. To achieve their velvet-smooth textures, Pinots couple relatively high alcohols with low tannins and moderate acidities. Cabernets become spare by setting low alcohols against sharper tannins and fairly brisk acid levels. Viticulturists can narrow the gap by ripening Pinots less than normal, Cabernets more. Winemakers can push farther in the same direction. Taste covers only four items: sweet, sour, salt and bitter. The tongue deals with those, and its job is done. As with texture, individual preferences vary.
Winemakers and ultra-serious tasters make a map of the tongue, locating the tip as most sensitive to sweet, the sides as most perceptive of acidity, and the back as the best place to spot bitterness. Serious excesses or shortages in any one character will be felt all over the mouth.
The remaining 10,000 "flavors" - we can perceive are really aromas, the province of the nose, and deeply subjective. How we feel about what our noses perceive permits one bibber to praise the same wine another excoriates.
Pyrazine is a perfect example. The aromatic compound common to peppers and members of the Sauvignon family of grape varieties can be welcomed, or scorned, as tasting vegetative, herbaceous, grassy, bell peppery, or like cat pee or gooseberries. Most aromatic compounds – or combinations of compounds – cannot be pinned so neatly. To get back to pyrazine, it can make under ripe Cabernet taste exactly like a bell pepper. As it fades with ripeness, the flavor association for Cabernet progresses from herbaceous to olivaceous to cassis-like to berryish. Overripe grapes produce flavors described as jammy, porty and, finally, raisiny.
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