Article By: DAVID SINGER
Well isn't this overwhelming? Deliciously so, but where in the Expo do we begin in this sea of wine? As tempting as it is to just jump in and taste I would strongly recommend forming a plan before you wade in. That plan should consist first of knowing how to assess wine, not just taste it. Knowing what you prefer is just as important as knowing what you don't like, and knowing why you feel the way you do in either case is even more important. Those of us who taste wines for a living take a structured approach to the experience that helps us express "why" we like or don't like a wine. Knowing this, we can more easily compare wines on several dimensions and extrapolate what we learn about one wine to others. If you know how to do this, you can skim the next few paragraphs; otherwise please continue.
Knowing how to professionally taste primarily consists of thinking about what you smell and taste without any visual clues. For example, if you stand over your stove while cooking bacon it's no surprise that you will smell, well, bacon, or more specifically, cooking bacon. This same smell is often present in Southern Rhone wines, but bacon seldom comes to mind when most people put their nose in a glass. Similarly, when you bite into a strip of bacon, you taste smoky, caramelized meat, but you might not pick that up in a glass of Grenache - though it is often in Grenache from France. Your eyes tell you what smells and tastes to expect when you see a piece of bacon. When you see a glass of wine you don't have that visual cue.
Smell in particular is a very under utilized sense, and unless you use it every day as part of your job, like a Sommelier or Perfumer, smelling without seeing is probably not a strong skill for you. However anyone can learn it with practice. With the next glass of wine you pick up, think of what fruit the aroma reminds you of. Move from general to specific. For example, in a white wine, is there citrus? If so, is it lemon? Grapefruit? In a red wine, do you smell red fruit, or black fruit? If red, is it strawberries? Cherries? Beyond fruit, consider earth notes, such as dirt, minerals or grass. Are you picking up clues that oak was used in making the wine, including vanilla or cinnamon?
Similarly, when you taste to assess wine it is different than everyday drinking. Take a sip and let it sit in your mouth. Swish it around, covering every single nook and cranny. (Here I would recommend spitting. It's perfectly acceptable to do so at wine tasting, especially when there are so many to taste.) By tasting in this fashion you'll notice that the wine is certainly more complex and elements of the wine, like acidity and tannin, are much more apparent.
Now analyze what you are tasting, with the following questions: Do you like the flavors? What flavors stand out for you? As with the scents above, is there citrus? Are there red fruits? Black fruits? Earthiness? Etc.
If it's a white wine how high is the level of acidity? Is it bright and crisp? Creamy and round? Which of these sensations are enjoyable to you?
With red, how is the tannin? Tannin is that sensation of grip on the sides of your cheeks, much like a strong cup of tea. Is the sensation light or strong? Gripping or smooth? Again, which is enjoyable to you?
Now that you've had a short course in smelling and tasting, roll up your sleeves and prepare to dive into the Expo. I recommend a structured approach to selecting wines to taste, comparing like-to-like at some level. Also, with as many wines as you have to choose from, you're facing the risk of exhausting your palette, which makes it difficult to taste much of anything. Your palate has more endurance when challenged by a number of similar tastes than if inundated with a multitude if drastically different tastes, such as going back and forth between white and red wines.
Like-to-like comparison doesn't mean the same thing over and over, but rather variations on a theme. For example, look and see if there is a particular region that you are very familiar with or would like to be. As a consumer, having the ability to taste a great number of wines exclusively from one region or even a sub region in order to directly compare and contrast them is certainly a treat. The opportunity to do this is usually rare for anyone outside professional wine circles.
If there isn't a particular region that is attractive to you, pick a grape. Only try out say, Sauvignon Blanc for a while. Try New Zealand, South Africa, France, and Californian. What do you notice stylistically between the different countries? See if you have a preference, if so, why? And with that, I wish for you an educational, and thoroughly enjoyable, drinking experience.