The genesis of the deductive tasting grid, as with all the MS curriculum, is knowledge and practical skills required of a sommelier to facilitate helping a guest table side. Thus the heart and soul of the grid is about describing a given wine to a diner in a restaurant. But the grid also requires a great deal of accumulated experience and memory on the part of the sommelier and student in order to be able to identify the origin and vintage of a wine by piecing together information gleaned from looking at, smelling, and tasting it.
The same deductive grid is used in the Advanced and Master’s exams. In the blind tasting portion of both exams a candidate is given six wines—three whites and three reds--and has 25 minutes using the tasting grid to identify the vintage, grape variety(s), country, region, and appellation. That's four minutes and ten seconds for each wine. The bad news is that I can't teach you how to pass the exam in this not-so-short missive. The good news is that I can walk you through the tasting grid step-by-step and in doing so share information that will help you to become a better taster regardless of your level of expertise--whether it be novice or skilled expert.
Thoughts on Using the Grid
Before we get started here are some thoughts on learning the grid and using it successfully:
The grid as a check list: in essence the grid is a series of yes-no questions. Is the wine clear? Does the wine display aromas and flavors of oak? Is there minerality or earthiness in the wine? And so on. The challenge is if the answer to a question is “yes” in which case something must be described—and that requires memory and previous experience.
Wine tasting vs. wine thinking: it’s a given that everyone has the same hardware (nose, brain, and nervous system) and required software (life memories) to be able to remember how things smell and taste. But the grid is not so much about physically smelling and tasting—it’s about how you think about smelling and tasting and further how you organize that information in your head.
The grid and consistency: during the Master’s tasting exam there is no time or room for error and the grid must be used consistently; anyone who passes the tasting exam at the Master’s level is among the most disciplined tasters on the planet.
Tasting inside out: know that if you choose to participate in the MS class/exam track your immediate goal after being introduced to the deductive tasting grid is to MEMORIZE it as soon as possible. Internalizing the grid is an absolute necessity for success in the exams. Now on to the grid itself.
A dreadful pun but no truer wine words were ever spoken. A quick look at a glass of wine can reveal a great deal of information concerning a wine's age, climate of origin, cellaring conditions, methods of vinification, and even a strong hint as to the specific grape variety. Here is a list of all things visual to consider when looking at a glass of wine:
Clarity: when looking at a glass of wine, tilt it straight out in front of you at a 45° angle over a white background. From there, is the wine clear? Or is it hazy? If the wine is clear odds are it's been filtered. The purpose for filtering wine is two-fold: it renders the wine clear and bright but it also removes unwanted microbes and residual yeasts which could cause the wine to re-ferment in the bottle or spoil at some later unfortunate time--unfortunate as in after you've purchased the wine.
Is filtering wine a good thing? There are many who believe, some vehemently so, that filtering of any kind strips a wine of much of its aromatics and identity; that filtering removes a good deal of the grape solids responsible for a wine's flavor. But also know that filtering stabilizes wine and if you as winemaker intend to ship your wine to the international market then having a stabilized wine in the bottle is a must (regrettably, another pun). The debate rages on...
Brightness: is the potential of a wine to reflect light, itself a function of the wine's clarity. Tilt your glass forward again and observe how much light is reflected in the glass and on the white surface below the glass. A little? More than a little? A veritable rose window of crystalline reflections? The brightness scale is as follows:
Cloudy - Hazy - Dull - Bright - Day Bright - Star Bright – Brilliant
A cloudy wine is just that: cloudy--even murky. A cloudy or hazy wine usually means one of several things: the wine is either unfiltered or flawed (or perhaps an older red wine with the sediment mixed into solution--more on that in a moment). If the wine is flawed you'll know just as soon as you stick your nose in the glass. Otherwise, the difference between bright, day bright, and star bright is determined by how much light is reflected in the wine. A brilliant wine is unmistakable. Usually a wine that earns the brilliant designation is a very pale, watery colored white wine that's been in the bottle for less than a year. Young Mosel Riesling, Muscadet, and Champagne are often brilliant. Red wines, for the record, are often low on the brightness scale because of the intensity and pigmentation of color, especially in wines made from thick-skinned grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon or Syrah.
Color: or "hue" as it’s sometimes called. Color more than anything speaks to the age and condition of a wine. The general rules of color and wine are as follows:
· White and pink wine deepen in color as they age
· Red wines lose color and often get lighter as they age
Here are the color scales for wines:
· White wines: Watery - Straw - Yellow - Gold – Brown
· Pink Wines: Pink - Salmon – Brown
· Red Wines: Purple - Ruby (red) - Garnet (reddish-brown) – Brown
It’s important for the student to really get the difference between straw and yellow (think legal pad or taxi) in white wines and ruby (red!) and garnet (reddish-brown) in red wines.
Why is color important? Color is a function of the aging process, the process of slow (hopefully slow) oxidation of a wine as it sleeps peacefully in the bottle while in someone's perfectly maintained cellar and not a plastic rack on top of a refrigerator. Alas, this is not always the case. A lengthy stay on a retail shelf, no temperature control in an ocean container, or the delivery guy parking his truck at his girl friend’s house in Scottsdale over the weekend during July can all contribute to the premature aging and even downright oxidation of a bottle of wine.
Taking that into consideration, a young Pinot Grigio tends to be pale straw in color while a ten-year-old White Burgundy is deep yellow-gold. Likewise, a glass of Nouveau Beaujolais should be light ruby purple in color while a 15-year-old Barolo is light to medium reddish-brown or ruby garnet as we say in the business.
Quantify the primary color! Use the descriptors light, medium, and deep when describing a wine's color and for good reason—there’s usually secondary colors involved.
Secondary colors: is there more to color, you ask? Absolutely. Take that glass of young Pinot Grigio from Alto Adige again and tilt it against the white background. Look specifically at the outer edges of the glass. There you'll see hints of green and possibly silver or unpolished brass. These tell-tale colors are signs of a white wine that is (a) young and (b) was produced from grapes grown in a cool climate. The color green in a young white wine is chlorophyll from the unripe portions of the grape. While most young white wines display some greenish tint I've tasted 40-year-old Mosel Rieslings that still displayed a hint of green.
Why is this so important? Simply because the color of any wine should tip you off as to the age and/or condition of said wine. Thus if someone hands you a glass of white wine at a dinner party that looks more like an errant urine sample and says, "this is the latest vintage of Sonoma Coast Chardonnay from ______ winery,” you'll immediately know there's a problem. Likewise, the color of the newest release of some stratospherically priced Napa Cabernet should be a deep, vibrant ruby red and not reddish-brown.
Rim Variation: a phenomenon of color in red wine. If you've had the pleasure of tasting a red with more than ten years of age you may have noticed a wide gradation of color in the glass. The color at the center of the glass is much deeper than at the rim or meniscus of the glass with any number of different shades in between. This color gradation is called rim variation. It can be found in red wines of any age but white wines rarely display rim variation even with considerable age. In red wines, the older the wine the more variation in color and the more rim variation. That's a valuable tip in an exam setting.
Extract/staining of the tears: swirl the glass of a deeply colored red like Shiraz and note how the wine stains the inside of the glass as it moves; this because of the wine’s concentration and pigmentation. Staining of the tears denotes a wine of high extract that’s usually—but not always—from a warmer climate.
Legs and tears: swirl the glass and then observe the tears or legs of the wine as they set up and then make their way back down the sides of the glass. Two things to note: the size and width of the tears and how quickly or slowly they move down the sides of the glass. The legs or tears give us a first indication of the relative level of alcohol in the wine and/or the presence of residual sugar. Thin, quickly moving legs tend to indicate a wine that’s light-to-medium bodied with relatively lower alcohol and little, if any, residual sugar. On the flip side, if the tears are thick, stained in color, and slow to move, one can expect a full-bodied red wine with considerable concentration and relatively high alcohol or residual sugar--or both.
While definitely not exact science (the glassware has to be clean and well-polished) the legs-alcohol-body connection is a by-product of how ripe the grapes were when harvested. In a cool climate grapes don't always fully ripen and with not much sugar to ferment the alcohol in the finished wine is low. Think again of the aforementioned Mosel Riesling at less than 8% alcohol: barely ripe grapes, lighter color, lower alcohol, and thin, quickly moving legs. In a warm climate, say the Barossa Valley of Australia, Shiraz grapes get fully ripe developing an abundance of grape sugar which is then fermented into 14-plus-percent alcohol. The same wine goes on to display deep, saturated color, higher alcohol, and thick, slowly moving legs.
Gas evidence: trace amounts of carbonic acid (dissolved carbon dioxide) are sometimes present in wine when bottled. A recent vintage of Northern Italian Pinot Grigio or Muscadet will often display small bubbles when first opened. CO2 is also often added to wine during bottling as a preservative. If there are bubbles in the glass make note of them.
Sediment or particles: one often comes across sediment in both white and red wines. Some whites will display small, opaque white crystals that resemble grains of sand. These crystals are tartaric acid or tartrates and they’re present in all wines unless steps are taken to remove them. Most wineries choose to cold stabilize their white wines by chilling them to right above freezing for at least 24 hours before bottling to remove excess tartrates. However, other wineries choose not to cold stabilize and thus tartrates will inevitably form in the bottle when quickly chilled in the fridge or an ice bucket. If that's the case, the solution is to let the wine warm up a bit allowing the crystals to dissolve back into the wine. Tartrates can also be found in minimally processed reds in the form of deeply colored crystals on the bottom of the cork or in the neck of the bottle. These can be wiped away with a clean serviette. They're tasteless and completely harmless.
Older red wines will also "throw" off sediment which is a combination of the pigments and tannins that have precipitated out of the wine as it ages. This sediment can either be fine as in an older red Burgundy or thick and chunky as found in a bottle of old vintage Port. Sediment can also be found in young red wines that have undergone minimal or no filtration. Careful decanting will take care of the problem in any form.
That’s all the criteria relating to the appearance of a wine in the context of the grid. Believe it or not, a student only has about 20-30 seconds to go through everything I've just covered for each of the six wines during an exam. That's right, about a half-minute's time. That's because the nose and palate are the most important parts of tasting. Onward.
The sense of smell is the most important of the five when evaluating wine. While one can only taste seven things (sweet, sour, bitter, salty, umami (savory from glutamic acid), kokumi (calcium), and fat, scientists as of last year tell us that we can smell over one trillion different things (I’ll pause for a moment of poignant silence …). Smell accounts for as much as 85% of the sense of taste. No mystery here if you think about how bland everything tastes when you're dealing with the mother of all head colds.
Here are things to consider when evaluating the nose of wine:
Fault factor: the first thing to do after putting your nose into the glass is to check the wine for faults. Is the wine corked? Does it smell like musty cardboard or old books and magazines? Is the wine oxidized? Does it smell baked, off or otherwise? Or does the wine smell like vinegar which could be volatile acidity? Does it smell like Madeira? Does it remind you of the 4-H Club in high school which is usually Brettanomyces? We call that "rustic" in the wine business. You may call it otherwise.
Whatever the case, there are any number of things that can go wrong in the winery that will render a wine's quality less than pristine. This will only be confirmed when you taste the wine if you choose to do so. We have an expression in the business called DPIM or "don't put in mouth." Once you've become proficient as a taster you'll be able to quickly recognize "DPIM" wines by the nose alone and won't suffer the fate of tasting something imminently regrettable. But one can always be surprised. In that case, one simply tastes for the sake of science or some other noble cause.
Intensity of aroma: ranges from delicate to very intense. Use the following scale to describe it:
Delicate – Moderate – Powerful
It’s always best to use extremes to calibrate any of the parts of the grid where a scale is used--especially the structural elements. In terms of powerful intensity think of a young vintage Port with great concentration of fruit and high alcohol. A delicate wine by contrast could be a young sparkling wine or Pinot Grigio. Most table wines are in between.
Age assessment: or youth versus age. Does the fruit in the wine smell bright and youthful or dried, stewed, and cooked? A young red wine will display bright berry fruit while an older wine will reveal aromas such as leather, tobacco, and spice box. This shouldn't come as a shock if you've already detected youthful or evolved qualities in the color of the wine. Think of it as building a case that will culminate with your conclusion of the wine’s identity. Also know that a red wine with age is often called "vinous" or the wine is referred to as having "vinosity."
Fruit: once past the fault check and a quick assessment of the wine’s age the next thing to consider is the fruit qualities. Here we're referring specifically to the inherent aromas of the grape and not winemaking techniques. There are different kinds of fruit associated with specific grape varieties. Suffice to say that upon first putting your nose in a glass you may smell notes of apples and pears in a white wine while a red wine may offer notes of cherries (red or black), plums, and more. These are the primary fruits with other secondary fruits in the wine not as prominent. Further, there are “fruit groups” for white and red wines. Here is a list to get you started:
· Tree fruit: apple and pear
· Citrus fruit: lemon, lime, grapefruit, orange, tangerine, starfruit etc.
· Tropical fruit: pineapple, mango, papaya, passion fruit, banana etc.
· Stone or pit fruit: peach, apricot, nectarine
· Melon: green melon or cantaloupe
· Red fruits: red cherry, red raspberry, cranberry, strawberry, red currant, red plum, pomegranate, rhubarb
· Black fruits: black cherry/berry, black currant, black raspberry, black plum
· Blue fruits: blueberry and boysenberry
· Dried fruit: raisin, date, prune, fig
Fruit character: is the fruit tart? Jammy? Cooked? Be sure to include your description of the fruit. Here’s a possible list: baked, cooked, dried, jammy, tart, fresh, peels, skin, pith, tart, preserved.
Non-fruit aromas: as with the color, there are usually secondary aromas and flavors in wine. These non-fruit aromas can be vitally important in identifying the grape variety and origin of a wine. Here’s a list of important non-fruit characteristics:
Floral: many wines offer floral aromas. In particular, wines from the aromatic grape family—Viognier, Muscat, Gewürztraminer, and Torrontés—not only smell overtly floral they taste floral as well. Red wines can also be floral too. Roses and violets are often found in Cabernet family grapes/wines.
Spices: in the form of pepper spice (white pepper, black pepper, etc.) or brown baking spices which are markers for oak aging.
Grass/herb/vegetal: herbal and vegetal qualities; pyrazines, the chemical compound responsible for them, are found in Cabernet family wines including Sauvignon Blanc.
Other: fermentation aromas (yeast, toast, dough), butter (Diacetyl from malolactic fermentation), leather (age in red wines), honey (botrytis), animal (4-H club), and more.
*Along with an accurate structural assessment, identifying non-fruit aromas and flavors is one of the two most important keys to building a case for identifying a wine. That’s because many semi-aromatic white grapes and thinner-skinned red grapes have similar fruit profiles. But their non-fruit and structures are completely different. Important!
Earth: very generally speaking, wines from the Old World (Europe) tend to be made from grapes grown in cooler climates with the finished product displaying lower alcohol, higher natural acidity, and more pronounced minerality and/or earthiness. By contrast, wines from the New World (North America, South America, Australia, and New Zealand) tend to be made from grapes grown in warmer climates resulting in wines with lower natural acidity, higher alcohol, and less mineral or earth qualities. Mind you, these are sweeping generalizations that have multiple exceptions. Having said that, when smelling and tasting look for both inorganic earth (minerality) and organic earth (soil). Here’s a list of possibilities:
· Inorganic earth (mineral): wet stone, mineral, limestone, chalk, slate, flint, volcanic, granite
· Organic earth (soil): forest floor, compost, mushroom/truffle, potting soil, barnyard, fresh-turned earth, leaves
Wood: oak-aging creates a sub-set of aromas and flavors including vanilla, smoke, toast, sweet baking spices (from caramelizing the inside of the barrels), chocolate, coffee, tea, and more. The presence (or lack of) these aromas/flavors may be another clue as to a wine's identity. Certain white wines (Alsace, Germany and others) rarely display oak markers while other wines such as White Burgundies or California Chardonnays often have considerable wood influence. The same goes for red wines.
What’s important in regards to oak?
Size of barrel: smaller 55-60 gallon barrels—often called barriques—impart more oak influence in wine. Larger barrels have less influence.
Age of barrel: younger barrels impart more oak influence; older barrels less influence.
French vs. American oak: 20 years ago the difference between French and American oak was very easy to discern but it’s much more difficult now—and for many reasons too lengthy to go into at this point. In its purest form, American oak has pronounced vanilla and baking spice notes along with dill and coconut. French oak by contrast is not usually as spicy and has more smoke and toast elements.
*Don’t get stuck on trying to identify French vs. American oak. It’s far more useful to be able to recognize oak markers in the wine or the lack thereof.
Tasting in the context of the grid serves two purposes: to confirm what you’ve already smelled in the glass and then calibrating the structural elements—the level of acid, alcohol, and length of finish--in the wine (also tannin for red wine). If you've done your homework thoroughly on the nose there probably won't be any surprises; if there are surprises they’ll be unsavory. Here's the check list for the palate of a wine:
Dryness/sweetness: how dry or sweet is the wine? Bone dry or simply dry like most table wines? Or off-dry with just a touch of residual sugar? Or is it a full-on dessert wine that’s very sweet and hopefully balanced with enough acidity to keep it from being cloying? The level of sweetness or dryness can be a very important clue as to the variety, style or origin of a wine. Don't confuse fruitiness with sweetness. If in doubt, pay attention to how dry or sweet the wine is on the finish and not just the initial blast on the tip of the tongue. Here’s a scale to use for dryness/sweetness:
Bone Dry – Dry - Off Dry – Sweet - Very Sweet
Body: or weight as it is sometimes called. A wine can be light-bodied, medium-bodied or full-bodied--or in between. To a great extent body in wine is determined by the level of alcohol and glycerin or residual sugar if it’s present. Think of body in terms of dairy products: a light-bodied wine has the same weight as non-fat milk, a medium-bodied wine the same as half-and-half, and a very full-bodied wine the same weight as heavy cream.
Confirming the Nose
Next taste through the wine keeping in mind the information you’ve discovered on the nose.
Fruit: taste the wine looking to confirm the primary and secondary fruit you've smelled in the glass. Are the same flavors there? Are there different ones to note? Also note the quality of the fruit and if it’s different from the nose. Fruit qualities are often different as in tarter fruit on the palate vs. riper fruit perceived on the nose.
Non-fruit: do the same with the non-fruit characteristics. Are they the same? Different? Be sure to confirm them.
Earth: confirm both the inorganic and organic earth qualities in the wine. Are they the similar to those found on the nose? Different? If so, how are they different?
Wood: confirm any oak flavors in the wine in the form of vanilla, baking spices, caramel, smoke, toast, and chocolate. When oak is used to excess wine can taste overly bitter or astringent--which leads us to the structural elements: tannin, acidity, alcohol, and the finish.
Re-taste the wine and after spitting (catch and release), give yourself several seconds to really get a read on all the structural elements. Use the following scale to be as precise as you can in calling the acid, alcohol, and tannin:
Low – Medium- - Medium – Medium+ - High
Acidity: acidity is a crucial component found in all wines. Without acidity a wine would be imbalanced, flabby, and incapable of aging. However, too much acidity renders a wine undrinkably tart. A good balance is the key. Know also that there are four primary acids in wine: tartaric (the most important), malic (tart green apples), lactic (acid yogurt and other dairy products), and citric.
*Key on your salivary glands! Medium acidity or lower will barely register any salivation while medium+ and high acidity will cause them work overtime.
Alcohol: sensed as heat in the nose, throat or chest cavity. A low-alcohol wine like Mosel Riesling at 8% will have a decided absence of this heat sensation while a fortified wine like a Port at 18% will produce a warm glow in the mouth, throat, and chest. Again, the amount of heat detected will only serve to confirm what you've already seen in the quality of the legs and the ripeness and quality of the fruit on the nose and palate.
*Key: when checking the level of alcohol in a wine say the letter “O” and inhale—AFTER you spit the wine out. You’ll be able to get a quick read on the alcohol in the wine.
Tannin: tannins, or tannic acid, are derived from grape skins and barrels often used to age wine. Tannin is a valuable preservative that gives wine the potential to age. In moderation tannins add structure and complexity to wine. In excess, however, tannins render wine bitter and astringent (think overly-brewed tea). Red wines practically always have more tannins than whites. But certain white wines such as lavishly oaked New World Chardonnays can also display tannin.
Finish: or the aftertaste of the wine. Is the finish short, medium or long? Think of the last glass of white, pink or red vin ordinaire you drank. Remember how the aftertaste of the wine stopped short as if someone suddenly turned out the lights? Then think of the best wine you've ever enjoyed. Remember how you could still taste it minutes later. If the finish lasts more than 20 seconds and is really persistent, then it's a long finish and odds are a really good glass of wine. The general rule in tasting is the longer the finish the better quality the wine. Here's the scale for the finish:
Short – Medium- - Medium – Medium+ - Long
Balance: the best definition for balance is a harmony between all the various elements in a wine: the fruit, the acids, the tannins. When tasting a wine ask yourself if there’s harmony among all these elements. Or does something stick out like the proverbial sore thumb?
Complexity: in its most basic terms, complexity can be defined as the amount of aromas and flavors in a wine combined with how much the wine changes as it travels across your palate. For example, a simple wine will only display one or two aromas/flavors in the glass and change very little as you taste it. Don’t expect said wine to develop and change in the glass once poured. A complex wine on the other hand offers up many different aromas/flavors and will change dramatically as it travels across your palate. Once poured it will continue to change and develop in the glass revealing even more nuances over time. It’s sort of a “Mary Had a Little Lamb” versus a late Beethoven quartet kind of a thing. Here's the scale for complexity:
Low – Medium- - Medium – Medium+ - High
That's the end of the sensory evaluation--the compulsory exercises—for the grid. Now for the real fun in the form of coming up with a well-reasoned conclusion.
Initial Conclusion: this is where we start to hone in on what the wine is and where it could be from. We're not going to get picky with details just yet but we’ll consider what drives the wine and also what kind of climate exists where the grapes were grown that were used to make the wine.
Old World vs. New World: here we’re asking what drives the wine: fruit or other-than-fruit elements—in this case mineral and earth. Is the wine earthy? If so, the wine is probably from the Old World or at least made in an Old World style. High acidity can also be a clue that the wine is from the Old World because as mentioned above there are many cooler growing regions there. If the wine is overtly fruity without a trace of earthiness chances are it's from the New World.
Cool vs. warm climate: is the wine light in color, low in alcohol, and high in acidity? If so, odds are it's from a cool climate where the grapes didn’t get fully ripened. Or is the wine deeply colored with concentrated flavors and higher alcohol? Then the wine is probably from a warmer growing region where the grapes were able to fully ripen. One can always make a call for “moderate climate” if the wine’s structure/ripeness level falls in between.
Grape variety or blend: this is where one has to have an opinion or at least make an educated guess. Taking everything you've seen, smelled, and tasted into consideration, what could the grape variety be? Or is the wine a blend of several grapes? Here the fruit qualities, the earthiness or lack thereof, and the use of oak (or not) in the wine are all important clues. But as I mentioned previously, the combination of non-fruit qualities matched with the structure could be the most important thing when trying to identify the grape variety. Hopefully your previous tasting experiences will provide a good frame of reference. The bad news is that it takes years of tasting to form such frames of reference. The good news is that you have to taste and drink a lot of wines to form said taste references. It could be a lot worse. We could be talking about widgets here.
Age: given what you've seen, smelled and tasted, is the wine young and vibrant with loads of primary fruit? Or is the wine filled with leathery, earthy, and secondary flavors from bottle aging? Give the age range in terms of young (1-3 years), medium (3-5 years) and older (5 years and beyond).
Now it's time to state your case, hang your hat, and make your mark. Given all the previous information tell us about the:
Grape variety: you've finished waffling (hopefully) and you now know exactly what the grape variety(s) is/are. State it with conviction.
Country, region, and appellation: take us home. Give us the "France, Bordeaux, Right Bank, St.-Emillon, Premier Grand Cru Classé Class B," or the "Germany, Riesling, Mosel."
Quality level: two possibilities: first, as with the two examples above, be aware that some countries/regions have very specific legal hierarchies of quality. Think Burgundy and vineyards being classified as Village, Premier Cru, and Grand Cru; or in the case of German Riesling different pradiakte such as Kabinett and Auslese. Thus theory can play an important role in coming up with a good final conclusion. Otherwise, make an educated comment about the overall quality level of the wine. Is it a simple table wine? Better than that? Or is it a profound wine offering a brief but life-changing experience? Would you enjoy the wine with dinner tonight? Would you offer it to a friend? Would you soak a chicken in it? You make the call.
Vintage: give one year, two at the most. Be careful when giving two vintages as opposed to one as harvests can vary dramatically in Old World regions. Also keep in mind the fact that Southern Hemisphere countries are always six months ahead in terms of vintage.
Now sit back, relax, and take a sip. Right or wrong, you've earned it.