FRUIT: INTENSITY OF FLAVOR AND TASTE CHARACTERISTICS
The center of your tongue tastes the fruit flavors of a wine. The fruit flavors are usually tasted immediately after sipping and, in great wine, will last from 30 to 60 seconds after the wine is swallowed. The higher the quality of the wine, the more intense the fruit flavors are which emerge.
Even though all wines are made from grapes, the process of fermenting and cellaring wine creates a myriad of flavors that extend beyond the zest of the grape itself, reminding you of fruit characteristics that are not part of the ingredients, just the development. This “fruit” flavor derives from the entire grape growing process from vine to wine: planting and growing, cultivating and harvesting, grapes to wine. It does not take a sophisticated palate to identify these flavors, just a little thought and similar to analyzing aromas, a touch of imagination.
White wines may exhibit a variety of flavors. Similar to describing aromas, remember to consider both the intensity of fruit taste as well as the description. Commonly, many whites taste like tree fruits such as apple, pear or peaches; tropical fruits such as pineapple, melon or banana; and citrus fruits such as grapefruit, orange and lemon/lime. Even more exotic descriptors that are relevant to white wines include grass, butter, spice, vanilla, almond, honey, hay, smoky, herbal and mineral. Red wines are frequently placed in two camps: those which taste of fresh red-berry fruits and those which display flavors of pleasant black fruits. Red fruit flavors include cherries, strawberries, raspberries and currants. Black fruit flavors include blackberries, blueberries, plum, raisins or blackcurrants. In addition to fruit, some other flavors may be detected such as oak, cedar, spice, vanilla, pepper, herbs, chocolate, coffee and even earthy flavors such as tobacco or mushrooms. Apricots can be detected in reds as well as whites, and very old reds can occasionally possess a hint of fig in their flavors.
Along with acidity and fruit, a common and desirable flavor often detected in wine is a subtle hint of oak. Vanilla, cinnamon, ginger, spice, caramel, toffee, coffee, toasty, smoke….these are all descriptors that a wine aged in new oak barrels might elicit. Oak barrels of various sizes and shapes are used in the fermentation of some grape varieties and in long term aging and storage of many red and white wines. Their impact on the finished wine will be in the form of smoothing out or softening the texture of the wine, thereby contributing additional flavors. The type of oak, the barrel coopering techniques and the age of the barrels all affect how we perceive the wood influence when a bottle of wine is tasted. Many oak barrel interiors are “toasted” prior to storing wine—–charred over an open flame during the assembly. The flaming process imparts a subtle smoky or toasted component in the wine’s flavor.
When tasting wines, first evaluate the presence and intensity of oak aging, then the flavor and characteristics imparted by the influence of the oak barrels. Most Chardonnays are aged in oak for some period of time, and many are also fermented in huge oak barrels as well. The changes in texture and flavor that oak imparts on these wines is so much a apart of our perception of Chardonnay that most of us would not even recognize a non-oaked Chardonnay for what it is. Typically, white wines that exhibit a heavier body and flavor are compatible with oak. Oak flavors in white wine are typically described as toasted, woody, vanilla, spice, butterscotch or smoky.
Many red wines also benefit from aging in oak. Some common examples of red wines with a high degree of oak flavors are Cabernet Sauvignon, Bordeaux, Zinfandel, Burgundy, Merlot, Sherry and Port. The key for the winemaker is to use oak in such a fashion that it contributes character, but does not dominate or overwhelm the wine’s flavor. The presence of oak in red wines typically imparts sweet, smoky, cedar, spice and vanilla overtones.
DEGREE OF SWEETNESS
The tip and top of your tongue are the areas that detect sweetness. One key aspect in the taste of different wines is the degree of sweetness or dryness. Simply put, a dry wine is a wine that is not sweet. Similar to tea or coffee with no added sweetener, dry wines have little or no natural sugar remaining after the fermentation process.
Sauvignon Blanc and white Bordeaux are good examples of dry wines, while Sauternes, late harvest Riesling, Vouvray, White Zinfandel and Muscat Beaumes-de-Venis are generally sweet. A good contrast of sweet versus dry may be found in sparkling wines. A Brut Champagne will exhibit no sweetness at all, while a lush Asti Spumante will demonstrate ample sugar on the palate.
The perception of sweetness in wine can be deceptive. True sweetness is the result of residual sugar left in the wine from the fermentation process. There are other components in wine which can increase your impression of sweetness that are unrelated to residual sugar. Intense fruit flavors can be confused with sweet flavors, but a wine can be fruity without being sweet. Other components in wine such as tannin and acidity counterbalance the perception of sweetness. Many fine German Rieslings, for example, have such high acidity that they taste crisp and dry, even though they might contain higher levels of residual sugar than the average table wine. Lower levels of tannin and acidity can create, by their absence, a stronger impression of sweetness.
The acidity of a wine is one of its most appealing characteristics, enhancing its refreshing, crisp qualities as well as enabling wines to be paired with foods so successfully. acidity complements foots in a palate-cleansing, refreshing manner. The acidity is usually tasted as soon as it comes into contact with the sides of your tongue, similar to biting into a cold Granny Smith apple. Cooler growing climates produce wines higher in tartaric and malic acid, so a Chardonnay from Burgundy will have a higher acidity level than one from California. In general, white wines exhibit more acidity than red wines. Acidity gives wine it’s crispness on the palate. A dry wine needs good levels of acid to provide liveliness and balance; sweet wine needs acidity so it does not seem cloying. Too much acidity will make the wine seem harsh or bitter; too little and the wine will seem flabby and dull. During the first 15 to 30 seconds after a wine is swallowed, the acidity should gradually begin to fade. Lighter style red wines may have high acidity, while heavier bodied red wines tend to have low acidity.
An important point to remember is that your perception of acidity, as with other flavor components in wine, should not be considered independently. Sweetness and acidity, for example, balance each other. A wine high in acidity that also has a bit of sweetness will seem less acidic. Tannin and acidity, on the other hand, seem to reinforce each other. A big, tannic red that is also high in acidity will seem even more tanning and/or acidic. Some wines that are commonly associated with higher levels of acidity are New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, Champagne, Loire Valley wines such as Sancerre and Vouvray, along with the white wines of Alsace and Germany. Red wine examples may be found in the wines of Beaujolais, Burgundy and the lighter wines of Italy such as Sangiovese, Valpolicella and Chianti.
Tannin (or tannic acid) and oak are usually present together. it is detected primarily in red wines since it is an acid found in the pigment of grape skins and new oak. Tannin can be felt in the middle of the tongue, the roof of the mouth and the film covering your teeth and gums, creating an astringent or a drying sensation on the top of your mouth causing your mouth to dry out and pucker. It is actually experienced by the sense of touch rather than by the sense of taste, although excessive tannin can cause a wine to taste bitter. The effect of tannin is best compared to the sensation you feel when drinking strong, unsweetened tea. Tannin is a natural preservative, and a critical component in wine that allows it to age. As wine ages in the bottle, tannin begins to break down and dissipate, “softening” the wine as it matures. It is common for wines of varying ages to display greater or lesser amounts of tannic qualities throughout the life span of a wine, phasing from one level of discernment to another. Tannin is generally present in full-flavored, heavy-bodied red wines such as Bordeaux, Barolo, Cabernet Sauvignon and Burgundy.
Highly tannic wines are balanced by full-flavored, hearty meals. The high protein content of red meat, cheese and duck pair nicely with wines that have a high degree of tannin. The wine and food interact with each other, softening the wine and encouraging the flavors from the meal to be fully appreciated. This is similar to adding milk to a hot cup of tea, which allows the protein of the milk to soften and smooth the tannins of the tea. Highly tannic wines are best enjoyed when selected to accompany a hearty meal.
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