More wine on the mind: Q&A from recent seminar

There may not have been another time when people were so interested in wine. Sales show quite an uptick in consumption in recent years, but those numbers are even greater since the Coronavirus struck. We’ve heard anecdotally from friends that they are buying better wine and turning to the internet to learn more about what is in the bottle.

For that reason, Tom offered free virtual courses in wine to not only satisfy this thirst for knowledge, but also to give him something productive to do while home. Although we’re far from experts and not master sommeliers, we have amassed a wealth of knowledge in our travels to wine countries and in our interviews with winemakers.

The basic education offered – how wine is made, how to analyze wine and wine bargains – drew more than 60 people without little effort. People are interested – or very bored. He’s ready to launch the series to new classes. If you’re interested, drop him an email at marq1948@gmail.com. The classes are free but a donation to a food pantry is encouraged.

Those who participated asked a lot of questions and it gave us a guide to what’s driving the public’s curiosity to wine. Here are some of the answers to the most-often questions we heard:

I’ve often heard people say a wine has nice legs. What does that mean?

The “legs” of a wine can be seen cascading down the inside of a glass after you swirl it around. It indicates the viscosity of the wine – the slower their progress, the sweeter the wine – and its alcohol level – the more droplets, the more alcohol. But, analyzing this is a bit banal and useless. The difference in alcohol levels is generally only a couple of percentage points. We don’t know anyone who can look at the legs and tells us the wine is 13 percent alcohol or 14 percent alcohol.  It’s more reliable to taste the wine to determine if it is sweet or high in alcohol.

I don’t like tannins. Why are they there?

Tannins are polyphenols that occur naturally in the winemaking process. They are astringent to the palate and create a sensation of having sawdust in your mouth. They are much more common to red wine, particularly premium red wines that have spent a lot of time in oak barrels.

Tannins come from grape skins, seeds, stems and even barrels. Not only do they prevent oxidation, but they allow a wine to age for years. Those tannins gradually disappear over the years if you cellar wines. They are not harmful and in fact are present in walnuts, dark chocolate and tea.

It’s hard to just sip a wine loaded with harsh tannins, but consumed alongside a steak or leg of lamb, the tannins are complementary.

If you don’t like high tannins, stay away from tannat, sagrantino, cabernet sauvignon and petite sirah. Many pinot noirs, merlots, red blends and lighter Italian wines have less tannin.

I read in your column that a certain wine has strawberry flavors, for instance. Are these fruits actually in the wine?

No. The flavor just reminds us of strawberries. Fermentation unleashes chemical compounds similar to those in fruit. Esters and pyrazines are two examples. But that’s too geeky. It’s just your brain looking for a fruit character that is lodged in your memory bank.

We discovered long ago that if you don’t know the difference between sage and rosemary, you aren’t going to be able to identify either one in a wine’s aroma. Another example is currant. How many people have had enough currants to distinguish between a red and a black currant? Still, it’s a descriptor commonly associated with cabernet sauvignon. If your brain doesn’t have a memory for a fruit, you won’t be able to associate it with a wine flavor.

The only exception we’ll make is eucalyptus. We’ve seen these plants planted very close to cabernet sauvignon vineyards in Napa Valley. It’s no coincidence the wines taste like them.

I’ve heard of supertasters. How do I know if I’m one of them?

Scientists believe there one out of four people are supertasters. About half the population are regular tasters and the rest of you are, well, non-tasters.  Most likely, you can’t become a supertaster – it’s either in your genes or not. However, you can improve your tasting ability by identifying spices and herbs that are already in your kitchen.

There is a test that actually counts the taste buds in your mouth, but short of that, your diet is an indicator. Supertasters don’t like bitter foods, particularly broccoli, grapefruit juice and tea. All of those products were used in laboratory tests. Because they are picky eaters, supertasters are rarely obese.

Non-tasters like spicy and bitter foods. But the good news is that broccoli, tea and grapefruits are good for your health.

Wine picks

  • Beronia Reserva Rioja 2015 ($20). This is a great tempranillo with generous flavors of blackberry and plums. Good tannin. The American oak used in this wine brings out the vanilla and coconut flavors. In the best years, Beronia also makes a deep and concentrated tempranillo called III.a.C ($85) that is fabulous, albeit pricey.
  • Lucas & Lewellen Cabernet Franc 2017 ($26).  The producer does a good job with a grape variety that is often one-dimensional and meant to be part of a blend. In this case, though, cabernet franc offers a sturdy blast of dark fruit, big tannins and a hint of chocolate.
  • Chateau Malescasse Haut-Medoc 2016 ($20-25). The chateau is wedged between the St. Julien and Margaux appellations in Bordeaux. This bold red wine is made up of 53 percent merlot, 38 percent cabernet sauvignon and 9 percent petite verdot and aged in oak for 14 months with 35 percent new. This is potentially a 10-year-plus wine for aging and features cherry and cassis flavors and an ample presence in the mouth.                                                                                                                

Generic photos are selected by ThePhillyFiles and don’t indicate any preference.

Tom Marquardt (email for questions) and Patrick Darr have been writing a wine column since 1985. They’ve traveled extensively to vineyards in France, Spain, Italy, Greece and the U.S.
Tom lives in Florida with his wife, Sue, where he conducts wine tastings. Patrick is in the wine retail business in Annapolis, Md.

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