Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Sensory Evaluation - Use Your Words

Read previous sensory evaluation articles - Use Your SensesThe BasicsThe Language of WineWine & Bullfighting.

During my studies in Cal Poly's wine program, Sensory Evaluation was one of my favorite courses. To answer the usual first question: no, it's not because we got to drink wine during class. The most important thing I took away from this course was the ability to identify and verbalize what I was sensing. Finding the right words is the main struggle for less experienced tasters.

Knowing the vocabulary is a first step. Using a tool like the Aroma Wheel is also helpful. This visual tool moves from broad categories in the middle to more refined descriptors on the outside. The vocabulary used to describe wine aromas and flavors can be daunting to say the least as it seems to be ever-expanding as people try to make things more complicated or 'sophisticated'.

Aroma sample lineups are useful to connect descriptors to perception. These are prepared using fresh ingredients and/or aroma essences: prepare each aroma sample in a separate wine glass, label, and organize by category on the tasting bench (fruit with fruit, etc.; the more is not always better as your senses my get confused or tired). This allows taster to become accustom to a certain aroma on its own before applying them to the wines on hand at a tasting. For example, a Sauvignon Blanc wine tasting can have aroma samples such as bell pepper, fresh grass, lime, and passion fruit.

Having other people's opinions is always helpful. They don't have to be wine experts, just a group of friends that all have a common love of wine. I can't remember how many times I've been evaluating wines and didn't even notice a certain aspect until someone else mentioned it!

Tasters will often 'disagree' on descriptors when referring to the same aroma/flavor. For example, you might say there is a peach flavor, while I call it apricot. Bear in mind not everyone will use the same word choice, and there will be connotative and colloquial differences. Don't get frustrated or discouraged if you taste a wine and your descriptors aren't identical to, say, the winemaker's notes or a critic's review. It's a personal adventure and not always about what others think.

I'll discuss sensory evaluation scenarios, wine judging/scoring, and analyzing sensory information for decision-making in following posts.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Sensory Evaluation - Use Your Senses

Read previous sensory evaluation articles - The BasicsThe Language of WineWine & Bullfighting.

'Proper' sensory evaluation of wine actually involves a surprising amount of knowledge. Indeed, there are entire courses dedicated solely to this discipline. Starting off with the basic knowledge is necessary, then it becomes a 'practice makes perfect' scenario.

The basic technique for sensory evaluation goes as follows: pour wine, look, sniff, drink. Let's look at the three senses we use for sensory evaluation:

Fill Height - This obviously isn't a sense, but I thought it was worth mentioning. Typical fill heights when serving wine are usually recommended as follows: one-third for red, half for white, and three-quarter for sparkling. During sensory evaluation and regardless of the wine type, you want to fill your glass about one-third full in order to leave enough room for aromatic evaluation.

Sight - Visual assessment is the first step. A wine's color can help with identifying grape varietal, wine style, age, and faults. Tilt your glass at a 45° angle over a white background; this is why white tasting benches are ideal, but a tablecloth or sheet of paper will do. Look through the wine, noting the 'core' (the color at the center of the glass) and the 'rim' (the color around the edge); the core is useful in identifying grape varietal and wine style, while the rim can be used as an indication of age. Also look for the presence of bubbles, which may indicate faults (unless, of course, you're tasting sparkling wine). 'Legs' is a term used to refer to the process of wine adhering to the glass when swirled, hinting at a wine's alcohol content and viscosity.

The haziness of a wine will hint at potential faults, including protein instability, bacterial infection, insufficient filtering, and/or leftover yeast. Protein instability will often result in crystal formation, sometimes referred to as 'wine diamonds', in the bottom of the glass or bottle. While not harmful, these are not desirable. Bubbles around the rim indicates the presence of gas, typically carbon dioxide. For sparkling wines, you obviously want some bubbles (will discuss in depth in a following post), but small levels are common in younger white wines because dissolved carbon dioxide levels are left higher at bottling to help retain the wine's freshness. Bubbles may also indicate partial fermentation (primary or malolactic) in bottle for both red and white wines, or the presence of spoilage bacteria.

Smell - A wine's aroma and bouquet are very important during evaluation. Before you start swirling, sniff the wine and record what you detect. Then swirl the glass vigorously for a few seconds. This will oxygenate the wine and release volatile aroma compounds. Sniff the wine again and focus on the different elements. The term 'aroma' is used to refer to flavors originating from the grape, while 'bouquet' refers to flavors originating from winemaking (fermentation, maturation, bottle-aging). Experienced tasters will be able to determine most wine faults during this stage (thus the prevalence of DNPIM, 'do not put in mouth', during sensory evaluation).

Taste - As you taste something, the air inside your mouth flows into your nasal passages. The combination of the smell of this air with the sensations of sweet, salt, sour, and bitter in your mouth is how you determine flavor. So, smell is really the biggest tool in sensory evaluation.

The proper way to taste sounds a lot more confusing than it really is, but I guess it takes a bit of practice. Sip a small amount of wine, then draw air through slightly opened lips while resting the wine on your tongue. Record what you sense: acidity, sweetness, bitterness, astringency, body, balance, flavor profile, saltiness, and anything else.

Just like with aroma/bouquet evaluation, you want to try to separate the different elements you perceive and define them as best you can. Don't get frustrated or embarrassed if you do not perceive the same as others you may be tasting with (or with tasting notes provided by wineries or critics). Everyone has different levels of perception for different flavors. Like I said before, everyone's sensory abilities will improve with practice so drink up!

Continue to Use Your Words.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Peripheral Vision

As I started my motorcycle for my morning ride to work, something compelled me to take a different route. I complied, driving slowly and enjoying the new scenery. I stopped as I passed an elderly man. He was diligently preparing his water buffaloes to till his rice paddy, but looked up and smiled widely at the sight of a foreigner.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Sensory Evaluation - The Basics

Read previous sensory evaluation articles - The Language of Wine, Wine & Bullfighting.

Sensory evaluation is a part of every human's daily life. Love that smell when the sun comes out after it rains? How delicious that pizza is from the restaurant on the corner? Hate being stuck in traffic behind the trash collector? Sensory evaluation is all around us. For food and beverage makers, sensory evaluation is part of the job. Whether it's cheese, chocolate, cider, spirits, or wine, sensory evaluation is a key element in making sure the product turns out as intended.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Sensory Evaluation - Wine & Bullfighting?

I have been working on some articles discussing sensory evaluation of wine, which I will have to share with here over the next couple weeks. In the meantime, it seemed fitting to share this passage from a recent book I read.

Ernest Hemingway's novel, 'Death in the Afternoon', is a non-fiction book detailing the many aspects of bullfighting. Hemingway developed a love for bullfighting over many years in Spain, and also a love of wine (though more French than Spanish). The passage below discusses appreciation of wine as Hemingway compares it to appreciation of bullfighting: