I have been fortunate to travel and sample wine in many world-famous regions of the five biggest wine-producing continents. This article is not about bragging – this is about me believing I was some sort of wine connoisseur. Assuming that liking the taste of wine and drinking it often means one knows how to actually taste wine.
In the past, I would stroll into a vineyard in Sonoma or Stellenbosch or Beaune or the Margaret River Valley, take a tour and then simply drink the too-small pours of wine presented in the tasting room. The first winery on the tour would yield some note taking and a few questions for the sommelier. But the second, third, fourth and so on simply became an upscale pub crawl “swilling and spilling” wine from white to red – light to heavy – at each stop.
Fortunately, before I became too old to no longer enjoy a good glass of wine, I had a vineyard A-Ha moment in Chile. The country is well-known for its massive and affordable wine production – ranked between fifth and seventh in the world. Of late it has also begun producing some very high-quality new-world wines.
If you are not familiar with the South American country of Chile, it is long and skinny geographically, flanked by the Pacific Ocean to its west and the Andes Mountain range to its east. The altitude, climate, soil, and amount of sunlight make perfect grape growing conditions for over a dozen distinct wine regions from north to south.
This particular visit took us to the vineyards of Chile’s fastest growing wine region: Casablanca. It is located on a well-traveled and beautiful stretch of forested land between the capital of Santiago and the artist haven of Valparaiso on the Pacific Ocean. As we pulled into the modern, sprawling grounds of Casas del Bosque, nestled in the Chilean hills, we knew we were in for something special.
Our multi-lingual tour guide took us through the vineyards, the production process, and the French oak barrel room. However, the true education happened when our group was taken to a tasting room with a long table and several vineyard logo-ed etched wine glasses at each place at the table. The sommelier assistant poured our wines and we were instructed step by step for the proper tasting starting with light white and moving on to heavier reds. Our selection included the Sauvignon blanc (reserve), Chardonnay (gran reserve), Pinot Noir (pequenas producciones) and Syrah (gran estate selection).
There would be no swilling and spilling during this class! It was time to take notes. First, we had to hold the glass to the light and learn the differences of nearly clear Sav Blanc vs. the goldens of the Chardonnays and then light red vs. a bolder grape. We had to gently swirl the glass and smell what we could identify. Yes, been there, done that!
Just as I was ready to take my first sip of day-drinking vino, the A-HA began to happen. We were instructed on how to hold our tongue in the rounded “sausage” position and pour just a small amount of wine on it (keeping the head bent slightly forward so as not to choke) all the while circulating air across the wine on our tongue, heads held in that forward position. Once the front and back of our mouths took in the full tasting (at least several seconds of air circulation), we could either spit or swallow.
Then we went around the table identifying the flavors we tasted – fairly easily naming one on the front of the tongue and tasting something different or more complex on the back. The Sav Blanc having apple, jalapeño, pear and wait, what? Fresh cut grass? Yes, there it was. The Chardonnay, being more balanced and complex, brought in robust flavors like melon and caramel and a slight smoke from the oak.
The Pinor Noir, being the lightest of the reds, spent 12 months in the French oak barrel. It can be served chilled or at room temp and brought to the palate flavors of vanilla, almond, plum and even leather. I have never actually tasted leather, but somehow there it was – dancing on my tongue. The final taste of the hearty Syrah gave way to pepper and smoky spices after living 18 months in the barrel. It was smooth and creamy with soft tannins and easily stayed in the throat longer than the others.
One of the most interesting things our sommelier told us was while working on our tasting notes was that part of the smells and tastes are a mix of memory and imagination. For example, if we never had smelled or tasted caramel, could we actually identify it? It is never added to a barrel of wine in any stage of the production. So how are we “tasting” caramel? That explained how I thought I was “tasting” leather. It was my memory mixed with what I thought I smelled. I found it to be quite fascinating and somewhat challenging to make the taste receptor cells and the olfactory system translate into words….descriptive words.
We were also educated on proper food pairings and why that made sense. Of course, we have all been taught heavier meats go with reds and fish go with whites, but there really are so many nuances to wine and food pairings. It ultimately comes down to your palate and what pleases your tongue, most of all.
After all these years, I am finally better equipped and schooled to execute proper tastings. Let the real games begin. More swilling, less spilling! Salud.
Side note: You may have never seen Casas de Bosques wines in your local wine store. Why? They produce approximately 1 million bottles annually (small by world production standards but decent for the Casablanca region), but over 80% of their production is exported to China. Not only is China a huge emerging economy, evidently they have found a palate for wine!