Over the past weekend me and 14 other wine geeks met in isolation on a small Midwestern college campus to put our taste buds to the test.
Our mission was VIN 275, Sensory Analysis, and after 3 days (30 hours) in confinement we worked our way through more than 100 wine standards (i.e., wine spiked with an assortment of flavor compounds, such as lychee), evaluated detection and recognition thresholds for acidity, tannin, and sweetness in several panels, and blind tasted 10 white and 10 red wines from around the world.
Our final exam for the weekend was a surprise to all of us. Toward the end of this residential school our instructor casually walked around to our small working groups and pulled a student away. For this "live-fire" exam each student had to evaluate two wines, one white and one red, in front of a panel of advanced sensory student-judges.
Here is how it works:
Step 1 - Visual analysis: I pick up the first wine, a white and verbally describe the color, color intensity, rim variation, and viscosity. All the while three judging eyes pierce me! Are there bubbles? No.
Step 2 - Aromatic analysis: Sniff, sniff, I detect..."tropical fruit aromas, something floral, maybe apricot, maybe some apple or pear. The aromatic intensity is pretty strong, I'd give it a 7" out of 10. (You see for this process, we are in academia I am reminded, we use a 9 point scale so we can better quantify and confirm our results). At this point I am mentally guessing the age of the unknown wine. I'm asked: "do you notice any bell pepper aroma?" I sniff again, "no" is my response.
Step 3 - Palate analysis: slurp, slurp, I take notice of several of the wine attributes. I taste, spit, and describe: "I pick up some sweetness, not much about a 1 or 2, the body is a little above average 5+". Acidity? "yes, I feel it here (point to my salvation glands) and notice a sourness and the accompanying salivation typical of a higher acid wine". Tannin? None. Alcohol? "normal". Finish and complexity? "the wine isn't terribly complex but has a nice acid-sugar balance that lingers pleasantly."
Step 4 - Conclusions: My guess? Well...I focused in on the floral aromatics and the apricot which led me, erroneously, to a Riesling. Wrong! The hint, given to be by one of the judges, was bell pepper. That should have made me wake up and realize there were tropical aromas and bell pepper, which are hallmarks of New Zeeland Sauvignon Blancs. DOH!
Overall, my assessment, up until the final conclusion was fairly sound. I realize when talking with friends about my experience just how geeky this all must sound and I have to chuckle. Yeah, pretty geek-like.
In another week, I go back for round two where we will taste hundreds of wines, sit across the tables from serious wine professionals: MS/MW. Lots to learn...and so what if I get a little extra wine geeky in the process.