By Jenna Higgins.
After recently attending a MCC base-wine tasting hosted by the exclusive Cap Classique Association, I found myself wondering about how much effort goes into analysing and tasting a glass of wine. In my case, wine tasting formed a part of my tertiary education – I loved this, as it gave me an excuse to tell people that tasting wine was “beneficial to my education”.
Basic wine tasting etiquette is taught to wine students in the second semester of their first year of studying, where we are normally all greatly disappointed to find out that it is in fact a common courtesy to spit your sip of wine out, as apposed to actually drinking it. I remember a fellow classmate tentatively asking if we had to “spit with a specific technique”, as if there were some kind of finesse to it.
Following being thoroughly disappointed by the instruction to spit out our lovely class-time inebriants in our first year, we were then introduced to the concept of blind tastings and cultivar identification in our second year. To be fair, though, they started us off easy, we simply had to taste wines out of blacked-out glasses and determine whether the wine was red, white or pink (rosé). Initially, while some of us struggled to identify more than two prominent aromas on the wines, it soon became apparent that some of our fellow classmates clearly had a little bit more tasting experience than the rest of us.
After slowly introducing our tastebuds to wine, our senses were further stimulated with small foil covered bottles, each containing a different wine aroma. We then had to identify the various aromas that lay within each bottle. Aromas such as chocolate, cinnamon, orange blossom, guava, pineapple and peach were easy to identify, while others such as elderflower, jasmine, quince, violet and tomato leaf were more difficult. Most of us had never smelled these scents before, it was an entirely new experience. On a side note, I still can’t pick up guava aromas to this day (I was told everyone has a ‘blind spot’ on their nose, I guess that’s mine!).
Once our noses had been calibrated, the tastings advanced to a combination of bottled aromas and cultivar specific wines. We were asked to identify which aromas presented themselves in the wines, after smelling the varietal’s characteristic aromas in the bottles. Gradually, we came to associate Sauvignon Blanc with either guava, passion fruit and gooseberry, or on the greener spectrum, elderflower, lemon grass, asparagus and green peppers. Pinotage became recognisable by aromas of strawberries, mocha, banana and plums, and so we learnt how to distinguish between cultivars based on smell.
Colour analysis was the next step in our wine tasting journey, where we would soon come to realise that not all rosé was actually classified as rosé, and red wine could be as dark as midnight or as light as cranberries. At the time, it seemed fascinating that one could distinguish between cultivars based on colour (while the wines bouquet was still kept in mind), a few years down the line this concept appears to be entirely logical and almost of a second nature when tasting.
Things got really interesting when the WSET team took over our midday tasting praticals, our palates were tantalized by wines from Italy, France, Spain, New Zealand, Chile and many more. We were taught to differentiate between acidity and astringency, as well as primary, secondary and tertiary wine aromas. Here, we also learnt that wood tannin and wine tannin are two completely different things and that their influences on the palate also vary.
Third year threw us a lovely curveball by the name of ‘wine faults’; we were now considered to be “experienced tasters”, we had levelled up from our first year “gesuipery” and advanced to a more professional level of wine tasting. Up until this point, I was only aware of cork taint, though I had little to no skill when identifying it in a wine. Picking up wine faults was definitely not my strong point, I kept confusing Brettanomyces spoilage with the TCA derived aromas of cork taint… I even thought the oxidised wines smelled quite fruity. Some of my class mates had better luck than I did and went on to participate in the faulty wine identification course. Fast forward a few months and everyone had successfully managed to gain a sound knowledge on wine faults.
Zoning out of my three-and-a-half-year flash back, I now find myself sitting at a MCC base wine tasting with a table of tasting experts, while I try my best not to let my inexperience show. At first, I doubted myself, much like I did in first year and then as the winemakers around the table began to voice their opinions, I noticed that many were similar to what I had written on the page in front of me. Although I wouldn’t quite consider myself to be an experienced taster, looking back at the hard work my lecturers have put into refining the palates of generations of winemakers-to-be, I can’t help but to feel a tingle of excitement for the years of learning and development to come.