These days, anyone can pick up a bottle of sparkling wine and call themselves a wine expert. But picking up a bottle of regular bubbly wine and calling yourself a wine expert is a whole other ball game. It doesn’t matter if you’re a beginner or a professional, you still need to know something about wine to appreciate it.
My goal in writing this post is to simplify wine tasting for people like me. Most people who like wine have experienced the frustration of being an expert taster having a hard time differentiating one wine from another. There are many reasons for this, but I will focus on two and explain why wine tasting is so difficult for most people (I hope). First, in wine tasting, the most experienced tasters are often the least experienced in actually drinking wine. They know what they are tasting but not what they are drinking. This is because the most experienced tasters are often the most experienced in judging a wine in the laboratory or in a blind tasting.
When it comes to wine, many people have a hunch that if you drink the same wine twice, it will taste the same. If that’s true, then why is it that the same wine can taste completely different to people who aren’t wine ninjas? The answer is a matter of chemistry. Did you know that grapes have a slightly higher acid content and sugar content than other fruits? The result is that some wines are more acidic than others. The acidity causes the wine to ferment and release a slightly different chemical aroma called ester, which gives wines their unique aromas.
Blind tasting, although it may seem to be a party trick, aids people who sell and study wine in better understanding styles, regions, and typicity.
However, certain types may be perplexing to tasters. These “wine twins” may have chemical similarities, agricultural and winemaking methods in common, or distinct styles.
What are the most difficult wine twins to distinguish, and how do experts accomplish it?
According to Deborah Parker Wong, global wine editor for SOMM Journal, “Aromatic white varietals frequently offer difficulties since there are six important terpenes [in most of them].”
Linalool, terpineol, citronellol, nerol, geraniol, and o-treinol are all present in aromatic varietals like Alvarinho to produce the characteristic flowery and citrus aromas.
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Alvarinho may be mistaken for semi-aromatic Pinot Gris in blind tastings. Style-wise, they’re wine twins.
Alvarinho, particularly bottlings from the Monço-Melgaço area in northern Portugal, is richer and fuller bodied than Albario from Ras Baixas, which is more well known for its floral characteristics.
“The terroir is more warmer and drier,” Parker Wong explains. “Thus, in intensity and body, the Alvarinho here is more like wine Alsatian Pinot Gris—another warmer, drier area that benefits from the Vosges rain shadow—than, example, a Pinot Grigio from the Veneto.”
Alvarinho (left) and Pinot Gris (right) / Getty
Tasters may mistake the wines for one another because to their weight, fuller mouthfeel, and, in certain instances, comparable terpene components.
If you put them side by side, though, Alvarinho has more overt flowery scents and stone fruits, according to Parker Wong. Pinot Gris is more restrained, and examples from Alsace’s grand cru vineyards typically have upfront mineral notes mixed in with more delicate stone fruit flavors.
Sangiovese and Nebbiolo are wine twins because they share a number of traits.
According to David Glancy, MS, CWE, founder and CEO of the San Francisco Wine School, “Both Sangiovese and Nebbiolo are very thin-skinned grapes, which, other else being equal, produces wines with lighter color and lower, bitter/drying tannins.”
Sangiovese (left) and Nebbiolo (right) / Getty
The glass of both has a medium-red color to it, with an orange rim. They have red fruit smells and medium-to-high acidic, delicious acidity on the tongue.
The grapes’ similarity is also influenced by winemaking methods.
“They are usually given a pretty lengthy maceration in their respective homes of Toscana and Piemonte,” Glancy adds. “The most popular method is to age in botti, which are huge, used oak vats that let air to pass through without imparting overpowering vanilla or spice aromas like fresh, tiny oak barrels do. As a result, the wines are very similar in terms of both grape structure and winemaking.”
When it comes to distinguishing them, Glancy notes that Nebbiolo has a more visible orange rim, stronger tannins, and greater alcohol content. However, these distinctions may be very subtle. He advises doing side-by-side tastings.
Other wine twins have a similar expression on the vine and in the glass.
“While many wines are readily mistaken for one another, I’ve discovered that Argentine Malbec and California Zinfandel are often confused,” says Christopher Tanghe, MS, interim executive director of GuildSomm.
Both feature rich dark red and black berry aromas, high acidity, and “dusty minerality,” as Tanghe describes it.
Zinfandel from California (left) and Malbec from Argentina (right) / Getty
Some of these similarities may be traced back to winemaking techniques.
According to Tanghe, the tendency for oak treatment on both kinds has changed, with considerably less being applied these days. “As a result, the fruit truly shines in a pure expression, demonstrating how they both straddle the border between red and black fruits.”
Due to a propensity toward greater alcohol concentration, Malbec and Zinfandel have a rich mouthfeel.
Tannins are the key to differentiating between the two.
“Malbec has more powdered tannins, comparable to cocoa powder,” Tanghe explains. “Zinfandels are silkier and less powerful.”
According to Tim Gaiser, MS, a wine instructor, speaker, writer, and researcher, Zinfandel has a wine twin. He claims that Syrah and Zinfandel are often misunderstood by his pupils. Raisinated and green fruit features result from uneven ripening. Black pepper, fresh and dried herbs, mint, and eucalyptus are among the spices and herbs found in the wines.
Structure-wise, the wines may be very similar.
“Syrah, particularly New World wines like Barossa Shiraz, and Zinfandel may both have high alcohol levels, sometimes exceeding 15%,” adds Gaiser. “And both grapes have similar tannin profiles, ranging from medium to medium-plus.”
Zinfandel (left) and Syrah (right) from California / Getty
Focus on non-fruit components, according to Gaiser.
“Regardless of provenance, Syrah/Shiraz tends to have smokey, gamy, dried meat, and leather aromas that Zinfandel lacks,” he adds. “Iodine, dried blood, and iron notes may be found in Northern Rhône Syrah, as well as significant earth and mineral qualities.”
According to Gaiser, fruit smells and tastes are seldom useful in blind evaluations. “Focus on the flavor and quality of the fruit,” he advises. “Is the fruit tart, candied, or raisinated?” says the narrator.
Non-fruit components such as earth or mineral notes, as well as indications of winemaking methods like as lees contact and oak use, are also helpful.
Practice, of course, makes perfect. So savor, savor, savor.
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