You Be the Judge

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Sure you can learn to swirl, sniff and spit, but individual taste should guide you

vine-marchHaving spent the last 18-plus years in the wine industry, in one capacity or another, I’ve had the opportunity to sample thousands of wine—the good, the bad and the downright ugly! However, tasting wine and judging it are two totally different animals.

When tasting wines, one’s personal preferences and opinions take the lead in decision making, so it’s much more subjective. For instance, if you’re not a fan of over-the-top, big, oaky whites, then a typical California chardonnay probably won’t fare very well. Whereas, when judging wines the goal is to evaluate the wine simply for what it is, rather than whether or not you like it, so this process more objective. Take that same California chardonnay. Does it look, smell and taste like a California chardonnay? Is it well made and technically correct? While judging wine is likely to be more challenging for most, as we tend to gravitate toward what we enjoy, it can also be quite intriguing and rewarding, particularly when you discover that hidden gem of a wine that makes you realize that not all California chardonnays are equal.

Wine judging can be rather tasking and overwhelming. Believe me, palate fatigue, while just a temporary inconvenience, is a true occurrence and can affect your ability to accurately evaluate a wine. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not one big bacchanalian bash. It’s serious business, and judges approach their task vehemently and earnestly—well, with some laughs and friendly banter tossed in for good measure!

I was recently invited to participate in the 24th annual Sandestin Wine Festival judging, where on my tasting panel of four, I was the only non-restaurateur judge. While we often agreed on the overall quality of an entrant—the judging part (well made versus poorly made, character flaws, varietal correctness)—we often disagreed upon which wine showed best in each category where individual tastes tended to creep in. I guess that’s part of the allure and the mystique of wine—its ability to relate differently to different people (and their palates) in completely distinct ways. It’s also interesting to discover that during these blind tastings some bottles that had been past favorites, when tasted against similarly styled wines, actually didn’t fare all that well. Comparing apples to apples is a great way to truly gauge a wine, as you’ll find both similarities and individual distinctions, sometimes in the form of subtle nuisances, while other times they are undeniably obvious.

People always ask me which wines are my favorites, and frankly, it’s a question I hate to answer, as there are numerous factors that come into play: individual taste and preference, consumption (with or without food), wine-tasting experience, occasion, where and when it will be drunk, and expectation, among others. While there are certain characteristics (cloudy, off aroma, bitter flavor, etc.) that if found in a wine will automatically trigger a “flawed” reaction, the majority of wines are technically correct, so it’s simply a matter of taste. That’s the beauty of wine. There are no right or wrong answers, just yours and mine.

How to Judge Wine: Look, Smell, Taste

Appearance: Look at the wine’s color and clarity (it’s best to hold the glass against a white surface), which can help indicate the grape type, age and weight. Go beyond just red or white (does the white have a golden or greenish hue? Does the red have a purple, ruby or brackish edge?). Also look for clarity and opacity (is it cloudy or bright, light or deeply colored? Is there sediment?). Generally speaking, a lighter-colored wine will also be less intense on the palate: Think pinot noir versus cabernet sauvignon. If a red wine has a rusty tinge, it may indicate that the wine is older. Likewise, if a white wine appears golden, that may be a sign that it has a few years on it.

Aroma: Next, smell (or nose) the wine, but don’t be shy. Gently swirl the wine to release the bouquet, then put your nose deep into the glass and inhale. What is your first impression? Take a second whiff and think about what the scents remind you of. Do you smell vanilla, red berries, lemon zest, barnyard, earth, smoke, leather? The bouquet will help determine the wine’s varietal, age, quality and country of origin. In addition to having a pleasant bouquet, it’s important that the aroma have typical scents associated with that particular grape type. If the nose smells like wet cardboard or musty, then it’s likely that you have a “corked” bottle, which occurs when the cork has been contaminated by trichloroanisole, or TCA. While TCA is harmless, the aroma and flavor are rather unpleasant and the bottle should be returned. Unfortunately, many consumers are unfamiliar with the corked-wine concept, so they often go undetected. It is assumed that this odd smell or flavor is merely an unappealing quality in the wine, and they simply don’t purchase that particular bottle again. This is one reason both synthetic corks and screw-cap wines are becoming increasingly popular, as they are not affected by TCA.

Flavor: Alas, it’s time to taste. Put a small amount of wine in your mouth and roll it around to fully coat your palate. The initial sip will help determine the wine’s acidity level, it’s residual sugar and alcohol content and how tannic it is. When taking a second sip, be sure to breathe in and out, as flavors are actually detected more so by the nasal receptors than the tongue, which is why wine tasters sort of slurp and almost gargle the wine. The importance of your nasal receptors becomes obvious when you have a cold and your taste buds are totally off. During the mid-palate phase, you can start to determine flavors: fruity, nutty, oaky, smoky, earthy, citrusy, spicy and so forth. Again, when judging a wine, look for flavors commonly identified with that varietal. Simply put, does it meet your expectations? It’s also important to examine the wine’s aftertaste, which is when the wine will reach a crescendo, aptly referred to as “the finish.” What is your final impression of the wine? Did it linger on your palate? Does it beg you to take another sip? A wine’s finish is an important indicator of both quality and aging potential.

Tips on conducting an at-home wine tasting

—Use simple, clear glass stemware (cut glass and color detract from the appearance)

—For truly unbiased opinions, sample wines blind, so your guests don’t know which is which

—Serve wines on a white tablecloth or background

—Fill glasses less than half full to allow room for swirling

—Don’t serve wines too cold, which will inhibit both the aromas and flavors

—Taste wines from lightest to heaviest (starting with a sparkling wine is always a great idea!)

—Keep your tasting to about 8 to 10 wines to truly explore each one

—Offer water and bread or crackers for palate cleansing

Where to taste wine locally

Bacchanal Fine Wine & Spirits, 600 Poland Ave.; bacchanalwine.com

Cork & Bottle Fine Wines, 3700 Orleans Ave.; cbwines.com

Martin Wine Cellar, 714 Elmeer Ave. and 3500 Magazine St.; martinwine.com

Partysist, 200 Metairie Rd.; partysist.com

Swirl, 3143 Ponce de Leon St.; swirlinthecity.com

W.I.N.O., 610 Tchoupitoulas St.; winoschool.com

The next Sandestin event, Wine and Dine in Paradise, will be held April 23 and 24. Visit dcwaf.org for more information.