What do we look for in a wine? Some people want a catchy name or pretty label, as long as it says “chardonnay.” Many prefer dry wines, while some favor sweetness in their vino. And judging by the number of fat, clunky bottles on wine store shelves, wineries think we prefer to pay more for packaging than quality on the inside.
“What do you look for in a wine?” is a question I get often, around the water cooler at work or at dinner parties with friends. These are people who don’t obsess about grape juice the way I do, who don’t reflexively swirl their water glasses, who don’t have four recycle bins, who don’t struggle to type words like “window” without adding an extraneous “e” — people with a life, in other words. They want wine to be tasty, reliable and affordable. They wonder why I prefer one sauvignon blanc over another, what sets this cabernet apart from that merlot or why anyone of sound mind would pay more than (fill in your personal budget here) for a bottle of wine.
“What do you look for in a wine?” is not really an easy question to answer. Sometimes my preference depends on my mood. Bubbles can help celebrate success at work and offer consolation after a bad day. A crisp refreshing rosé helps take the edge off and stimulates my appetite for dinner, while a glass of port after the meal offers comfort and contemplation.
But my friends don’t want to hear about my moods. They want to know what to look for themselves, how to evaluate a wine’s quality. So I emphasize the three stages of tasting wine: the attack, the middle and the finish.
The attack includes the all-important swirl and sniff: Does the wine smell clean or funky? Is it fresh and fruity, or does it smell like brown sugar, caramel and dried or stewed fruits? When you taste it, is your first impression invigorating with acidity, making you salivate and priming your palate for the next sip or your next bite of food? Is the wine light and ethereal? Or is it heavy and woody, drying your mouth with tannin?
The middle is when you swish the wine around in your mouth — and yes, you are allowed to do that. It is encouraged, and with a little practice you will even be able to do it without dribbling down your shirt. Do the flavors remain the same or do they change? Are you noticing different flavors as the wine hits the various parts of your mouth and taste buds, or does it remain the same? Does the alcohol burn your mouth? Do the flavors drop off and disappear? (Some wines are described as doughnuts, lacking a middle.)
Now swallow and savor the finish. Do the flavors linger on your palate, perhaps even changing some more? Is your final impression harsh, sweet or savory? Think again about acidity and tannin: Does the wine leave you refreshed and looking for something to eat? In red wine, does the tannin finish gently, perhaps with an itching sensation on your tongue and teeth? That suggests good structure and aging potential. And steak.
So take a bite of that steak or whatever you’re eating and then take another sip of the wine. Does the wine now taste different? Does it clash with the food, or does it seem to ignore it and taste the same? Or do the flavors of the food and wine combine into something new and different, even exciting?
These questions apply to any wines — white, red or pink, bubbly or fortified. As you pay attention to what you’re drinking, you’ll be able to notice and describe the differences between a chardonnay and a Riesling, or a syrah and a pinot noir. And you’ll begin to define what you look for in a wine.
Recently, when a dinner guest asked me the question, I decided to illustrate my points rather than explain them. I opened two wines as examples: the Drouhin-Vaudon Chablis 2014 from Joseph Drouhin, and the Roserock Pinot Noir 2014 Eola-Amity Hills from Drouhin Oregon. Same family, different terroirs, two delicious wines.
The chablis was pure chardonnay — not in the sense of being unblended, but it tasted of fruit and little else. It wasn’t puffed up with oak. It didn’t need to be. The wine was full-bodied without being heavy, and it seemed to channel the chalky soils of chablis. It was an excellent partner for dinner (grilled chicken, sage sausage, spicy jicama salad).
The pinot noir was quintessential Willamette Valley: smoky dark-fruit flavors and a pitch-perfect balance. It was a beautiful wine to savor on the patio on an unusually cool August evening.
When I mentioned that Oregon pinot noir is my go-to wine whenever I feel sad or melancholy, I ignited a new line of questioning — from my wife. But that’s another story.