Wine tasting, as opposed to mere drinking, is an art form that teaches us to focus on quality, purity, uniqueness as well as diversity, and not quantity.
Technically, wine can be described as the result of a biochemical transformation from sugar to alcohol. However, this is only part of the truth. Wine is also the expression of terroir, which indicates the flavour profile specific to the particular site from which the grapes were harvested as well as the vintage or year of harvest. These are the two major factors determining the flavours of a wine.
One of the attractions of tasting is the identification of an aroma; making the connection with other sensory and cultural pleasures; recognising a certain style of wine or particular vintage. Wine becomes a magical journey in time and space. It does not have to include jargon, pretenses or snobbism. Knowing the basic rules will provide more pleasure from the game.
Novices often wonder whether wine tasting itself is not a sufficient pleasure, or whether efforts to describe a wine are wasted. In fact, tasting wine is similar to criticising a painting. Pleasure is always said to be heightened by knowledge. Wine is a unique individual that tells us a story if we know how to listen. One sip may be enough; whereas a wine of understated elegance, in the words of Jan ‘Boland’ Coetzee, will “drink like water”.
Varietal characteristics must always be well preserved in a wine, leading to an intensity of flavours, aromas and overall balance. At the highest level, wine represents a specific vintage or year of harvest, the ability to age successfully and the expression of terroir or geographical identity – wines of place.
A geographical distinction, between Europe (Old World) and countries formerly colonies (New World) differentiates between two philosophies of wine making. Old World wine making is defined by tradition; wine is made in the same places, in the same ways and styles as it always
has been. Nature is the key factor and yearly climatic variations expected. The expression of terroir is more important than the actual varieties used in a specific blend of wine.
The New World on the other hand, is defined by progress. New technology, innovative cultivation of grapes and exploration of uncharted areas are the order of the day. Wines are created to be consistent in quality. Such wines are defined by varietal characteristics, with the expression of the particular fruit from a terroir perspective vital. In South Africa, the best wines are made with an understanding of both worlds.
Once bottled, wine enters a reductive state and starts to develop the aromas that come with age: leather, meat, game, mushrooms and smoke. With wine a product of a living entity, it has its own cycle of life: birth, development and maturity, followed by decline and death. A wine that retains some of its fruit after maturation and aging has every chance of becoming great.
The following elements are to be noted in considering a wine: sweetness, acidity, bitterness, aromatic character, body, persistence, balance and typicality.