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How to Taste: A Guide to Enjoying Wine Hardcover – November 25, 2008
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Whether Montessori or Merlot, kindergarten or Cabernet, the importance of a good instructor during the formative years is crucial. That's why newcomers to the world of wine could do a lot worse than having a corkscrew in one hand and a copy of Jancis Robinson's How to Taste in the other. A revision of 1983's Masterglass and published in the U.K. under the superior title Jancis Robinson's Wine-Tasting Workbook, How to Taste is a primer by a certified Master of Wine and star of the PBS series Jancis Robinson's Wine Course. From acidity to Australian Shiraz, oak to Oregon Pinot, Robinson delivers chapters of information and theory, intermingled with shaded "Practice" exercises, presented in a style as off-dry as one of the author's beloved Rieslings (the tannin in a lesser vintage Barolo is "like sucking on a matchstick"). Sometimes tuition at Jancis U. runs high: the lesson on sugar/acid balance culminates with expensive Sauterne "Practice." And even if Robinson risks, by dropping words like "charred" and "umami" early in the book, sending novices back to tear open a fresh box of Franzia, vinous virgins are encouraged to stick with it. By the time they get to the glossary at book's end, they'll be identifying wines at blind tastings with professional accuracy--which, Robinson encouragingly reveals, and she ought to know, is about 50 percent. --Tony Mason --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
"Perhaps the most talented of the world's wine writers...[with a] seemingly infinite ability to fashion informative, accurate books that are essential reading." -- Robert M. Parker, Jr.
"The woman who makes the wine world gulp when she speaks...as unpretentious as Beaujolais Nouveau." -- Jerry Shriver, USA Today
"I have watched her slowly tighten her grip on the wine world with awe...Don't be fooled by her twinkling television persona; her serious purpose is to open the wine world to all comers, at all levels. In the process she has become a household name -- for good." -- Hugh Johnson
"The Julia Child of wine." -- Peter M. Gianotti, Newsday
"She is simply the best wine writer working today. No one else comes close to Robinson's combination of tasting acuity, prolific and authoritative writing, and wit." -- Stephen Tanzer, International Wine Cellar
"A thorough, no-nonsense approach to unlocking some of the mysteries of appreciating and enjoying wine." -- Frank Prial, The New York Times
"For those who want to learn how to taste wine, the Robinson approach is hard to beat!" -- Gerald D. Boyd, San Francisco Chronicle
"By a long measure the best wine writer in the world." -- Paul Levy, The Wall Street Journal
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She begins with taste, at its most basic level, describing the art and science of it. We do it every day, just as we breathe, without awareness, and yet, once we become fully aware of how our senses react to different flavors and aromas, we begin to have a deeper appreciation of the experience. Right from the beginning, she offers a practical exercise to try to demonstrate this. Have someone blindfold you and offer you different foods with the same texture to see whether or not you can tell them apart (slices of a plum and nectarine, for example). Then try it with similar bodied wines (a merlot and a cabernet sauvignon, for example) to see if you can identify the variety.
Our senses of sight, smell, and taste are so closely interconnected that when we consciously engage all three, the taste experience is heightened. In fact, I now have a deeper appreciation of these senses and for my father's unfortunate condition. He lost his sense of smell in an accident when he was young and whenever he eats, he has to wait until the food reaches the back of his throat before he can tell you if it pleases him. I never understood this until I tried the exercise Jancis suggested. Hold your nose while eating something you're familiar with. So I tried this and was surprised that I couldn't taste the flavor, even as it reached the back of my throat. So, I suppose the flavor experience is different for us all. Still, I couldn't help but feel sad for my father because he's unable to enjoy the full flavor of foods. Anyone who has ever had a cold can probably relate to how tasteless foods are when their nasal passages are blocked.
Jancis elaborates on the importance of sight, smell and taste and how each carries a different message to our brains. The first thing we notice is either how something looks (how appetizing it appears) or how it smells (when walking by a restaurant or my mom's kitchen...yum). This desire builds within us and creates an expectation of how great the food will taste, our mouths begin to water and we can almost taste it at this point. Notice what happens when we actually take a sip or a bite. "Different substances give off different vapors" (14). Think of wine versus bread, or steak on the grill versus a bowl of sugar. The strongest vapors you can taste without actually putting them into your mouth. Alongside this lesson, she illustrates the sweetness in wine, the sugar content, and what that does to our mouth. There's a practice exercise to determine where on your tongue you experience this best, so you'll notice the amount of sweetness the next time you try a wine. Throughout the book, she teaches you something about taste, (such as this lesson on sweetness), then she relates it to wine, and includes some very useful charts divided into red and white categories.
The major tastes (acidity, sweetness, salt, and bitterness) are described in depth and how balance in wine is important and signifies quality. If we stop to notice, different parts of our tongue (front, back, center, and sides) are sensitive to these different tastes. She elaborates on the wines that exhibit these flavors and points out which regions do this superbly. She compares the regional differences in wine-making and terminology. Other flavors such as tannins, astringency, weight, alcohol content, dryness, and cleanliness are covered at length. She includes bad aromas and flavors that you may encounter in wine such as oxidation, sulfur, TCA, reduction, carbon dioxide, and volatile acidity. The quality of a wine can be determined by its cleanliness, balance, and length and all senses should be engaged during this.
Jancis explains what to look for visually (deposits, range of color in reds and whites, lighter at the rim, and legs), aromatically (and that one should avoid strong perfumes, after shaves and food smells to properly taste a wine) and finally when you taste the wine, what temperature it should be served and what foods (mints, gum, vinegar) to avoid to fully enjoy it. Guidelines for storing, chilling, serving, decantering, choosing the right glasses, spitting (or not to), and keeping notes are provided.
There is an entire section on the predominant grapes, their nuances, their distinguishing flavors, their attributes, what regions/climates they grow best in, regional differences/names, if it is used for blending, whether or not it is common practice to age it, and what vessel to age it in. The last section explains how to pair wine with food and as we discussed in class, the old rules are thrown right out the window. One rule to follow is a full-bodied wine would pair well with full flavored foods, and a lighter wine with lighter foods. Some of the old standards apply where the acidity in a white wine would best pair with seafood and a full-bodied red with a steak, but since it's a matter of taste, these are just recommendations.
Jancis' charts, exercises, and tasting glossary at the end provide us with the right amount of information to make the most out of our tasting experience. I recommend this book for anyone who wants to understand wine and get the most pleasure out of drinking wine. I now have a deeper understanding of the subject and as a result, a deeper appreciation of our senses and of wine tasting.
Since I first became interested in blind wine tasting almost 25 years ago, I have searched for a book that provided a complete and authoritative guide to describing the taste of different wines and grapes-a reference point or sounding board, if you will, against which to calibrate my own impressions. Never mind that the essence of blind tasting and the apprehension of quality depend on forming your own innate vocabulary of scents and flavors. There have been many times when I have struggled, and have just wanted an expert to tell me what the heck a textbook Crozes-Hermitage, for example, is supposed to taste like.
Jancis Robinson's Guide To Wine Tasting is an excellent contribution to this subject for beginners. I didn't realize until around page 150 that the book had originally been published in 1983 under the somewhat unfortunate title, Masterglass, but I think we can forgive her this youthful indulgence. Because over time, she has truly become the heir apparent to mantle of most prolific British wine commentator, eclipsing my other English heroes Michael Broadbent, Hugh Johnson, and Clive Coates. With multiple books, a TV show, videos, a weekly column, a new DVD and a website ... she is, to paraphrase wine newcomer Howard Stern, the Queen of All Wine Media.
This book systematically lays out the factors that contribute to the taste of a wine, and how to appreciate them. It follows the model of a "wine course," in that each chapter combines theory and practice, the practice consisting of specific instructions of what wines to try that best illustrate the principles being taught. Like all good teachers about wine, she staunchly advocates blind tasting as the key to developing your own wine appreciation faculties. Just keep in mind that to pursue the practice, you'll need a willing accomplice to pour the disguised wines for you so you can really benefit.
Two things make this slender volume particularly noteworthy and a valuable contribution for amateurs of all stripes. First, Jancis is one of the most democratic and unintimidating wine writers on the planet. She goes out of her way to make beginners feel at ease, correctly observing that in many cases the less you know, the more accurate your initial impressions can be. She also makes it clear that even experts routinely embarrass themselves at this game, which is half the fun and often offers a better learning experience than actually guessing correctly. No one interested in learning more about wine appreciation will feel condescended to within the pages of this book.
Second, I give Jancis a lot of credit for being willing to describe specific flavors that derive from major grapes, variations in winemaking practice, and geographical differences, since that is after all why I most wanted to read the book. It is not as detailed or quite as specific as I would like, but it does an admirable job nonetheless and can refresh the core knowledge of a more experienced taster just as well as empower a newcomer.
I don't have much to criticize about the book. There's a very bad typo on page 47 where Brunello di Montalcino is described as coming from the nebbiolo grape (instead of the sangiovese clone, brunello), but this is correctly stated later on. I also think the selection of some of the second-tier grapes she characterizes is a little odd (why even bother with trebbiano if she says it's undistinguished, when she ignores other Italian white grapes that make wonderful wines). Finally, there are a few pages whose layout contains very little information (I counted one with fewer than 50 words) and since this isn't an art book, it gives the appearance of padding.
Nevertheless, this book provides all the basics of what you need to know to not just enjoy tasting wine, but to actually appreciate it.