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Home | Wine Tasting 101 | Can you taste the price of wine?

Can you taste the price of wine?

April 10, 2014 Brian Gurnham Chief Cork Officer

This past weekend I hosted a wine tasting party with neighborhood friends.  Using the Prince and the Pauper theme, I was not disappointed about the range of likes and dislikes that wine consumers exhibit as they swirl, sniff, swish, spit and or swallow.

For this tasting I added a twist giving guests a 15 minute crash course on how to identify elements of a wine that tend to drive up the price.  Given the short amount of time available and the fact that the tasting was blind, I wasn't able to opine about region, terroir, age of the vines, exposure of the vineyard, skill and reputation of the wine maker, how the grapes were handled, new versus neutral oak aging, or any of a myriad of other factors which can add to the quality and price of a wine.  No, I went for the gross oversimplification, boiling it down to intensity, complexity and balance using the analogy of a symphony orchestra.

Intensity Often code named as concentrated or powerful, intensity in one or more aromas or textures in a wine, usually indicative of quality grapes.  Think of this as an instrument playing exactly at the volume called for by the orchestral piece, and precisely on key.

Complexity An element of most quality wines, complexity manifests itself through a variety of different aromas and textures. Fruit aromas, oak influence, acidity and tannins are the strings, woodwinds, brass and percussion of a wine.  The more instruments and musicians, the more complex the sound.

Balance Aromas, acidity, tannins, and alcohol, all brought together in harmony no one component dominates. Balance is the orchestra brought together under the leadership of the director, in such a way that the result is a harmony of sound, which ebbs and flows from beginning to end.

The crash course consisted of tasting small samples of weak and strong lemonade to introduce acidity and intensity, a young Tannat for tannins, and then blending the weak lemonade and Tannat in an effort to at least conceptualize balance. If you want to try it at home it's pretty easy.  I used two solutions of Crystal Light, one mixed at ½ tsp of powder to 1 cup of water, and the second at 2 tsp in 1 cup of water.  With a clean palate, the acidity is easily recognizable with the first sample.  The aroma (lemon) is the same in both samples, but the group quickly identified the higher concentration as "stronger".  It is this "oomph" as I call it that is noticeable in many higher priced wines.  The critics will use code words such as "concentrated", or "powerful" to describe intensity.  The tannins in the Uruguayan Tannat were obvious wringing out any hope of salivation in a matter of seconds.  Mixing the weaker Crystal Light with the Tannat was interesting.  Tasters quickly picked up on the interaction between the acidity and the tannins, as well as complexity, albeit a bit strange, in aromas.

How much did the crash course help?  Well I was pleased that the group was overwhelmingly correct in two of the four pairs of wines tasted, correct by a thin margin in a third, and well then there was the Chardonnay, but we'll get back to that in a minute.  Red wines fared better, probably because the presence of tannins and oak elements help with the identification of intensity and complexity.  The Sauvignon Blanc was tricky.  Two New Zealand offerings, the popular "Nobilo" and the higher priced "The Crossings".  This one was close, probably because Nobilo has a hefty 6 grams per liter of residual sugar offsetting the acidity resulting in a more populist wine.

Now about that Chardonnay.  We tasted the Double Dog Dare ($4.49) against the Martin Ray 2012 Carneros ($19.99).  Fifteen of the twenty votes were cast for the Double Dog.  Probably attributable to my crash course, the complexity of the Martin Ray is subtle, and the fruit aromas are so varied that no one stands out with intensity.  Oh well, with apologies to Courtney Benham the wine's producer, it made for a fun evening.


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