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Can you train yourself to become a good wine taster?

The short answer is that, in most cases, you can train yourself to become a good wine taster. It just takes a lot of practice and, most importantly, you need someone to explain what to look for, and how to look for it. Don’t let the blind lead the blind.

But the speed of your progress will depend, at least in part, on your natural-born ability as a taster. And it is shocking just how differently we taste. Women are generally considered to be superior to men. And it is generally accepted by sensory scientists that the population can be broken up into 25% Supertasters, 50% medium tasters, and 25% nontasters.

The 25% nontaster statistic sends most people running to the bathroom mirror to inspect their taste buds, known as fungiform papillae, in scientific circles. But it’s hard to count the roughly 10,000 taste buds in your average person’s mouth.

The real test, which determines which category you fall into, is based on your sensitivity to bitterness. Scientists use a compound called PROP to rate your response. At one extreme, some people find it tastes unpleasantly bitter (the Supertasters). At the other extreme, some people don’t notice the bitter taste at all. In sensory science there is much talk about thresholds, because people differ widely in their ability to notice something. The nontasters can’t notice some things at all.

It’s no surprise that professional wine tasters usually fall into the Supertaster or medium taster category. So if, in fact, you turn out to be a nontaster then it might be a challenge to train yourself to become an accomplished wine taster. Discussions about tannins might be limited.

So how can you find out? You could certainly speak to your doctor and see if they could organize a test for you. Unfortunately some people actually suffer from a complete loss of smell, known as anosmia. It is less common for people to have a taste disorder, but it also exists. The Monell Centre leads the research in the science of smell and taste, and will perform testing on individuals too. 

All being well, most people fall into the category of medium tasters.  This means that you can confidently get on with your plan to become the next Robert Parker.

But beware of a few pitfalls. Firstly, the older you get the less sensitive you become to certain tastes and smells. So the ideal age to start your wine tasting education is straight out of college. Another important tip is that you should do your practice before lunch, around 11 am, when the senses are heightened. Tasting wine late at night after a spicy Thai takeout is not ideal.

Also, keep in mind that you don’t taste well if you are tired or stressed out. One of the most respected tasters in history, Emile Peynaud, said that your physical health has a significant impact on your ability to taste. So if you are out-of-shape, hauling on cigars, and auditioning to be the next Bar Star then you are not exactly primed to progress at full speed.

I’ve often found that my tasting is at its best after swimming in the ocean, thanks to the effect of the salt water. I’ve also found that the impression of certain components in a wine, like tannin, changes depending on the frequency of your tasting. If you haven’t had any red wine in a while then the first taste will seem more astringent than if you were regularly drinking reds.   

So presuming that you’re fighting fit, well rested, and in a Zen-like state you can begin your training to become a good wine taster. For the average winelover the best way to progress is to buy a few different grape varieties, or regions, and try them all side-by-side. Comparative tasting is always the most instructive, and it’s even better if you can do it blind. You can also experiment by blind tasting fruits and vegetables, and smelling flowers and spices.      

If you are attempting a more serious challenge, like a wine tasting exam, then some people find themselves sitting down to 12 wines before lunch, and then another 12 after lunch. It’s a full time job. But then again some people are employed to review and select wines for magazines like Wine Spectator, major newspapers, hotels, restaurants, and retail stores. 

Now that you have trained yourself to be a good wine taster, your job is to stay relevant to your audience. The issue here is that your customers, or readers, are usually not as well versed as you about wine. You run the risk of alienating them if you don’t speak their language. 

Some wine tasters write in-depth reviews about tannin textures, various styles of acidity, and give a laundry list of flavor descriptors. This can perplex the reader, who then simply looks at the point score. That number is so much easier to understand.

The ultimate skill is to use your knowledge to buy wines for others that they will like, even if sometimes you might not like the wine very much yourself. A good taster can understand how others taste, and can predict what they will like. They can also describe wines in a language that the targeted consumer for that particular wine will relate to, and find helpful. And to do that you simply need to train yourself. Supertaster ability is not required.

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So you want to try something totally different?

Mexico, Hawaii, Thailand, Bali, Japan and China all make wine. Whilst some of the wines can taste “unusual”, you can find some “good” wines from unlikely places.

I once visited a vineyard just outside Bangkok, called Monsoon valley. Even more bizarre, it was a floating vineyard where the vines were planted on mounds of earth that rose up out of a shallow lake. You had to walk across a narrow plank to get from one row to the next, and the big worry was falling in and getting bitten by a water snake. The grapes were harvested by leaning out of a little canoe and snipping off the bunches.

I think it will be a while before wines from places like these feature amongst the best in the world, but modern technology has gone a long way to allowing producers to make wines in unlikely places. Nurseries can create grape varieties that are suited to very hot, or very cold, climates. Grape growers can use irrigation and canopy management techniques to help achieve optimum levels of ripeness. And with the use of temperature control and a multitude of different techniques winemakers can fashion wines to be quite palatable.

The fun is that these wines actually exist. Right now, in export markets, they are mainly treated as curiosities.

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So you like unoaked reds. What to buy?

So you like unoaked reds. What to buy?

A caveat when answering this question is that some producers do not follow the norm in their regions. But generally, delicious unoaked wines abound in the following places:

I would recommend trying some Beaujolais from France. Beaujolais is typically unoaked and if that is the major criteria then this dry, light bodied red should hit the mark.

There is some good quality Beaujolais. Check out some of the so-called “Crus”. There are 10 of them and these are the higher quality wines that typically retail for about $20-$30.

Valpolicella from Italy is typically unoaked and can be quite delicious as a simple pizza wine. They are often lighter in color, crisp in acidity, with some slightly tart cherry flavours. For the price they are very popular, if a little simple.

Another wine that is usually dry, low in tannin, and very light on oak are basic Burgundies made from the Pinot Noir grape. Whilst some AC Bourgogne wines have seen a short amount of oak ageing you would be hard pushed to tell. Again, there are lots of options here in the $20-$30 range.

Red wines from the Loire, often made with Cabernet Franc, could be the ticket because they are usually dry, light in body, and not showing much oak. But it all really depends on the producer and I’m generalizing here.

I’m not a fan of oaky wines either. But in good wine the oak shouldn’t be unpleasant. Instead, it should add another dimension to the wine, some attractive aromas and flavors of vanilla, coffee, spice and cedar. But when a wine is over-oaked then that’s all you can taste.

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What wine to buy with a $15 budget?

What wine to buy with a $15 budget?

The good news is that you can buy quite a few good quality wines for that amount. The fact is that most people don’t spend much more then $15 on a bottle of wine.

In sparkling wine I would buy Spanish Cava. Wines like Segura Viudas are exceptional value given that they are made in the same method as Champagne. Don’t expect anything widely complex, but instead the wine will be dry, medium to light bodied, crisp and refreshing and showing lots of green fruit.

In Sauvignon Blanc I would buy from Chile, which just inches out New Zealand which tends to be a few dollars more. In Chile look out for wine labeled as coming from the Casablanca valley. They are aromatic, pure and focus, with Sauvignon’s classic herbaceous qualities. Santa Rita can make good wines.

There are some pretty good Pinot Grigios from Italy in this price range, Chardonnays from Australia, and for a few dollars more you can buy delicious Rieslings and Gewurztraminers from Alsace. But if you really want me to name a single country that makes excellent value white wines from a multitude of different grapes it has to be Chile.

For red wines, Malbec from Argentina is excellent value. They’re deep, dark, full bodied and brimming with juicy black fruits. These are some of the best value red wines on the market today.

In Europe, southern Italy and southern France can offer some excellent deals on their red wines. Look for areas that are not well known. Producers here have a harder time selling their wines and that works in your favor. Portuguese reds are incredible value too and Spanish reds from La Mancha ranks amongst the best values.  

Again, I would take a serious look at Chile for Merlot and inexpensive Pinot Noir. And Australia has some unbelievable prices on Shiraz. So in fact there is quite a lot of choice.

For sweet wines you typically pay more than $15 but the best values are Canadian late harvest Rieslings, sweet Chenin from the Loire valley, and you can even buy Sauternes for $20.

To cap it all off, Late Bottled Vintage (LBV) Port is a fantastic deal with some around  $20-$25. Plus the bottle can stay open for about one week.

You usually get an increase in quality as prices go up. But there are plenty of nice wines around $15 too.   

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When you pull up at wineries like Mondavi, Beringer, Sutter Home and Kendal Jackson you might be aware that they are not exactly boutique producers. But you’d be shocked to find out that the four of them account for a monstrous percentage of California’s wine production.

In fact, the top 30 wineries in California are responsible for over 90% of the State’s wine production. Even more amazing, the top 3 companies produce more than 150 million cases, which is over 50% of California’s wine.

California ranks as the 4th largest wine producer in the world, coming in behind France, Italy and Spain. In the Golden State you’ll find over 3,500 bonded wineries. Together, they produced over 300 million cases of wine. This is not small potatoes.

So although there’s a wonderful artisan feel to some of these wineries, behind the tasting room doors is the most impressive corporate machine you could ever imagine. But big is not beautiful, at least for most wine lovers. People seem to prefer a small family struggling to make ends meet, dedicated to the terroir, and hand-selling their wine, one bottle at a time. That is another marketing position…even if it is true.

Although I love the small winery too, I am very much in favor of the powerhouse volume companies that drive the market. They have the funds to invest in viticultural and winemaking research, taking the quality levels to new heights. They can create taste profiles and brands that meet the modern consumer’s preferences. They can afford to advertise, which attracts new wine drinkers. Large companies can also run major promotions that add value for regular wine lovers. And when it comes to government, it’s the powerhouse corporations that lobby on behalf of the rest of the industry.

The king of California is Ernest and Julio Gallo, who weigh in at more than 80 million cases, although exact figures are elusive. It’s one of the most inspiring stories in wine, and I have great admiration for this company and what they have achieved. Only a wine snob and the uninformed would say otherwise.

It was started in a garage by the two brothers in 1933. They had a friendly bet which spurred on a competition. Ernest said he could sell wine faster than Julio produced it, but Julio thought otherwise. They grew the business at an alarming rate. Ernest was famous for saying “we don’t want most of the business, we want it all”. Today the company sells 1 in 3 bottles of California wine.  

I visited their main production facility outside Modesto in the Central valley. At one stage they owned almost half the vineyards in the State, and today they are the largest landowner in Sonoma. At the winery they make their own glass bottles, their own barrels, have their own printing operation, and a train actually comes into the highly automated warehouse to collect wine for shipment around the world. They have offices around the world, managing their own distribution.  

Much less well known is The Wine Group. If you’ve had a bottle of Corbett Canyon, Cupcake, FishEye, Franzia, Almaden and several others then you’ve contributed to their massive sales. This company seems to have a knack for figuring out exactly what consumer wants in a brand. They then use their extensive sales and marketing expertise to develop business with large retail chains. After all, the vast majority of wine is sold at retail in stores like Costco, Walmart and Safeway, which can turn a brand into an overnight success.

Constellation Brands is a global player. Their flagship in California is unquestionably Robert Mondavi, although the company is also the owner of Ravenswood, Simi, Clos du Bois, Franciscan and many others. And that’s just in California. They also own major brands elsewhere like Kim Crawford in New Zealand.

Although Constellation is a giant beverage company, they operate each winery independently and strive to offer a range of more premium wines, as well as covering the value sector. Certainly, when it comes to quality, the Napa wines from Robert Mondavi are the jewel in the crown. The quality of the Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon proves that large companies can produce outstanding quality wines.

There are several more giants. Treasury is the name of the company behind Beringer, Chateau St Jean and various others in California. They also own half of Australia.

Trinchero is the company behind Sutter Home, the inventor of White Zinfandel. Today, Trinchero continues to hit home runs with brands like Menage a Trois, and the hot new varietal Moscato. Kendall- Jackson, Delicato, Bronco, Wente, J Lohr, and Francis Ford Coppola also appear on the list of major volume players. Coppola produces Rubicon, now called Inglenook, one of the top wines of Napa. It’s the volume brands that fund his pursuit of perfection at Inglenook.

The point is that although wine lovers get all wrapped up in the ultra-prestige brands that often sell for expensive prices, this is not the main market. Over 90% of all wine sold sells for under $20 a bottle. We rely on the major companies to deliver a great experience for the money. And the volume players are the ones that often do that the best. Like it or not.

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