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Grading wine

Skill in the art of winetasting doesn't require an advanced degree in oenology (the science of winemaking). But listening to professional winetasters, it's easy to get that impression. Bouquet, clarity, earthy, crisp, open, nostalgic — huh?

Grading wine is more than just tasting

So, take a deep breath, get comfortable, and be prepared to take some time to learn some odd new definitions for familiar words and to hone your senses. Here we go...

Starting out, if you can, let someone knowledgeable decide how to serve. To do even that skillfully requires a little education and experience. Some need to be served room temperature (reds usually), some chilled (whites in general). By room temperature, we mean a slightly cooler room — 60ºF is good for reds — and by 'chilled' we don't mean frozen; start at 50ºF and adjust to taste.

Some should be served right away (whites with many exceptions), and some (reds again with exceptions) allowed to breathe — sit in an uncorked bottle, exposed to air — for up to 15 minutes or more. Some even need decanting (filtering out sediment) before being served (Ports and wines that have aged considerably).

Pour into an ordinary wine glass, no more than half full, and swirl a bit to generate some additional 'winey' vapor. Avoid heavy cut glasses so you can see well. Then examine the color. Is it clear? Hazy? Opaque?

Take a short sniff; some waft the vapors into the nose rather than hold it directly over the opening. Experiment. Pay close attention by closing your eyes. This is pretentious, it helps one to focus on one or two senses, taste and smell, over sight. Even experts sometimes misidentify wines in blind tests.

Try to identify the odor and describe the aroma. Is it fruity like grapes or apples or oranges? Chardonnay sometimes reminds one of apples or figs, especially when aged in oak. Others, like Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlots evoke the woody smells of cedar or pine needles. Syrah puts some in mind of ground black pepper or floral scents. It's not entirely subjective — there's often wide agreement among experts and amateurs alike, but impressions differ on degree.

Now take a sip and run it around the tongue to get many different kinds of taste buds involved. Some areas of the tongue are more attuned to sweet detection, others more to salty or sour. Does the Zinfandel you're testing remind you of berries? Or, maybe you're trying a Pinot Noir from Burgundy, with a suggestion of violets. A Gewürztraminer evokes peaches to some, a Chenin Blanc orange blossoms to others.

Set aside or finish the wine and come back another day. Don't try too much or too many at one time. One per day is preferred but a slow way to learn; certainly no more than three, otherwise your ability to discern differences will be too diminished.

The next day, try some reds and concentrate on sensing that oak storage cask. Some California reds have hints of chocolate or coffee. A fine Merlot may carry a 'tarry' quality preferred by those that favor strong scents.

In every case, subtlety is the watchword of the day. Good wines don't hit the nose over the head, so to speak. Before long, you'll find yourself with pinky raised tossing around 'zesty', 'shy', and 'brave' like an expert.

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