So now that your Sparkling wine has been expertly stored and poured (see previous posts) its time to sip. This is my favourite bit.
What does it look like?
Pick your glass up by the stem so that your hand does not warm the wine. Admire the clarity and colour: it should be bright and clear and any colour from light lemon to old gold. Put your glass against a white background, a tablecloth for instance. A more intense colours suggest longer ageing. Don’t hold you glass up to the light and wave it around the room: you can’t judge a colour when the background distorts everything.
Do notice the bubbles. Like so much in life, elegant and persistent effervescence is preferable to a single showy explosion. No-one enjoys a damp squib. With luck you will get a string of pearls rising through the glass and a corona of effervescence at the top of the glass.
What does it smell like?
Please don’t swirl your Sparkling wine. It has taken us five years to evolve fine little bubbles that will transport delightful aromas to your nostrils. Trust them. These bubbles are destroyed in moments by over-enthusiastic churning. Please don’t.
Take a quick sniff. Don’t hover your nose over your glass for a long time. Alcohol will dry your nose and you won’t be able to smell properly. If this has already happened to you, sniff a glass of water. It works wonders.
Are there any defects?
Hopefully not. Your Sparkling should be flawless, but if there is a defect then you will smell it now. So beware if you smell any of the following:
– Wet wool jersey – sign of light strike.
– Damp cardboard – sign of TCA from the cork.
– Stinky rotten eggs/ boiled cabbage/drains – sign of reduction
– Honey, caramel and no fruit or freshness – sign of oxidisation (although this is also a good thing in mature Sparkling wines)
– Vinegar or nail polish – sign of volatile acidity
What does it taste like?
Go on, take your first sip. Feel free to let it move about your whole mouth and to slurp (sucking in air through pursed lips) if you’d like. If not, just sip quietly in the usual way.
Although the taste sensations are almost simultaneous, you’ll first perceive sweetness. Given that most Sparkling wine is now Brut, it will not be cloying but will keep a pleasant zing. Sometimes its pure lemon sherbet. Next, the structure: Sparkling wines have high acidity that makes the sides of your tongue tingle. Its this acidity that makes the wine age so well. Sparkling wines are very low in tannins (so you will not feel the moisture being sucked out of your tongue as it is with stewed tea) and low in alcohol – at about 12% alcohol by volume you will not notice the tell-tale heat on swallowing from more alcoholic wines. The flavours should come to the fore now, mainly fruit, flowers, minerals and oak – more on this later.
Swallow the wine and breathe out. All the little receptors at the back of your throat and the base of your nose will be freshly awash with the deliciousness of the wine. This top tasting tip works with food as well – it you really want to enjoy the taste of something, breathe out! Then there’s the finish: the residual magnificence of the wine after you have swallowed it. A long finish is a sign of an exceptionally good Sparkling wine.
The particular excitement of Sparkling wines is their evolution as they age. Sparkling wines tend to be a blend of three different grape varieties: usually Chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier. Each different grape contribute different flavours : Typically Chardonnay brings lemon, Pinot Noir brings redcurrant or raspberries and Pinot meunier brings pear or rose petals. Over time the dominant flavours change from the primary fruit flavours, to the autolytic flavours through to full maturity.
PRIMARY FLAVOURS – FROM THE GRAPES OR THEIR ENVIRONMENT
The primary flavours come from the grapes themselves or from the environment in which they are grown. These primary flavours are particularly apparent in young Sparkling wines. Look for citrus flavours especially lemon, but also grapefruit and mandarin. Frequently there is a little apple. Some excellent Sparkling wines also show peach apricot or prune flavours.
In Sparkling Rosé you may find strawberries and raspberries.
SECONDARY FLAVOURS – FROM FERMENTATION
Secondary flavours come from the fermentation process itself and in Sparkling wines these are principally from the secondary fermentation in the bottle. These autolytic flavours spring from contact with the bottle lees and include brioche or freshly baked cake. The earlier fruit flavours evolve so that you perceive cooked fruit even tarte tatin. The mouth feel also evolves to be buttery or creamy. Its age has made it a much more complex wine.
TERTIARY FLAVOURS – FROM AGEING
These appear in mature Sparkling wines and are the result of ageing and sometimes involve a little oxidisation. Sometimes you can get caramel, coffee, mushrooms, nuts (especially hazlenuts, walnuts and pecans) and cocoa.
TASTE AND TELL
Relax, you can just sip and enjoy. There’s really no obligation to approach each sip as if it were an exam. Sometimes, as Westlife said ‘you say it best when you say nothing at all’.
However, if you are going to describe what you taste to someone, then say something meaningful. The following might help:
Sometimes an instant response is challenging. Its on the tip of your tongue to describe what’s on the tip of your tongue but the words don’t come. Breathe. Take a moment or two. Does it remind you of an experience? Perhaps a Sparkling Rosé reminds you of a childhood afternoon picking sun-warned strawberries? Wine is very evocative. Don’t fret about identifying specific flavours, just re-live your memories.
It’s a bit of a personal bugbear of mine but I don’t think its very helpful to describe a wine as ‘friendly’. What does it mean? It could mean that you like the wine (in which case – why not say that) or that there’s nothing you actively dislike (in which case – why not say that!). It could be the equivalent of ‘Meh’, but – and you know how I hate to be judgmental – it could be just lazy. If you don’t have anything thoughtful to say about the wine, don’t say anything.
‘Minerality’ is an over-used and poorly understood description. As someone who admits to standing in a vineyard with the piece of clay stuck to her tongue, I have no problem with giving it a go, but I don’t find it that helpful as a taste description. Most people do not actually taste chalk or granite in the wine. Why should they? There is no earthly reason (sorry!) for the soil to be in the grape to be in the juice to be in the wine. What people are describing is the affect of that particularly soil type on the finished wine. It does not actually taste of stone. Anyway, when did you last taste a stone? If you can taste a specific mineral – like salt – then by all means mention its salinity. Just don’t hide behind ‘minerality’.
However you describe the wine, and even if you choose not to describe it at all – just savour it. After all, that’s the point, isn’t it?