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This section is designed to help to fully enjoy the experience that wine will bring. It takes a minimum of a year to create a bottle of wine and occasionally up to five to get it to you in peak condition, so take a little time to acknowledge that it is a living, breathing drink, made with respect and skill, requiring a little conscious effort on your part to enjoy.
The most prolific wine taster is without doubt – you. Wine tasting is about recognizing your natural senses. If you give it a little thought, wine pundits cannot do more than you can do for yourself. Compare wine tasting to going to an exotic resort, rather than watching a program about the resort. Both will show you the place, but only one will give you the experience to remember. That experience is the essence of Marta’s Vinyard in wines.
Everybody has the inbuilt apparatus to be a wine connoisseur. You use your eyes, nose and mouth to recognize tastes every day. Even blindfolded you can easily identify a mouthful of potatoes, chicken or grandma’s favorite pudding. You may even recognize them by smell alone. Think about a vivid memory of a smell that cleared your mind of all other thought, one that you spent the next ten minutes trying to remember when you last encountered it. Or a smell that takes you back to a distant memory that no other prompt would have stimulated.
All your senses of sight, smell and taste are stimulated in the analysis of the elements of a wine. So let’s stimulate these senses now with some basic ‘thought exercise’ and call it wine tasting.
First, always hold your glass by the stem. Experts think that any other way is poor etiquette, but actually it prevents fingerprints or warming of the glass.
SIGHT: Hold a half glass of wine by the stem, tilt the glass to about 45 degrees. Look through the glass on to a white background, a tablecloth, wall, piece of paper or a plate will do.
- Check there is nothing floating in the wine, ie. Cork dust, sediment etc.
- Check that the wine is clear and not hazy. It should appear bright. Hazy could indicate a problem.
- Check if there are any bubbles. There may be some tiny bubbles on the surface, known as spritz. This tends to indicate that a wine is young and is a good pointer to a refreshing style of white wine. Obviously sparkling wine will have bubbles, but they should be small and rise from the bottom of the glass.
- Describe the colour and intensity now. Push yourself beyond red and white.
Concentrate on your description of colour. Some guidance for whites could be colourless, pale yellow, yellow green, yellow, yellow gold, gold and deep gold. Reds could be opaque, black red, deep purple, red purple, ruby, garnet, brick red, orange brown.
Although not a science, the colour will indicate several important things
- The paler the colour, the lighter and drier.
- Green tinges – the younger the wine.
- Deep colours – the heavier, richer, older the wine.
Note: Oak aged whites should be a little deeper in colour than similar wine made in epoxy or stainless steel tanks.
- The lighter the intensity of the red colour, usually indicates the lighter the weight of the wine
- Bright with a blue or purple rim – the younger the wine.
- Brown or brick red- the older the wine.
Finally, check its legs! That’s the patterns the wine makes down the glass after being swirled around in the glass. It helps demonstrate a good body, its all about the looks, but it doesn’t tell you much about the quality. Scientifically it’s the viscosity of the wine.
To release the maximum amount of smell from a wine, gently swirl the wine around in a glass, again holding it by the stem. When sniffing, don’t be embarrassed to stick your nose into the glass as the smell will be strongest close to the wine. This part of tasting is known as the nose.
Smells engage the brain for a fleeting moment and conjure an array of emotions. The purpose of trying to identify wine smells is to look for links between one wine and another, by trying to attach a varietal ‘smell memory’ to it. If you detect a specific smell on a wine, you are right. It’s your nose that has sensed the aroma and your ‘smell memories’ have unearthed a name for that smell. Applying this knowledge is at the heart of unraveling a wine’s life story.
The challenge is to give names to the smalls in the glass
- Check if there is oak present or not.
- Search for fruit flavours.
- Are there any spicy or earthy overtones.
- Then any other aromas that come to mind i.e. in white wines it could be honey, nuts or particular flowers. In red wines it could be beetroot etc
Decide how much intensity there is in these smells. You will be surprised what you find out.
Take a reasonably sized mouthful, not a sip, and roll it around your mouth. This is known as ‘chewing’ the wine. If you feel confident you can release more flavours by sucking in a small stream of air through your lips. Then swallow the wine and concentrate on the finish.
When the wine is swirling around in your mouth, your nose continues to work detecting flavours while your palate detects other elements. Your palate will not reveal much more than about the key flavours than your nose will have already done. These other elements are
Sweetness or Dryness. This can only be confirmed on the palate. Some wines for example. our Torrontes varietal can smell sweet, but taste dry. Sometimes smell will confuse sweetness with ripeness. The palate decides.
Chardonnay may have more body and structure than a Semillon, but it is no sweeter. It is a little riper as they both have good levels of acidity and are dry on the finish.
Can only be determined by the palate and is a crucial component of white wines. That is the perky, zingy refreshing quality that lends a tartness or tanginess to the taste. Whites without a balanced acidity are often referred to as being flabby.
It can be difficult with red wines to discern between acidity and tannin (white wines do not have tannin).
Tannin is the bitter, astringent flavours that are found in grape skins, seeds and stalks, as well as in oak barrels. This tannin softens as red wine ages. It is often referred to as red wine’s natural preservative and is often prominent in young reds. Tannin is undetectable on the nose, but dry out the mouth and feels harsh on the insides of the cheeks.
The ACIDITY is the refreshing part, whereas the TANNIN is the bitter part.
A young red can be enjoyed even when the tannins are hard, provided the wine is in balance. That is that the fruits are intense and the acidity is firm. Red wines with extra strong tannins should be laid done for further maturation and will become softer with age.
On the palate this should complement and not overpower the fruit flavours in the wine. They should blend in to add an extra dimension to the taste. If oak is detected on the nose, look for harmony on the palate. Over-oaked wines will need more time in the cellar to ‘knit together’ with the fruit flavours.
You cannot be wrong as this is very much a personal thing. Don’t worry if everyone tastes apricots and you taste peaches, your palate tells you what you recognize.
This sensation can be described by how it feels in the mouth. It could range from thin to smooth, creamy or velvety, and also light, medium or heavyweight. This is also a guide to alcohol levels, grape variety, wine making techniques and its colour. This points you to a style.
This is the all important quality maker. That is the length of time the flavours lingers on the palate after swallowing. Fine wines tend to remain on the taste buds for minutes whereas cheaper styles disappear almost immediately. Keep a note of which flavours remain on the palate. If the fruit is the last to remain, the wine is probably at its peak. If the tannin or acidity (or both) are the last to remain, the wine will probably be better after a further period of cellaring. Finish is normally expressed as short, medium or long.
The one fundamental element that unites the world’s best wines is that there are perfectly balanced. This concept can be difficult to imagine, but try this.
For white wine, a wheel with either two spokes representing fruit and acidity (three, if oak is present). If all elements are equal, or in complimentary proportion, the wheel will not wobble and will have perfect balance.
For Reds. The same applies except there are up to four spokes on the wheel, representing fruit, acidity, oak and tannin.
This is the final part to consider and is another hallmark quality and plays a major role in the final price. Genuine regional varietals made by skilled winemakers have built in complexity and integrity coming from the soil, climatic conditions and other local traditions. There are occasions when you will want a wine that will awaken the taste buds and challenge the mind. On other occasions may be a simpler partner to a light meal. Sometimes it is described as the difference between a solo instrument playing a piece of music or a whole orchestra playing the same piece.
Pour, look, sniff, taste and think. That’s all it takes. If you are not sure, repeat the process. As soon as you are happy with the information your brain has amassed, enjoy the bottle. That’s basically it. You are now a competent wine taster. Enjoy the rest of this site, with a glass of wine of course!!
In our life’s journeys Marta and I have travelled across the world to so any places, so many times covering so many miles. Marta – around 7.5 million files and Malcolm – some 30 million miles. To put that in context, it is equivalent to the distance between Earth and Mars with a couple of million miles to spare. Those that might relate to something closer to home that’s about 140 journeys to the moon. I guess that puts us in a small well-traveled category bar a few astronauts.
To describe the uniqueness of Mendoza’s desert climate, the high altitude vine farming and of course the 160 year relationship with the Malbec vine is all but fruitless and simply cannot live up to an experience. Standing in a Mendoza vineyard on any of the 320 odd brilliant sunny days per year against the backdrop of the majestic snow-capped Andes range or late in the evening, perfectly still skies that immerse the onlooker in a light show of a billions stars and hundreds of streaking meteors against the illuminated long shadows of the silhouetted peaks and the crystal white twinkling snow caps reflecting in the lunar light. There is nothing in this world that compares to a Mendoza vineyard and as I say, we’ve covered the ground. In an evening, add in a delicious bottle of the best red accompanied with a traditional Argentine Asado (barbeque) or in the long sleepy afternoons before the sun sets over the Andes, a cool white wine with a ‘Picada’ (selection of cured meats, roasted vegetables and cheeses). That is the flavour of Mendoza.
From a wine perspective, one of the most significant attributes of Mendoza is its location in the high altitude plateaus of the pre Andean ‘cordillera’ (the foothills). The premier wine growing terroir sits between 3000 and 5000 feet above sea level. In general, the average temperature reduces by about 1c for every 300 feet of altitude making it quite normal for vineyards to be broken into parcels of land at different elevations to take advantage of the ideal temperature and microclimate that might match the desired wine style or optimum growing conditions of each grape varietal.
As is typical of high altitude climates, Mendoza enjoys a wide temperature variation between daytime highs and nighttime lows. These thermal extremes between luminous sunny days and cool crisp nights allow for the gradual ripening of the fruit. The mild harvest season helps support a prolonged cluster hang time resulting in well-balanced ripe fruit with softer and sweeter grape skin tannins – perfect for red wine making. In the ground, the alluvial clay, sand and rock soils are low in organic material which naturally controls vine vigor and yield. The mountainous geology also assists natural drainage formations which help vine roots grow deeper into the rocky soil with fewer alternative water sources to control to constant growth, again an important factor in fruit intensity.
Mendoza’s desert-like climate is another natural factor in making it a unique wine growing region. Average rainfalls of 200 mm per year (in comparison UK is up to 3500 mm per year) means that irrigation is indispensable in grape cultivation. The life-giving element comes in the form of pure mountain spring water from the snow caps and melting glaciers high in the Andes. The elaborate canal system dates back to the Pre-Columbian Incan Empire and in its modern form, distributes the water to the vineyards below. Irrigation is perhaps the most important tool in the control of vine plant vigor. Competent irrigation management permits the development of a perfectly balanced canopy. The combination of a balanced canopy and organically meagre arid soils create the conditions for low yield perfectly ripe fruit.
The synergy of altitude, climate and irrigation are the base necessities for the cultivation of this unique high quality grape and wine production. But it is human skill and know how that maximizes that synergy of all other elements, varietal selection, canopy balance and irrigation control, which in other wine regions of the world, might be lost to the unpredictable and changeable weather elements. That is the uniqueness and controllability of Mendoza. Perhaps the most natural wine making region in this world.
Like all of Argentina, Mendoza is a province of 19th century European immigrants. From Italy, Spain, predominately Basque, France and UK these 19th century folks came to Mendoza attracted by the romance and opportunity in the wines made there. The Scots went as railway engineers though some also settled in wine in more ways than one! The first Malbec vines, imported from Bordeaux, were planted in Mendoza in the 1860s and now with 160 years of Malbec wine growing experience its rather quaint that due to no more than distance Argentina is inaccurately labelled by the ‘North’ as new world wines.
We established Marta’s Vinyard in 1999 and together with a few notable characters still predominant in the industry, we were an early catalyst for Mendoza’s wine producers to set out and prove to the world that their wines can stand tall with the best in the world. That project continues. If you find yourself intrigued, inspired or insatiably wanting more, that is unlikely to be fulfilled without a once in a lifetime trip to Mendoza.
Our Mendoza through our wines will go some way but there’s always more to travel.
Malcolm and Marta
Proprietors of Marta’s Vinyard Winery and soon to be, Resort and Spa.