Wine Tasting Part II: 5 Qualities


How do you distinguish one wine from the next?In Part I of Wine Tasting, we mentioned how drinking just one type of wine can skew the palette.  In today’s post, we’ll look at the 5 qualities that wine tasters can use to distinguish the good from the bad.


I have to admit, I’m one of those people that have a hard time being able to describe what makes a particular wine great.  I’ll know whether or not I like it, but being able to say why often feels beyond reach.


It turns out that describing wine is a bit of an art—it takes practice, and I guess that’s good news, right?  According to Karen McNeil, author of “The Wine Bible”, there are 5 ways to judge a wine.  These include Varietal Character, Integration, Expressiveness, Complexity and Connectedness.


Classic wine varieties.

Wine Classics.

Varietal Character refers to the distinctive qualities of a particular grape—for a list of the classic grape varieties see the chart on the right.  Distinctive qualities include grape aroma, color, and flavor.  When a wine is made from just one type of grape, you’d expect it to express the qualities of the grape from which it comes. Incidentally, certain states or regions have labeling regulations which regulate how much of a particular grape must be in the wine to call it a certain type.  For example, in California a wine labeled “Chardonnay” must be made with at least 75% chardonnay grapes.


Integration in the wine world is essentially a more sophisticated term for balance.  A well-integrated wine will not be overly acidic, tannic, have too much or little alcohol and so on.  In other words, in a great wine no single characteristic of the wine dominates the others.  Also implied in the concept of integration is the implication that each characteristic is in harmony with the others.  For some, it may be easier to know when a wine isn’t integrated for some part will stand out—for example, if you drink a chardonnay and it noticeably tastes of oak you could say the wine lacks integration.


Expressiveness is term used to describe a wine’s inherent characteristics, which are hopefully identifiable and in focus.  An expressive wine is therefore like an extremely sharp photograph where each pixel stands out with clarity.  In a sense, this all about a wine’s intensity—are the characteristics clear or ill-defined?  When tasting wine for expressiveness the goal is to find clearly projected and well-defined aromas and flavors.


Complexity refers to the wine’s ability to surprise with multiple aromas and flavors instead of being dominated by one or two.  A wine with high complexity is considered better, for each time you try it you discover something new.  It’s like reading a really good book.  You’ll be thinking about it days or even weeks later because the author left all these nuggets to digest, so you’ll go back and re-read certain passages.


Connectedness is the way a wine is connected to a particular plot of earth.  Just as a bee’s honey can taste slightly different depending on the pollen it’s made from, each grape can have slightly different characteristics depending on where they are grown.  The earth will be different and the climate is never quite the same as you move up a mountain or down into a valley—this can create subtle changes in a grapes flavor. And the differences can be even more pronounced from region to region or country to country.


There’s no question that several of these concepts are subjective.  For example, a wine that’s integrated for one person may not be for another.  What’s important is therefore not so much what others say about a particular wine, but how you come to judge it.  The terms above are really a set of tools you can use to begin comparing one wine to the next.  We should also point out that wine is also very taste sensitive, meaning the food you eat with it, or whether you eat with it, can impact how it tastes to you.  That’s why a wine that was terrific at one meal may seem only so-so with another.  However, as you become more familiar with wine and wine tasting, the 5 qualities above can help you distinguish what makes the best wines and allow you to pair them with foods that enhance your overall experience.


It part 3 of Wine Tasting, we’ll look at some more terms wine tasters use to describe wine.


Source: “The Wine Bible” by Karen McNeil


If you enjoyed this post, you may want to read:
Wine Tasting Part 1: Skewing The Palate
Save Money Buying Wine



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