February 28, 2011

The Proof is in the Glass

ISO Tasting Glass
    The International Organization for Standardization has designed and recommended a smallish (7-1/2 oz., 220 mL) tulip-shaped glass to be used for international taste testing. An excellent all-around wineglass, often sold at wineries.
I have a small tasting exercise* that I put together for a wine course I was teaching, and I try to force-fit it into tastings I’m leading. It involves pouring a sample into an ISO glass, tasting it, and then pouring the sample into other styles of wineglass. (I’m a devotee of quality wineglasses and firmly believe that the glass is an important factor.) This little comparative test proves – in a highly dramatic manner – that wineglass shape is critical.

Size, shape and material are all important in wineglass design. All three factors have to work. It’s possible for seemingly identical glasses to perform quite differently because of a small difference in any one of these element. Crystal is nice but not necessary, mostly because it tends to have thinner walls than plain glass. Size is strongly influenced by the type of wine: bigger wines tend to work better in larger glasses. However, the most important factor appears to be shape, and the tulip shape is the one to look for.

Tulip-shaped refers to the size and profile of the wineglass’s bowl. The bowl will be taller than it is wide, and the top will be narrower than the rest of the glass … picture a tulip that is just beginning to open. If you’re shopping for glasses spend a few dollars more and get a quality, name-brand glass -- preferably crystal --, that has a nice tulip shape. When dining out, also look for this shape, and if you have trouble finding a restaurant that provides decent glasses, consider taking along your own. Many people do.

* We pit the ISO glass against four of the most commonly used restaurant wineglasses. All the glasses fared poorly compared to the ISO glass.

February 21, 2011

Wine/Life Balance

    A wine with a well-balanced nose.
I was doing a book signing at a winery one afternoon when the owner came over to me to introduce me to a friend who had stopped by. Naturally we soon began to discuss the wines, and the guest asked me if I could recommend anything. I asked her if she liked riesling. She said yes, then turned to the owner and asked him what his riesling was like. He said it was “harmonious and well balanced”. I could see from the look on the woman’s face that this was not the sort of answer she was looking for. So I said “It’s really yummy.” With a broad smile she headed off to the tasting room with the winery owner in tow.

Harmonious is one of those wine words that gets used a lot but fails to convey any real information. As well, ‘harmonious and well balanced’ is redundant, since harmonious means well balanced! A wine can in fact be harmonious but not very good, or perhaps not even enjoyable. Balance and harmony are good, but are they a useful description of what we find in the bottle?

If we set the bar a bit higher, the situation worsens. According to the Oxford Canadian Dictionary, harmonious means “forming a pleasing or consistent whole.” Would anyone rush out to buy a wine that was described as ‘consistent’?

I prefer to write this one off as bafflegab and suggest instead that we look for more meaningful terms -- terms that will give people a sense of what the wine is actually like, words such as ‘yummy’ for example.

February 14, 2011

A Name Game

Generic Name

    A ‘jug wine’ bearing the name of one of the classic Old World wine regions.

For decades Canada and a few other new world wine regions have been producing and selling huge quantities of low-end wines that infringed on traditional and legally protected European wine names. In 2003 Canada and Europe signed an agreement that would see the end of generic wine names in Canada. What’s bothersome about this agreement is the 10-year horizon. Generic wines are made predominantly by huge wine conglomerates that regularly churn out new names and new labels for their low-end wines. So why do they need 10 years to switch the few names that are applied to some of the worst wines available?

You can still find these wines on store shelves, principally in Ontario, the US and Australia. Borrowed names include champagne, port, sherry, chablis, burgundy, ‘sauterne’, chianti, and a few others. Usually the only resemblance these wines have to their namesakes is colour. For example, California chablis is usually made from a very cheap grape whereas true chablis is 100% chardonnay. Canadian sauterne is an interesting interpretation. It’s a dry white wine whereas Bordeaux’s sauternes is a prized sweet wine. And aside from being low end, the wines are banged into shape using any winemaking technique that is legal -- including additives – and are the vinus equivalent of no-name bologna.

The one problem with phasing out the European wine names is that it leaves port- and sherry-style wines out in the cold. The name port, for example, is well understood and has been used to describe these wines for decades. Once it becomes illegal to use these names, fortified wine makers will have to get creative to find a new way to refer to these wines generally. (I know of a wine called ‘Starboard’ but that’s perhaps too esoteric.)

February 7, 2011

The Long & Short of It


    A complex sequence of flavours and aromas after swallowing or spitting. Wines are judged in part on the quality and duration of the finish. Sometimes called the farewell.

The full sensory impact of wine comes in three stages: attack, development and finish. We sip the wine and have our first impression. The wine then reveals more of its character on the ‘mid palate’, the development. Finally there is the finish -- those last few moments before the flavour and aroma impression fades completely.

The finish (close, farewell, etc.) is an important part of what a wine has to offer. A “short” wine has a finish that lasts a mere second or two. Beyond that, there’s nothing to savour. A great wine, on the other hand, can last for much longer: a minute or more. The French have a word for the length of the finish: caudalie, where one caudalie is equal to one second of length.

The finish consists of both length: how long it lasts, and after taste: the quality of the impression. Sometimes a wine’s character is only fully revealed in the aftertaste. Bitterness and ‘corkiness’, for example, can sometimes be sensed in the finish even though it was not evident in the mid-palate. But we much prefer the other scenario, when the aftertastes is as good or better than what came before. And if it lasts a long time, well that’s about as good as it gets. One caudalie, two caudalie, three caudalie...