September 2023 - France w/ a spotlight on Tasting

September 2023 - France w/ a spotlight on Tasting

September 2023


w/ a focus on Tasting


François Villard

Domaine Couet


We take a break from our usually scheduled programming to bring you a special episode on wine tasting! Somewhere along the way, I’ve realized we tend to pretty frequently deep-dive into geography, history, chemistry, and whatever other disciplines make up the wildly interesting world of wine, but we often don’t talk about the theory and practice of tasting itself. This month, we lend our digital pulpit to that cause - advancing the art and practice of tasting amongst our members to promote better understanding and, more importantly, enjoyment of the wines you consume. This is for beginners and advanced alike, as there are many varying methods to taste wine.

The club wines this month come from the Loire Valley (white) and the Rhone (red). We are usually more regionally-specific when speaking about France, Italy or Spain, but I wanted to select wines with ample aromatics and straightforward structural components for you to analyze. At the bottom, we still have the writeup for both wines, as usual.

On the necessity of ‘Tasting’

There are a few ways to taste wine, all varying in their dependence upon the end goal. If you are trying to blindly guess the wine using a process of deductive elimination, that is blind tasting. It is famously depicted in the movie ‘Somm’ and other media. It’s a neat party-trick, good for exercising the palate, better for sharpening the memory bank, and entirely possible with a solid theoretical foundation. However it is not what we’re going to focus on today. The other type of tasting would be tasting for quality, points, or competition. At its highest form this is depicted in wine magazines where critics judge wines on 100-pt scales, or where industry heads gather and award wines gold & silver medals. At its more approachable form, this is where friends or family get together and taste brown-bagged wines, simply naming which ones they like best and laughing when the Two-buck Chuck beats out The Prisoner. There isn’t much structured tasting happening here, but there is a step more of attention beyond pure drinking.

The type of tasting we’ll teach today is more useful than both of these. It’s simply tasting for knowledge. By building a semi-structured and consistent way in which you taste wine, you can begin to easier categorize and remember key facts about a wine beyond whether or not you liked it. This helps you both describe wines you like to retailers or sommeliers, as well as pick out key parts about a wine that you like or dislike, and seek out or avoid those characteristics in the future. 

An example would be that you drink an Italian Red, perhaps a Chianti Classico like we had in last month’s tasting. You notice that there are heaps of red cherry fruit and an undertone of earth and herb. You love the nose and are quite enchanted by it. However, when you taste the wine in the glass, you find it a bit too acidic and the tannins too forward. In the past, you wouldn’t be able to quite pinpoint what you liked or didn’t like about the wine, just that it was kind-of but you didn’t love it. Armed with the ability to clearly taste, however, you are able to go down to your local shop or favorite restaurant and clearly guide the server or retailer towards something more appealing to you.

The Practice of Tasting

Ok, so great, so getting in the habit of methodically tasting is a good thing to do, but how do we do it? Here’s a handy step-by step:

1. VISUAL - Take a quick look at the wine to assess color, opacity and age. This is far more important when blind tasting than anything else. Certain colors or intensities can hint at varieties, while certain hues can give an insight into age. Opacity, or cloudiness, can let one know if the wine is unfiltered or not. Legs can indicate alcohol or sweetness, but those should be easier to assess later when you actually taste. Fact of the matter is, none of these are really important when tasting to simply determine whether or not you simply like the wine, which we’re doing. That said, it’s a piece of the process and demands a brief moment.

2. AROMATIC - Smell the wine and make a mental list of aromas you smell. Aromas are where a bulk of our descriptors will lie. The nose, or bouquet, is the most important (and fun) part of the process.  You rarely discover new tastes on the palate. The aromas you perceive when smelling the wine are the same compounds that are related to the aromas themselves. That is to say, if a wine smells like strawberries, you are actually smelling the compound furaneol, which is found in strawberries. Apples? Ethyl esters. Blueberries? Benzaldehyde, hexanal, heptanal and nonanal, as well as 3-methyl-butyraldehyde and 2-methyl-butyraldehyde... You get the idea.

When looking at aromatics, you want to separate primary, secondary, and tertiary aromas. 

Primary aromas are those found in the wine grape itself. Generally, these are either fruit, herbal, or floral. (Chart below!) Fruit rather conveniently tends to correspond to the color of the wine itself. White wines generally have aromas of citrus (lemon, lime), pome fruits (apple, pear), tropical fruits (banana, pineapple, guava), or stone fruit (peach, apricot). Rosé tends to lean towards pink fruit like strawberry, cranberry, red delicious apple, etc. And red wines tend to be more berry-specific, with notes of cherry, blackberry, currant, raspberry, pomegranate, and blueberry. Floral, herbal, and other primary aromas can exist through all categories. 

Secondary aromas are created by the fermentation process (either chemical or physical), such as oak aging, malolactic fermentation, or lees contact. Examples of this would be baking spice in wines aged in French oak; vanilla, coconut, and dill in wines aged in American oak, buttery or yogurt notes in whites that have undergone malolactic fermentation, and brioche or baked bread in Champagne.

Tertiary aromas are created by the aging process. These are the more complex, brooding aromas in wine, often referred to as the bouquet rather than the nose. These can be things like hazelnut, dried apricot, marmalade, and almonds in white wines. In reds, these can materialize as leather, tobacco, cigar box, coffee, and more.

Note - you don’t always find all three categories. Young wines aged in stainless steel may only show primary notes. Old wines may only show tertiary notes, as the primary notes have died off.

Be as specific (lemon pith, green almond, bosc pear) or general (white flowers, red fruit) as you want. You can also get creative - fruity pebbles!? Aromas are also, in my opinion, the most powerful and captivating part of wine itself, and what wins many people over in the first place. Scent is possibly our most powerful sense, triggering our amygdala and hippocampus, which store emotion and memory, respectively. Some of my most powerful moments in wine have been from a scent that evokes a powerful association from childhood. It transports me to, say, my grandmother’s garden or my friend’s parents’ kitchen where I last smelled the scent. Oftentimes I can associate that memory long before I can pinpoint the aroma itself (‘it smells like I’m 6 years old, playing in my grandmother’s garden’ vs ‘oh, geraniums’). In my opinion, this is totally okay, and even encouraged, for wine is deeply poetic and personal, and relating like that just makes it more powerful.

One last note here - we will often struggle to make scent associations, as in ‘I know that smell but can’t place it’. The solution to this is to SMELL EVERYTHING. In the grocery store? Pick up all the fruits, scratch and sniff them. Walking through a garden? Rub your hands through the leaves. Smell it all and soon you’ll have a precision-trained nose.


3. PALATE - Take a sip to determine the structural components of the wine. How are the acidity, body, tannins, sweetness and alcohol all showing on the palate? How is the finish? This helps categorize the wine in terms of food-friendliness, drinkability, and ageability for your cellar. For most of these, I use Low / Medium - / Medium / Medium + / High to place the wine on a 1-5 scale. 

For acid, you are looking for the puckering of the glands in the back of your cheek, as well as the mouth watering effect after you’ve spit or drank the wine. 

Body can be hard for people to wrap their heads around. You’re looking for viscosity, so think of it like milk - skim, 1%, 2%, and whole. That is a light -> full body range. 

Tannins are found in red, some oranges, some rose’s and, very rarely, a white. These come from the grape skins, stems, and/or oak barrels. These are the drying effect on your palate, similar to oversteeped black tea. Tannins that are derived from oak are usually further back, towards your molars and tend to be clunkier. Tannins that are derived from grapes or stems tend to hit the front of your mouth and are finer. You ideally want a balance of the two, though some grapes are prone to one or the other. Even though they make you feel like you need water, tannins are actually relieved by fat. (Note - though they feel dry, tannins are not referred to by dryness, that is a scale of sweetness)

Sweetness is, you guessed it, the sugar content in wine. Measured from Dry, off-dry, medium sweet, and sweet. 95% of wines you will taste in nice wine shops and restaurants will be dry. Some cheap wines from massive producers might have some sweetness added to appeal to the general populace. As we discussed in July, some German Rieslings will have an off-dry or medium sweet note, from residual sugar (RS) left in the wine. And lastly, about 2% of the wines you will see are intentionally sweet dessert wines.

Alcohol can be relatively obvious due to the burn in your throat or lack thereof. And, even more conveniently, it’s listed on the bottle. One thing you can subjectively determine, though, is the perception of alcohol. Sometimes a wine can be 13% but feel as hot as a 14 or 15% wine. (And sometimes labels are intentionally wrong for tariff or appellation purposes)

Collectively, you can put all of these together to determine the general enjoyment, food pairing ability and/or ageability of a wine. 

For pairing, you generally want to match acid / acid & richness, tannin / fat, and sweetness / sweetness or spice. Say you are eating short ribs braised in tomato sauce over polenta. This dish has ample fat and acidity. While most wines would be just fine with this dish, I’d suggest something with plenty of fine-grained tannins and medium high to high acid. Something like the Chianti Classico we mentioned up top would be perfect. If you’re eating Thai Food with a lot of coconut milk, lime and chili, a Riesling with high acid and a bit of sugar would be just right. 

Another element is ageability. Over considerable years of aging, the structure of wines deteriorate. So to have a wine that is twenty to fifty years old with any acidity or tannin, you’ll want it to have ample balance of those at the onset, to provide the foundation for age and allow them to settle down together without becoming disjointed. On that note, you don’t want a wine to have too high of alcohol when it starts to age (unless it is fortified, like Port). 14%+ causes the wine to become volatile and turn towards vinegar quicker.

4. PUT IT ALL TOGETHER. This step allows you to form a complete, cohesive description of the wine in your glass. I know, it seems like a hell of a lot of work to get here. But much of what I wrote above is for intermediate to advanced tasters. 

If you’re overwhelmed, start by picking out two or three aromas for the wine you’re tasting and make mental note of the acid and tannins. Then, after you do this about 50 times, come back and add more elements of the tasting chart.

If you’re underwhelmed, lord help you. Kidding… kind of. If all the above seems easy, then go a step further and build a complete description of the wine, adding quality, balance, length, and complexity to your descriptors. 


5. FAULTS / FLAWS (bonus) - One other element of tasting is checking if the wine is good or not. The whole tasting charade in the restaurant is entirely for this purpose (not to see if it’s yummy, but rather if it’s spoiled). I won’t take up any more page space rambling, so instead I’ll direct you to a wonderful Wine Folly article on the subject.

I will say this - if you ever buy a faulyt/questionable bottle from a wine shop, or encounter one at a table, it is total within your right to ask for the professional’s opinion and a refund or exchange if appropriate! That rings true here at Dogwood too - we are always happy to help!

There you have it - just a quick (5 part) Dogwood Wine Tasting Guide for you! Here's a quick, one-page guide w/ some examples of each category.

Domaine Couet, Sauvignon Blanc, Coteaux du Giennois, Loire 2022

Emmanuel Couet is the 5th generation to run this estate, taking over from his father in 1998. Coteaux du Giennois is a smaller, less prestigious appellation directly north of Pouilly-Fume and across the river from Sancerre. Here, they produce Sauvignon Blanc much like their neighbors, but in a fashion less dense and more approachable. There is a small amount of red and rose produced (usually of Pinot Noir), however the dry crisp whites as we see here are the hallmark. 

Grapes are grown on hillsides, with a mix of clay/limestone soils and some larger matter like pebbles and flint. Vine age is from 10 - 50 years old. Once picked, the grapes are gently pressed and given a long, slow stainless steel fermentation. The finished wine is aged for a few winter months on the lees before bottling in spring.

Overall, this is a simple and satisfying Sauvignon Blanc. It is slightly grassy, with grapefruit, guava, lemon rind, and a touch of creaminess (a secondary aroma, from the lees). It is medium bodied, with medium+ acid, and a medium finish. A clean, simple wine with fresh aromatics and nice acidity. This is the kind of wine that you could happily find by the glass at a neighborhood Parisian Bistro, or at home with Rockfish tacos (our experience).

François Villard,  ‘L’appel des Sereines’ Syrah, Collines Rhodaniennes, Rhône Valley 2021

François was a chef by trade before getting into wine, first as a sommelier and then as a winemaker. Growing up in the foothills of the Alps near Lyon, the Rhône Valley was a natural landing point. His first vintage was in 1991 and consisted of just 400 cases of Condrieu (white from Viognier). Today, his estate farms 100 acres and purchases grapes off another 60 or so acres. Everything he works with is farmed organically and managed by hand, using judicious amounts of sulfur both in the field and in the winery. The grapes tend to be harvested later than his peers, but are made with a lighter touch, resulting in complex and flavorful wines without a heavy extraction. 

This cuvee is a blend of young vine Syrah grapes from a number of Northern Rhône sub-appellations. It sees a short maceration with 25% whole clusters in open top wooden vats before half is transferred to old barrels (and half left in the vat) for 11 months. The resulting wine is a juicy, peppery Syrah with plenty of the classic Northern Rhône notes like red/blue fruit, purple flowers, and pink peppercorn, but not the meaty, smoky bacon notes. It has a medium body, medium+ acid, medium tannins, and a medium+ finish.

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