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Wine Knowledge

  • Wine
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  • Principal
    Grape Varieties
  • Basic Wine Tasting
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France Spain Italy Australia New Zealand South Africa Argentina Chile USA

FRANCE

France is home to internationally renowned grape varieties like Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Syrah however you will not be seeing these names on most French labels.

The reason for this is that the French believe in “terroir” - that the geography and natural environmental factors (soil and climate) is what determine the characteristics and quality of the wine. To protect this French concept, a very detailed quality wine system known as the Appellation d’Origine Controlee (AOC) now changed to Appellation d’Origine Protegee (AOP) has been established to protect the factors that lead to the production of the wine – the vineyard area, the permitted grape varieties as per tradition, viticultural practices, yields, vinification methods and maturation. This system determines the standards of the varying quality levels of the wines produced.

Champagne Burgundy Alsace Loire Rhone Valley Bordeaux

BORDEAUX

Bordeaux is located in the southwest part of France with the Atlantic Ocean immediately to the west and is the largest AOC region in France made famous by world renowned chateaux producing top wines, which is only a small percentage of the whole region’s production. Bordeaux has a lot more to offer at varying price points and for any occasion. The regional appellation is simply labelled Bordeaux or Bordeaux Superieur.

When referring to Bordeaux wines, you often would hear reference to "Left Bank" and “Right Bank” of the Gironde River.

On a wider scaled, left bank appellations are Médoc in the northern part and Graves in the southern part. Médoc is further divided into two appellations of Médoc and Haut-Médoc which has even smaller appellations of St. Estèphe, Pauillac, St. Julien and Margaux.

Médoc HAUT-Médoc St. Estèphe
Pauillac
St. Julien
Margaux
Médoc

The wines in the Médoc appellations are red.

In the northern part of Graves is a smaller appellation of Pessac-Léognan. Wines from these two appellations are red and white.

Generally speaking, the smaller the appellation, the more distinct are the characteristics and the quality of the wine produced.

Famous right bank appellations include St. Émilion and Pomerol. Both are red wine appellations and are Mérlot dominant.

The red wines in the left bank are Cabernet Sauvignon dominant. Bordeaux wines are mostly a blend of grape varieties - Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc for red wines; Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon for white wines.

Bordeaux is also known for its sweet wines made with healthy and ripe Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc grapes that have been affected by noble rot (botrytis cinerea) which develops in humid mornings. The water in these affected grapes evaporate shriveling the grapes concentrating the sugars, acids and flavours. Renowned appellations are Sauternes and Barsac.

There are more appellations in Bordeaux that are not mentioned but are certainly worth discovering.

Most of the wines in Bordeaux have "Château" its label. A Château in Bordeaux is referred to a single estate which produces wines from the grapes from its surrounding vineyards with winemaking facilities.

The 1855 Classification

Upon the request of Napoleon III to showcase the top Bordeaux wines at the Paris Exhibition, the Bordeaux Chamber of Commerce had been commissioned to group the Châteaux into five groups which was based on the market price of the wines. 61 Châteaux were categorized as follows:

First Growth "Premier Grand Cru Classe"

  • Château Lafite Rothschild, Pauillac
  • Château Latour, Pauillac
  • Château Margaux, Margaux
  • Château Haut-Brion, Pessac, Graves
  • Château Mouton Rothschild, Pauillac

Second Growth "Grand Cru Classe"

  • Château Rauzan-Ségla, Margaux
  • Château Rauzan-Gassies, Margaux
  • Château Léoville-Las Cases, St.-Julien
  • Château Léoville-Poyferré, St.-Julien
  • Château Léoville-Barton, St.-Julien
  • Château Durfort-Vivens, Margaux
  • Château Gruaud-Larose, St.-Julien
  • Château Lascombes, Margaux
  • Château Brane-Cantenac, Cantenac-Margaux (Margaux)
  • Château Pichon Longueville Baron, Pauillac (commonly known as Pichon Baron)
  • Château Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande, Pauillac (commonly known as Pichon Lalande or Pichon Comtesse)
  • Château Ducru-Beaucaillou, St.-Julien
  • Château Cos d'Estournel, St.-Estephe
  • Château Montrose, St.-Estephe

Third Growths "Grand Cru Classe"

  • Château Kirwan, Cantenac-Margaux (Margaux)
  • Château d'Issan, Cantenac-Margaux (Margaux)
  • Château Lagrange, St.-Julien
  • Château Langoa-Barton, St.-Julien
  • Château Giscours, Labarde-Margaux (Margaux)
  • Château Malescot St. Exupery, Margaux
  • Château Cantenac-Brown, Cantenac-Margaux (Margaux)
  • Château Boyd-Cantenac, Margaux
  • Château Palmer, Cantenac-Margaux (Margaux)
  • Château La Lagune, Ludon (Haut-Médoc)
  • Château Desmirail, Margaux
  • Château Dubignon, Margaux
  • Château Calon-Ségur, St.-Estephe
  • Château Ferrière, Margaux
  • Château Marquis d'Alesme Becker, Margaux

Fourth Growths "Grand Cru Classe"

  • Château Saint-Pierre, St.-Julien
  • Château Talbot, St.-Julien
  • Château Branaire-Ducru, St.-Julien
  • Château Duhart-Milon, Pauillac
  • Château Pouget, Cantenac-Margaux (Margaux)
  • Château La Tour Carnet, St.-Laurent (Haut-Médoc)
  • Château Lafon-Rochet, St.-Estephe
  • Château Beychevelle, St.-Julien
  • Château Prieuré-Lichine, Cantenac-Margaux (Margaux)
  • Château Marquis de Terme, Margaux

Fifth Growths "Grand Cru Classe"

  • Château Pontet-Canet, Pauillac
  • Château Batailley, Pauillac
  • Château Haut-Batailley, Pauillac
  • Château Grand-Puy-Lacoste, Pauillac
  • Château Grand-Puy-Ducasse, Pauillac
  • Château Lynch-Bages, Pauillac
  • Château Lynch-Moussas, Pauillac
  • Château Dauzac, Labarde (Margaux)
  • Château d'Armailhac, Pauillac
  • Château du Tertre, Arsac (Margaux)
  • Château Haut-Bages-Liberal, Pauillac
  • Château Pédesclaux, Pauillac
  • Château Belgrave, St.-Laurent (Haut-Médoc)
  • Château de Camensac, St.-Laurent (Haut-Médoc)
  • Château Cos Labory, St.-Estephe
  • Château Clerc-Milon, Pauillac
  • Château Croizet Bages, Pauillac
  • Château Cantemerle, Macau (Haut-Médoc)

Only the 5 First Growths will have "Premier Grand Cru Classe" on the label, the other growths will just have "Grand Cru Classe" without specifying the category. This classification is permanent and will not incur further changes.

BURGUNDY

Burgundy is a small wine region in the central eastern part of France and is known for some of its extraordinary wines made from Chardonnay or Pinot Noir produced in a domain.

A domain is a collection of small vineyard parcels which are often scattered through many villages and often produces many wines in small quantities.

Even though there are only two main grape varieties, the concept of terroir in Burgundy is more tightly embraced.

The regional appellation is simply Bourgogne (which is French for Burgundy), then the village appellations, a few examples are.

For white wines:
Chablis
Meursault
Puligny-Montrachet
Chassagne-Montrachet

For red wines:
Gevrey-Chambertin
Vougeot
Vosne-Romanée
Nuits-St-Georges
Aloxe-Corton
Pommard

Above the village appellations level is a more focused and defined location which is the vineyard and in Burgundy the top vineyards are classified as either Premier Cru or an even higher classification of Grand Cru which only represents 2% of the total Burgundy production.

For Premier Cru wines, the name of the vineyard is labeled with the name of the village and the appellation will indicate that this is a Premier Cru appellation.

Premier Cru Wines Label

For Grand Cru wines which are the treasures of Burgundy will just have the vineyard name on the label.

For example: Le Corton, Le Chambertin, Le Montrachet

Grand Cru Wines Label

With the intricacies of terroirs, the journey to discovering and truly appreciating Bourgogne wines will be long and enjoyable.

CHAMPAGNE

Champagne is a region in the northeast France, producing wines with bubbles from the grape varieties of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier.

Champagnes are made from blends of still wines, with the final blend going through a second fermentation with the addition of sugar and yeast in a sealed bottle where carbon dioxide is trapped.

There are many types of Champagnes:
Non-Vintage (NV),
Vintage
Blanc de Blancs (made from white grape varieties)
Blanc de Noirs (white from red grape varieties),
Rosé Champagne
Prestige Cuvée (blend of best wines from best vineyards)

Champagne will also be categorised according to the sweetness level. When the yeasts are removed from the bottle, Champagnes are topped up with wine and sugar, known as liqueur d’expedition.

Most Champagnes are produced in the Brut (dry) style. Even drier styles will be labeled Extra Brut. Extra Dry is off-dry; Sec and Demi-Sec will have more sweetness with Doux being the sweetest.

Sparkling wines produced outside of Champagne and within France is termed “Crémant” like Crémant de Loire, Crémant de Bourgogne, Crémant d’Alsace.

LOIRE

The Loire is the most diverse region in France producing red, white, rose, still and sparkling, dry and sweet.

Loire is known for the appellations of Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé made from Sauvignon Blanc.

Another white grape variety is Chenin Blanc which is versatile producing dry or sweet wines, still or sparkling wines. A known appellation is Vouvray. Savennières is known for producing the best dry Chenin Blanc wines. Coteaux du Layon, Quarts de Chaume and Bonnezeaux are sweet wines from botrytised grapes.

For red wines are the appellations of Chinon and Bourgeuil made from Cabernet Franc. Pinot Noir is the grape variety for Sancerre Rouge.

ALSACE

Alsace produces predominantly white wines from Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Muscat, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc.

Unlike the other regions of France, Alsace wines have the grape variety indicated on the label. The appellation is simply Alsace and there are 25 vineyard sites that carry the Alsace Grand Cru appellation.

There are two wine styles that you may find in Alsace – Vendange Tardive (late harvest) and Selection de Grains Noble (grapes affected by noble rot). These occur in selected years and are considered quite rare. These wines will have some sweetness.

RHÖNE VALLEY

The Rhöne Valley is located in the southeast France and is divided into the North and the South. Most of the wines produced in this region is dominantly red.

Syrah is the dominant red grape variety in the Northern Rhone with known appellations of Cöte-Rötie, St. Joseph, Hermitage, Crozes-Hermitage and Cornas. Viognier is a white grape variety of Condrieu.

In the Southern Rhone, the red wines are mostly blends of various grape varieties with Grenache and Mourvedre being the dominant grape varieties. The largest appellation is the Cötes-du-Rhöne and the most famous is Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

ITALY

Italy is historically called Oenotria, the land of wine, as vines are widely planted throughout the country, with its own native grape varieties.

Wines are named according to the place like Barolo, Chianti which is the very traditional way or according to the grape variety from a place like Barbera d’Asti, Montepulciano d’Abruzzo.

Let’s start with Piemonte region which is in the northwest. Famous wines are Barolo and Barbaresco made from the Nebbiolo grape, usually meant for ageing. Another red grape variety is Barbera which makes wines for earlier drinking. Piemonte has a white wine made from Cortese labeled Gavi.

Crossing over to the northeast is the region of Veneto, made famous by Soave and Valpolicella. Soave / Soave Classico is a white wine from the Garganega grape whereas Valpolicella / Valpolicella Classico is a blend of red grape varieties with Corvina being the dominant grape. In this region, the traditional method of drying the grapes to concentrate the sugars and acids in the grapes, known as passito method is practiced producing wines called Amarone della Valpolicella and Recioto della Valpolicella.

In Central Italy is the region of Toscana (Tuscany) made famous by the traditional Chianti / Chianti Classico, made from the Sangiovese grape. This grape is also for Vino Nobile di Montepulciano and Brunello di Montalcino. This region is home to Cabernet Sauvignon or blends known as the Super Tuscans.

Italy has more grape varieties and wonderful wines to be discovered and enjoyed.

(Note: Classico on a label means that the grapes are sourced from the historic or traditional vineyard site which is usually on slopes, producing better quality grapes)

SPAIN

The 3rd largest wine producing country after France and Italy.

There are two regions that are awarded the highest quality status – DOCa (Denominacion de Origen Caificada): Rioja is the first region and Priorat.

Rioja is known for red wines made from predominantly Tempranillo.

It is common in Spain that wines are aged and in Rioja, it is usually for a longer period of time than any other wines in other countries.

Ageing will be a combination of barrel and bottle and the ageing terms will be indicated on the label:
Joven (Young) – unaged
Crianza – at least 2 years ageing
Reserva – at least 3 years ageing
Gran Reserva – at least 5 years ageing

Priorat produces red wines that are deep coloured with high levels of alcohol made with Garnacha as well as Carinena grapes.

Other regions renowned for the Tempranillo grape are Navarra, Ribera del Duero and Toro.

One white grape variety which is gaining popularity is Albarino from the region of Rias Baixas.

USA

Although USA is part of the New World, they have a system defining a production area or wine region known as American Viticultural Area (AVA). Unlike the Appellation Contrôlée system, the AVA system does not dictate on the grape varieties that should be planted, viticultural or vinification practices/methods or ageing.

Vineyards in the USA are in California, Oregon, Washington and New York State.

California produces over 90% of the wine - with its diverse climate and geography, there are diverse styles of wines produced from a wide range of grape varieties.

California enjoys abundant sunshine but it also has the cooling influences from the Pacific Ocean which bring in fogs – which slows down the ripening process of the grapes retaining acidity.

Cabernet Sauvignon is renowned in Napa Valley, Pinot Noir which requires a cool/moderate climate is best grown in Carneros, Russian River Valley, Chardonnay can be grown in varying climates but the better grapes are found in the cooler Carneros and Sonoma County. Other grape varieties include the varietals from France as well as from Italy and Spain such as Syrah, Grenache, Zinfandel, Tempranillo, Grenache.

Oregon is north of California and is relatively cooler. It is renowned for Pinot Noir, Riesling, Chardonnay. The most notable AVA is Willamette Valley.

New York State is to the east of USA has a cool northern climate which grows native American grapes as well as the international grape varieties. New York State has 4 major wine regions of which Finger Lakes is most notable for Chardonnay, Riesling and Gewurztraminer.

ARGENTINA

Located in South America, Argentina is among the top 5 wine producing countries in the world.

Argentina is known for the red grape variety Malbec which originated from Bordeaux and presently found in Cahors in the southwest France. Malbec produces big, fruity wines and since mid 1990s, a quality revolution has taken place whereby Malbec is planted selective sites or areas offering specific characteristics and structure.

Argentina has 4 major wine regions and the most important is Mendoza which is the centre of wine production. The vineyards are among the highest in the country which offers a significant difference between day and night time temperatures. During the day sugar ripeness is achieved but with the significant drop in temperature at night, acidity is effectively retained, which contributes to flavour complexity. As a result of the quality revolution, two sub-regions have been established Lujan de Cuyo which is at an altitude of 900 to 1100 metres and Uco Valley at 1000-1450 metres which produces premium quality Malbec, Syrah, Chardonnay and Torrontes.

Torrontes is a white grape variety considered native to Argentina, it is an aromatic grape variety with stone fruits, floral, spicy characteristics. As a white grape, it needs to maintain its acidity and planted at high altitude is beneficial. The home for this grape is Salta which is in north and altitude is at 1750 to 3111metres. Such extreme climate produces Torrontes with exquisite purity and concentration.

CHILE

Chile is in South America producing consistently good wines, most of which are exported to other countries.

Chile is blessed with perfect climate suitable for viticulture, with the same cooling influences from the Pacific Ocean to the west, and the Andes Mountains to the east. There is very low incidence of diseases.

Although Chile is known for its good-value-for-money wines, there is now an increase in the production of higher quality and premium wines demanding high prices.

Maipo Valley is one of Chile’s oldest wine regions as it is close to the capital. It is also considered Chile’s prestigious wine region known for its Cabernet Sauvignon and blends.

Casablanca Valley is a newer region and is the closest to the ocean enjoying the cooling influences. Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc perform better in this region.

A red grape variety Carmenère, which was brought into Chile from Bordeaux, was initially mistaken as Merlot. With DNA testing, they have established that the grape is Carmenère and with understanding of the grape, appropriate viticultural practices have given rise to better expressions of this wine and wines are labeled as such. Nearly extinct in Bordeaux, Carmenère is now at home in Chile.

With an influx of investment and advice from other countries and various joint ventures, the quality and status of Chilean wines have soared and discovery for these wines can be a pleasantly surprising experience.

SOUTH AFRICA

Located in the Southern Hemisphere in the south-westerly part, South Africa is surrounded with the Atlantic Ocean to the west and the Indian Ocean to the south.

The climate within this region experience huge differences that the areas that are inland and further away from the seas are too hot for the production of good quality wines. Therefore the most important and established regions are Constantia, Stellenbosch, Paarl and Franschoek Valley. As it could get really hot, the best vineyard sites would be close to the coast or on high slopes with good shelter from the heat of the sun.

Majority of the wines produced in South Africa is white, with Chenin Blanc or locally known as Steen. Chenin Blanc is native to the Loire Valley in France and is a versatile grape. South African Chenin Blanc can be produced in lighter styles or has some oak influence giving it some richness. However, Chenin Blanc is now being overtaken by Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc.

For the red wines, Bordeaux blends of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, sometimes with Cabernet Franc are well received and are popular. South Africa has its own grape variety called Pinotage, which is a crossing of Cinsaut and Pinot Noir which has unique characteristics.

AUSTRALIA

With a diversity of climates and terroirs, the top skills and knowledge of viticulturists and winemakers, Australia is able to deliver the true varietal characteristics of the international grapes.

With such a wide range of wines and quality levels and in order to put more focus on understanding Australian wines, the government, Wine Australia, has introduced the concept of Regional Heroes, which indicates the speciality grape in each region.

Let’s start with the most revered grape in Australia — Shiraz.

Shiraz is widely planted throughout Australia and it expresses different characteristics depending where it is grown. When it comes to Regional Hero for Shiraz, the first region that comes to mind is Barossa. Barossa Shiraz is rich, powerful, high alcohol, with black fruits and sweet spice characters. Even though it is easy to generalize, even within the region, there are subtle differences between wineries. Barossa is home to old vines, some over 100 years old which gives another dimension to the grape.

Another regional hero is Heathcote Shiraz, where the climate is cooler which gives the wine elegance, structure, more pepper characteristics.

The regional hero for Cabernet Sauvignon and or “Bordeaux blends” is Margaret River in Western Australia which has similar climate and soil types as that of Bordeaux. For just Cabernet Sauvignon, Coonawarra is the regional hero with distinct eucalyptus characteristics from its special terra rossa soils.

Pinot Noir is a grape variety requiring cooler climates, regional heroes are Yarra Valley and Mornington Peninsula in Victoria and Tasmania.

For the white wines, let’s start with Chardonnay. To shy away from the big oaky Chardonnays, wine producers are looking into cooler climates to help retain the acidity of the grape, and also minimise the use of too much oak in wine making. Regional heroes for Chardonnay are Adelaide Hills and Margaret River.

Australia has established a reputation for its crisp dry Riesling with the ability to age to up to 20 years and the regional heroes are Eden Valley and Clare Valley.

Another white grape variety which Australia managed to make it a benchmark style is Semillon, which is used for the sweet wines of Bordeaux. In the Hunter Valley, Semillon is picked early when acidity levels are high and when fermented, produces a low alcohol level. No oak is used and is perfect for oysters and seafood and has the ability to age for years.

Australia wine producers are creative and innovative and blended wines are very popular, such as Cabernet Sauvignon/Shiraz, Grenache/Shiraz/Mourvèdre (GSM), Semillon/Sauvignon or Chardonnay/Semillon. Sparkling reds such as Sparkling Shiraz are popular too.

NEW ZEALAND

Being the most southerly wine country in the world, New Zealand is primarily a white wine producer with over 75% and has formed a benchmark wine in its Sauvignon Blanc.

The region for Sauvignon Blanc is Marlborough in the South Island with its crisp refreshing acidity and tropical fruit flavours.

Chardonnay is widely planted throughout New Zealand with varying styles from unoaked to oaky but the region most known for Chardonnay is Gisborne in the North Island.

The climate of New Zealand is also favourable for Riesling but it is mostly produced in an off-dry fruity styles.

As for red wines, Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot blends are produced in Hawkes Bay, with a specific area called Gimblett Gravels with special characteristics.

Pinot Noir is gaining popularity particularly in the Martinborough in the North Island and Central Otago in the South Island.

New Zealand’s sparkling wines are also very popular for its crispness, fruitiness and liveliness.

Principal Grape Varieties

 

There are over a thousand grape varieties in the world of wine and each grape variety has its own flavour profile and characteristics. The grape variety is one of the factors that determine the characteristics of the wine.

This column will highlight some of the principal grape varieties which could serve as a reference tool when you next select wines.

CHARDONNAY

This is probably the most popular white grape variety as it is highly adaptable to where it is cultivated and also to winemaking processes. Chardonnay produces still dry white wines and is also one of the three grape varieties used to make Champagne.

Cool climate Chardonnay will have high natural acidity with citrus fruit, green fruit, sometimes stone fruit flavours and some minerality. A classic example would be Chablis which is in the northern part of the Burgundy region.

Warmer climate Chardonnay will have riper fruit characters, expressing tropical fruits such as melon, pineapple. Examples could come from California, Argentina, South Africa or Pouilly-Fuisse (in the Macon district of Burgundy).

One of the common winemaking techniques for producing Chardonnay is oak fermentation or oak ageing. This would impart vanilla, spice, buttery, creamy characteristics depending on the type of wood, the size as well as the time period in wood. Examples would be Meursault from Cote d'Or (Burgundy), Adelaide Hills (Australia), Gisborne (New Zealand)


SAUVIGNON BLANC

This is an aromatic grape variety with high acidity and has typical flavour characteristics of green fruit, gooseberry, lime, green bell pepper, vegetal and herbaceousness. Classic wine examples would be Sancerre or Pouilly Fume from the Loire Valley in France. Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough, New Zealand tends to have more gooseberry, passion fruit notes, while in Chile, the green bell pepper tends to sometimes be enhanced.

Sauvignon Blanc wines are generally not meant for ageing unless it is blended with Semillon. Examples of such blends would be from Bordeaux in particular, Pessac-Leognan, Graves and in Australia where "Sauvignon Blanc-Semillon" will be indicated on the label.


RIESLING

Another aromatic white grape variety with high acidity - green fruit, lemon/lime characteristics and floral notes. Due to its ability to retain acidity, Riesling can age and it will develop toasty, honey, smoky, sometimes described as "petrol" characteristics. Riesling prefers cool climates like the classic regions of Germany and Alsace and can be produced from dry to sweet styles. New World Rieslings are found in the Clare and Eden Valleys of Australia, New Zealand, Oregon and Canada.



PINOT NOIR

A thin-skinned red grape variety with delicate flavours of cherries, raspberry, floral with relatively low levels of tannin. Prefers cooler climate, otherwise when too hot, the wine will develop jammy characters. Pinot Noir is also one of the grape varieties of Champagne.

Burgundy is the classic region for Pinot Noir !V different appellations with different terroirs offer diverse expressions of this grape. Notable appellations are: Nuits-St-Georges, Gevrey-Chambertin, Vosne-Romanee, Pommard. Cooler climates in the New World include Central Otago, Martinborough (New Zealand), Yarra Valley, Mornington Peninsula, Tasmania (Australia), Oregon (USA).


SYRAH/SHIRAZ

One grape variety with two names !V in France it is called "Syrah" and in Australia it is known as "Shiraz". This grape has good levels of tannins and has an affinity to oak giving the wine some vanilla and in Australia, coconut characters in some wines. Typical aromas and flavours include black fruits and spices especially pepper.

Syrah examples include Northern Rhone appellations of Cote-Rotie, Crozes-Hermitage, Hermitage, St-Joseph, Cornas.

Shiraz examples include Australia (Barossa Valley, Heathcote, McLaren Clare), California, New Zealand

This grape is often found in blends with Grenache, Mourvedre, Cinsault, Carignan. Examples would be the famous GSM blend from Australia, Chateauneuf-du-Pape in Southern Rhone, Minervois and Corbieres from the Languedoc in the South of France.

Basic Wine Tasting Techniques

 

There are 3 basic steps to taste and assess a wine — look, smell and taste.

When assessing wines, make sure that the glass is no more than one third full.

LOOK

When looking at the wine, check that it is clear. Any sign of haziness or cloudiness may indicate a fault (however this needs to be confirmed on the nose and palate). Holding the glass by the stem, tilt the glass away from you until the wine reaches the edge of the glass. Against a white background, look at intensity of colour which determine two things:

  1. the grape variety from a particular region — Knowing the general characteristics of grape varieties, thin-skinned grapes are usually paler while thick-skinned grapes are deeper.
  2. the age-appropriateness of the wine — Generally speaking when white wines mature or oxidise, the intensity would be deeper. When red wines mature, the intensity would be paler.

For red wines, younger wines tend to be purple or ruby, when it matures, it turns garnet, then tawny then brown.

For white wines, the colour tend to be lemon-green or lemon. When the wine has some oak influence, the colour tends to be deeper. Sweet white wines are often described as golden colour. Mature white wines will turn amber.

Examples of the appearance of wines that are not entirely appropriate:

  • 1 year old Sauvignon Blanc with deep amber - this is likely to be oxidised or at fault.
  • 50 year old Grand Cru Classe from Pauillac in Bordeaux with deep purple colour - this is likely to have been tampered with.

SMELL

Check that the wine is free of faults such as wet cardboard, mold, vinegar, rotten egg.

Swirl the glass — this helps open up the aromas.

Gauge the intensity. Aromatic grape varieties like Sauvignon Blanc will have more pronounced intensity.

Identify the aromas — fruity, floral, spicy, oak, creamy, earthy, mineral, leather. Understanding characteristics of grape varieties helps to provide a guidance in identifying aromas.

TASTE

Different parts of the tongue are sensitive to different taste sensations:

SWEETNESS

Sweetness is detected in the front part of the tongue, towards the tip. Most wines are dry but there are some white wines with residual sugar like Gewurztraminer, Riesling (Spätlese, Auslese) which can be described from off-dry to medium-sweet. Wines like Sauternes, Tokaji Aszu, ice wine are sweet.

ACIDITY

Acidity is sensed on the sides of the tongue and it gives a mouth-watering sensation. Wines from cooler climate would have higher acidity levels than from hotter climate. White grape varieties like Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio have higher acidity levels than Chardonnay from a hot climate. Black grape varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon and Nebbiolo have higher acidity levels than Merlot or Grenache from a hot climate.

TANNIN

Tannin is sensed by the drying sensation in your mouth, especially around your gums. Tannin comes from the skins of red grapes so tannin is assessed for red wines only. Grape varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz have higher tannin levels than Pinot Noir.

BODY

Body is the general "feel" of the wine in your mouth. It relates to the wine's viscosity. It is often affected by the level of alcohol and the level of sugar such as wines from hot climates. Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc tend to be more light-bodied and than an oaked Chardonnay from a hot climate or a sweet wine.

FLAVOUR CHARACTERTISTICS

To grasp the flavours of the wine, gently slurp the wine drawing in some air to push the aromas to the olfactory bulb. The flavours which are expressed may be similar to the aromas detected during the nosing step. There may be less or more flavours detected on the palate.

FINISH

After assessing the wine, you may either swallow or spit the wine. Notice how long the flavour lingers in the mouth. If the flavours disappear almost immediately, then this is short. Medium finish means the flavours last for about 3-4 seconds. Over 5 seconds is considered a long finish. Wines with medium or long finish are considered high quality wines.

CONCLUSION

To conclude a wine to be poor, there must be some kind of fault or perhaps it is out of balance, with probably too much acidity, or alcohol, or tannins (in the case of red wines).

Acceptable means the wine has no faults, it is in balance but nothing special about it.

Good means that the wine has good intensity with a range of different aromas and flavours giving the wine some complexity as well as a reasonable finish.

Excellent wines have the complexity, the structure, expressing varietal characteristics and the terroir which embodies climate, soil, and the intrinsic wine making aspects with a long lingering finish.

Storage of Wines

 

Wines have varying life spans and poor storage conditions will shorten this life span. In order to keep your wines in perfect condition especially wines that are meant for keeping and for drinking 5, 10, or even 20 years later, here are some storage guidelines:

  1. Keep your wines in cool, constant temperature, ideally between 11 - 14 °C. Avoid extreme temperatures as this will lead to the rapid decline of the wines.
  2. Wines under cork closures should be stored on its side to keep the cork in constant contact with the wine which provides a secure seal. When not moist, the cork will dry out.
  3. Avoid vibration and low humidity levels.

SERVING TEMPERATURES

There are many types and styles of wine with different structure and flavour characteristics so therefore there will be varying temperatures under which they will be served. When served in the right temperature, the wine will offer its best expression and can be enjoyed. When wines are served too cold, it masks the flavours and does not give the wines justice. Here are some service temperature guidelines:

Style of WineExampleService temperature
Crisp light/medium bodied white Pinot Grigio
Sauvignon Blanc
Chilled
10°C
Medium/full bodied oaked white Oaked Chardonnay
Meursault
Slightly chilled
12°C
Light bodied red Beaujolais
Valpolicella
Pommard
Slightly chilled
12°C
Medium/full bodied red Red Burgundy
Australian Shiraz
Châteauneuf-du-Pape
Room Temperature
17 - 18°C
Sweet Wines Sauternes
Sweet Riesling
Well chilled
6 - 8°C
Sparkling Wines Champagne Cava Well chilled
6 - 8°C

Food & Wine Pairing

 

There are no strict rules in wine and food pairing as there are complexities in the various cuisines, in flavours in food, in cultures and in personal preferences.

What's important to note when pairing is to avoid major clashes.

Here are some guidelines, but be adventurous - don't be afraid to explore or discover new flavour combinations.

We assess flavour in wine tasting - some wines have more flavours than others. Therefore simple, lightly flavoured wines go with dishes that are equally simple. Flavourful wines go with dishes with lots of flavours.

We also assess body in wine tasting, in food terms, we could assess the richness and weight of the dish. Light bodied wines for light simple dishes. Full bodied wines with rich dishes.

Other components to consider when pairing wine and food (let's based this in a wine tasting point of view ie, the componenets that are assessed under palate):

Sweetness — sweet wines should be paired with sweet dishes like desserts. Make sure that the wines are sweeter than the dish otherwise the wine would taste bland.

Acidity — wines with good acidity are easier to pair with foods. Wines with particularly high acidity are better to pair with foods that are fatty, oily, creamy, rich.

Examples:
Sauternes and Foie Gras (classic combination) [Sauternes is a sweet wine from Bordeaux with good levels of acidity and the acidity helps cut through the richness of the foie gras.

Sauvignon Blanc with Tempura [the crisp acidity from the Sauvignon Blanc cuts through the oiliness of the Tempura

Tannin — extra care is needed when pairing this component with food. Tannin bonds with proteins therefore the saying "red wine with red meat" - this is true, for those with higher tannin levels. However, wines with lower tannin levels have more opportunities for pairing.

Some components in food for consideration:


Umami

This is a Japanese term, to describe one of the basic tastes - savoury. Other basic tastes are sweet, sour, salty and spicy.

Umami is found in a lot of shellfish like oysters, dried mushrooms, dried cheeses, celery, seaweed. When paired with wines with high levels of tannins and heavy oak, the combination will increase bitterness, therefore it is best to avoid tannins and oak. The best would be unoaked white wine or rosés or low tannin red wines.

Example:
Oysters and Chablis (an unoaked Chardonnay from Burgundy)

Muscadet de Sèvre-et-Maine with seafood platter

Spice

Spicy foods paired with high levels of tannin and alcohol may increase the overall spice sensation in your mouth, unless that is your personal preference. Consider wines with some sweetness, fruity characters and good acidity.

Examples:
Riesling Spätlese with Thai Prawn Cakes with Chili Sauce

Fruity Rosés with curries

Discover new wines, new tastes. Experiment and enjoy the endless combinations of wine and food pairing!

Asia Wine Service & Education Centre

Asia Wine Service & Education Centre (“AWSEC”) is a leading wine education centre in Asia since 1994. AWSEC has educated over 18,000 wine professionals and enthusiasts. The only programme provider in Hong Kong approved to run WSET courses and examinations up to and including Diploma level. The exclusive provider to offer official A+ Australian Wine School Courses and Barossa Wine School Courses in Hong Kong.

AWSEC is one of eleven nominees for 2013 out of 500 providers in 62 countries as “WSET Educator of the Year”. AWSEC is the only programme provider in Hong Kong to be nominated and the only one in Asia to be nominated 2 years in a row. AWSEC is the first wine education centre in Hong Kong accredited with ISO 9001:2008.

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