When The Art of Food & Wine festival in Palm Desert offered a panel discussion on “How to Taste Wines Like a Master Sommelier,” I expected the members of the Court of Master Sommeliers’ advice to include instructions on spitting — that is, not swallowing all the wine in your glass because unbridled enthusiasm (i.e., inebriation) will get you kicked out of the court. To that, I would have added don’t go to a tasting doused in cologne and/or wearing flavored Chapstick because that causes sensory interference (and also might get you kicked out of the court).
But I was wrong. The four panelists at the second annual festival in November didn’t even mention the word “bucket.” Their talk was, however, all about the fine points of sight, smell, taste, and another sense: that of deduction. And I do mean fine.
Anyone can distinguish a glass of white wine from a red, but master sommeliers can pick up subtle color nuances, such as the difference between red-purple, ruby, and garnet. They can detect hints of orange and brown. White wines may be clear, green-yellow, straw, yellow, yellowgold, or gold. They look for hints of brown on the rim that indicate a wine has aged. Color identification at this level, of course, requires a white background — and a good eye.
In addition to color, master sommeliers look at a wine’s brightness — its reflective quality. Is it dull, bright, day bright, star bright, or brilliant? What about its clarity (how clear or cloudy is the wine)? Is the center core concentration low, medium, or high?
Wine aficionados are familiar with the next step: swirling the wine. This opens up the wine’s nose (or bouquet, if you prefer a daintier word) and allows you to judge the viscosity. In wine parlance, you’re looking at the “legs” or “tears” as the wine forced up by centrifugal force flows back down the inside of the glass (assuming you haven’t swirled too vigorously, in which case the wine may flow down the outside of the glass). “The slower-moving the tears, the higher the alcohol [content],” explained Master Sommelier Jay Fletcher.
Another way to judge alcohol content without drinking (or reading the bottle label) is to stick your nose in the glass and inhale the aroma. “It’s at least 13.5 [percent alcohol] if it makes you cough. If it burns the hair in your nose, it’s 18 [percent],” Fletcher said with a grin.
For master sommeliers, smell accounts for a whopping 70 percent of their evaluation. The University of California-Davis Aroma Wheel enumerates 104 characteristic smells — some delightful (i.e., butterscotch, fig, apple blossom, and clove), some repulsive (i.e., rancid butter, wet cardboard, and skunk), and some completely esoteric (i.e., acetaldehyde, ethyl acetate, and oxidized B vitamins). However, professional wine critics and master sommeliers don’t stop at 104 descriptors.
Master Sommelier Reggie Narito simplified things, saying there were three main categories of smell: earth, fruit, and wood. Earthy smells usually connote an Old World (European) wine, while fruit-forward tones suggest a New World wine (especially those of California and Australia). Fruit, herb, and spice components suggest specific varietals. And the waft of wood connotes a wine aged in oak barrels versus a stainless steel tank. Master sommeliers excel at pulling individual aromas from a glass of wine, much like gourmet chefs excel at identifying specific spices in a stew.
By the time master sommeliers get around to tasting a wine, they generally have a pretty good idea of their choices when it comes to pinpointing what’s in the glass. By moving the liquid around in their mouth, they weigh its structural components: sugar level, acidity, tannins, fruit intensity, body, balance, whether the flavors follow through with the aromas, and the finish (the length of time the taste lingers after the wine is swallowed). “Above 15 seconds is a good finish,” said Master Sommelier Serafin Alvarado.
The alcohol level also can be discerned from the “heat” the wine generates. It sounds like a lot to consider, but each element — taken separately and together — offers clues of grape, region, and age.
Putting all the clues together from sight, smell, and taste, master sommeliers use deductive reasoning to identify a wine. For example, high acidity suggests wine from a cool climate. Or consider a white wine with oak notes: Typically, white varietals that get aged in oak are sauvignon blanc, semillon, chardonnay, viognier, marsanne, and rousanne. Red wines that show an orange tint include tempranillo, pinot noir, merlot, nebbiolo, and sangiovese.
“You really have to start at the beginning and look at the color, which gives you about 33 percent or higher information about whether it comes from a cool climate or warm climate,” Master Sommelier Ira Harmon said. “And then the color will give you an idea of which varietals you can narrow it down to. … You can’t jump to a conclusion in the beginning, because you will likely be wrong.” According to Harmon, by the time you get around to tasting the wine, you should have a good idea what the wine is; tasting “confirms where you are going.”
Part of the process to be admitted into the Court of Master Sommeliers requires applicants to identify six wines in 25 minutes. Of the world’s 6.6+ billion people, only 158 were master sommeliers as of Jan. 1, so one can appreciate the exclusivity of the designation. Of course, you don’t have to be a master sommelier if your aspirations are simply to enjoy wine. But learning to taste like one — which means considering multiple aspects of what’s in your glass — just might enhance the experience.
The 2008 Art of Food & Wine Art Palm Desert is Nov. 6-9, 2008
• To find out what it takes to become a Master Sommelier, click here.