Ask the Winemaker - What are you looking for when you taste wine?

I recently started something at the winery that I call "Wine School." It's basically a monthly tasting class for our customers that's designed to be an educational exploration of wines. The first class, titled "How to drink like a winemaker" hoped to answer a question I get a lot in the tasting room...

What are you looking for when you taste wine?

In my view, as a winemaker, it's my job to make the best possible wine from any given fruit. And there are so many variables, that I don't think I could go through them in a class setting, or a blog for that matter. But this is what I told the class.

Primarily, I'm looking to avoid problems/faults. I think/worry a lot about things like volatile acidity (a precursor of spoilage), S02 levels (not too high, not too low)  Brettanomyces in the winery and TCA - the compound that can cause "corked" wine.

All of these problems can be mitigated with proper cleaning and attention, so developing a protocol that works is important.

After that, I'm focusing on this term called "balance." There are many components, but the big five to me are Acidity, Alcohol, Sugar, Tannin, and something I call a wine's "Timeline."

The first four of these components can be controlled for in the cellar or selected for in the vineyard. Acidity and Alcohol levels are best "picked" in the timing of harvest, but can also be nudged if necessary during fermentation. Sugar content is determined by fermentation success. Tannin stems mostly from things like skin contact time, maceration techniques, barrel selection, aging and varietal differences. The idea here is that wines are best when nothing is standing out more than another. This idea of balance is also highly subjective. Some like acidity and tannin more than others, some certainly like higher alcohol wines more than others.

Which leaves us with a wine's "Timeline". A good definition would be: The experience of drinking a wine over time. It can be broken down into Nose, Attack, Mid Palette and Finish. Nose is how fragrant, interesting a wine smells. Attack is the initial flavors that hit your mouth on that first sip. Mid Palette, to me, is the feeling and taste of a wine as it's swirled around in your mouth. Finish is the quality and length of the flavors after spit or swallow.

Some wines have all of these components in spades, some lack one or two. In our class we tasted two young Malbecs out of the barrel from two different vineyards. One was very strong, except it sort of dipped during the Mid Palette. The other wasn't as dynamic, but was more consistent throughout the experience, only to drop off a little at the end. 

This is where blending comes in. We blended the two together and I watched as lightbulbs started going off around the table. Sometimes with wine, I explained, 1+1 can equal 3. Sometimes 1+1= -2. In this case, it was additive. The end result, which I told them will be pretty close to what the final product is like when I blend it this summer, has all the components you want in a wine. And one taster said it was like he was drinking two wines at the same time. 

My hope, of course, is that these flavors mesh into a more consistent final product. And I imagine they will with time. If it does, it'll certainly be what I'm looking for.