Have you ever brought home a bottle (or bottles) of wine from a winery that you were sure you “loved” during your tasting and upon opening at a later date been underwhelmed by it? How about multiple bottles where the first one was great, just like you remembered it, but something was “off” with a second bottle? What about sharing a friend’s bottle of something you were sure you didn’t like when you first sampled it, but now it’s great and you don’t know why you didn’t like it? While not exhaustive or authoritative, this post will provide some reasons and answers to the questions above.
I’m working my way through Texas Tech’s Oenology certificate program for winemakers and this summer I took a class called “Sensory Evaluation for Winemakers.” The class was for current and future winemakers to learn various methods (sight, smell, taste) of evaluating their wines to identify flaws, astringency, sweetness, bitterness, different types of oak, and varietal differences. As you can imagine, it’s important for winemakers to be able to identify all these characteristics whether desired or not. Some of what I learned there can help with the questions above.
To answer the questions related to why a wine tastes different from a tasting at a winery and drinking at home, two concepts can explain this. They are “Carryover” and “Adaptation.” Adaptation is simply the idea that what you’ve eaten or had to drink imparts an influence to how you taste. For example, you brush your teeth right before tasting wine, or have a cup of coffee, and yes, drink another wine. The context of what you are drinking will affect the taste. Most tasting rooms do a good job of serving tastings in a logical order so that you’ll get the most out of the tasting. However, what you tasted before will usually impart a bias on what you taste next.
Carryover is similar to adaptation. It’s simply the accumulation of a trait like sweetness, bitterness, or astringency (the effect of tannin) while you’re tasting wine. If you taste something sweet, the first taste is always perceived to be sweeter than the second or third or more. The mouth-drying tannins in one wine may cause the next, less tannic wine to feel like there are no tannins at all. A taste of a bitter wine will probably cause the next one to taste less bitter even if there is really more bitterness. The result of carryover is you purchase that perceived less bitter wine or perceived slightly off-dry wine, and later at home you wonder why it is too bitter or too sweet.
Cleansing your palate is a good answer to adaptation or carryover. One way to cleanse is simply time. Some say that six minutes is enough to get a cleansed palate. But who wants to wait 6 minutes between tasting 4-8 wines? I’m sure the tasting room doesn’t want that either. Crackers and water help. Be sure to take your time with these and make sure they are neutral in taste. The carbonation in sparkling water can be effective sweeping away the tannins and some “pro” tasters use a dilute solution of water and pectin which is known to help clean out the tannins and bitterness.
Another thing to pay attention to is how the wine glass is cleaned between tastes. Many tasting rooms will rinse the glasses with water. The problem is that the alcohol in a one-ounce taste in a glass rinsed with water could be reduced by up to 6%. That will change the taste. You’re better just pouring the wine into the glass with the previous wine poured out. Better yet, ask the pourer to rinse the glass with a very small amount of the next wine. They should appreciate that you want a “purer” taste, but be aware that not all will. Just be polite and go with the flow.
The last issue that can cause the questions above is that the wine is flawed. It could be just one bottle, one lot, or the whole vintage of that varietal of a winery. In a future post we’ll talk about how to identify some common flaws, some causes, and how to politely bring it up to the server in the tasting room.