Wine lovers who have spent time in Napa Valley, or perhaps Oregon’s Willamette Valley, inevitably notice how every restaurant server, pierced hipster and taxi driver is able to rattle off an eloquent wine description—explaining how a particular wine offers complexity of flavor, rich concentration, fine acid balance or polished tannins. When wine is part of where you live, it’s natural to take pride in your opinion and ability to assess the vintner’s art.
Long Island’s wine country has been claiming its place too—with over 60 licensed producers crafting around 500,000 cases a year, according to the Long Island Wine Council. Along with this growth, our own population of wine experts has been expanding as well, making laymen feel the pressure to catch up. Sure, tasting can be a little intimidating, but the only requisite for improving the palate is a desire to learn, said Sean Gantner, beverage director and sommelier at Rothmann’s Steakhouse in East Norwich. “I always say, don’t worry. No one was born knowing. For sommeliers, this happens to be what we do, but everyone can benefi t by learning some of our methods.”
Between local wineries, retailers and restaurant lists offering fine vino from around the world, all curated by enthusiastic sommeliers, opportunities to develop your palate abound.
Don’t Just Drink, Taste
As the founder and owner of Sannino Bella Vita Vineyard in Peconic, Anthony Sannino frequently helms the tasting room where he guides guests through the five S’s of tasting
technique. “Tasting is not just in the mouth, but a complete experience that is the sum of these parts. I promise if you start using these skills, it will improve your palate for everything. Just beware, you might not like your 7-Eleven coffee anymore,” he laughed.
More than just red and white, wine comes in a variety of hues that often change as the wine evolves. “Looking at a wine’s color and clarity is the first clue about the wine. A white wine that is more straw-colored suggests barrel fermentation, or an aged white. On the North Fork that might mean chardonnay. Color can tell you a great deal,” said Sannino. For example, red grapes like petite sirah create much darker wines than pinot noir, while younger reds are more ruby, turning tawny or brickhued as they age.
When wine fanatics reach for that fishbowl-sized glass, you know they are about to get their swirl on. And it’s not an affectation, said Sannino. “When you swirl the wine in a glass where the bowl is larger than the rim, you release, then concentrate aromatic molecules. Sniff it before your swirl and after and you’ll see how much greater the impression is,” he advised. The action of swirling in a large glass aerates and increases the surface area of the wine before funneling the aromas to your nose, which is why many tasters prefer a large, bulbous glass.
It’s hard to enjoy a meal when battling a cold because smell is a vital component of taste. “You might smell fruit, oak, herbs or even earth, but your first impression of a wine should always be appetizing,” said Sannino. “Any wine should be inviting and intriguing, with fruit, herbs and fl oral flavors as positive qualities.” The vintner added that an abundance of sulfur (like burnt matches), vinegar or wet paper indicates a problem.
“I like to add ‘slurp’ in here,” said Sannino. “It combines the sense of smell and taste in a much more dramatic way.” When sampling a wine, slurp both liquid and air into the mouth then consider whether the wine reinforces the flavors of the bouquet. Next, weigh the wine on the tongue and consider whether it is lighter-bodied, like water, or fuller-bodied, like whole milk. Finally, exercise the palate’s ability to detect sweetness, mouthwatering acidity and texture, including tannins, which feel drying on the palate like strong tea.
SPIT or SWALLOW
Sannino said many tasters spit because it permits them to taste a greater number of wines. At 1½oz per tasting sample, Sannino encourages spitting when you plan to taste more than 10 wines. “After that, you are drinking, not tasting,” he said. Lastly, consider the finish—the amount of time the flavors linger.
Aren’t we lucky? Developing a palate demands not only consistent technique, but also lots of practice, said Gantner. “When I go to an industry tasting, by using the same approach on each wine I can easily taste 125 wines in 6 hours,” he said. But for private students, it can get expensive. To quickly build a wine resume without having to sell the summer home, there are a few tricks for keeping the cost down.
Drink Local. To locate local wine festivals, restaurant winemaker dinners, wine schools and retailer tastings, check the listings at localwineevents.com (or lipulse.com and the Pulse Planner starting on page 173). Area wine events occur constantly and offer the chance to sample both local wines and those from around the world, sometimes for free.
Go to the Source. The Long Island Wine Council offers practical advice for winery visits to taste with the winemakers. There are also educational hands-on experiences like Wine Camp, a four-day wine country retreat with the next one in mid April. Visit winecamp.org
Less is More. Rather than ordering full bottles when dining out, look for restaurants with large selections by the glass or in half bottles (375ml). Rothmann’s has more than 50 half bottles; a pair of different wines often costs about the same as one standard bottle or just a little more. Many wine bars and restaurants now have preservation systems
that allow them to pour affordable samples of expensive wines in 2oz portions. “I spared no expense with my boss’ money,” said Gantner. “We have a Napa Technology preservation system that allows us to offer elite wines, like Caymus Special Select, by the glass.”
Get Your Group On. A great way to taste more wine is to band together with wine-loving friends for a tasting night. Set a theme and a price, like Chilean wines under $15, or Napa cab between $30 and $40. When limited to 1½oz pours, a bottle will offer tasting for about 15 people.
Record Your Impressions
“Your flavor memory is not as good as you think,” said Sannino. “It is very hard to recall and describe what a merlot tasted like five minutes after drinking it. Only by taking notes and tasting wines side-by-side do you learn to recognize the differences.”
A notepad certainly does the trick, but there are several wine apps that make the job easier than ever. One of these is Vivino, which offers photographic label recognition and allows users to enter details and tasting notes. Many sommeliers, including Paulo Villela, corporate beverage director for the Bohlsen Restaurant Group which operates Prime in Huntington and Tellers Chophouse in Islip, utilizes the app to compare notes directly with other experts. Villela also encourages restaurant servers to use the app during staff tastings. “I think it’s great. All my servers are taking pictures and taking notes when we taste. After a few years, they have built up a large collection,” he said. Another useful app is Wine Aroma Matrix, which helps tasters identify more flavors and aromas through suggestion and cross-referencing.
Always Be Tasting
Another way to better identify wine flavors is to become familiar with everyday flavors in a more deliberate way. “Go to the supermarket produce aisle and buy one of every type of apple, pear, plum,” advised Gantner. He suggested tasting the fruits side by side and taking notes, just as one would with wine. Note which fruits are sweet, tart, juicy or bitter. Try fruits that are overripe and under ripe. Taste them with skin and without. Then do the same for spices and herbs, smelling them fresh and dried. Next, head to the flower section and smell a rose, a violet, a lily… “By building intimate reference points to the litany of flavors you will encounter, as you taste through the world’s wines you’ll be able to identify those flavors and further appreciate a wine’s complexities,” Gantner said.
Find a Mentor
Enlisting a pro can help expand both tasting knowledge and background information about wines and regions. This might be a wine loving friend, a trusted retailer or a sommelier. “A lot of customers think they endear themselves to the sommelier by spending a lot of money, ordering big bottles of Silver Oak or Cakebread, but that means nothing. I’d rather somebody say, ‘this is what I recently had and why I liked it, but I am up to try something new,’” revealed Gantner. It’s also a good idea to visit restaurants on weeknights when sommeliers have more free time. (And reward that special attention by leaving extra gratuity.)
“The best way to understand elements like body, acidity and dryness is to taste with somebody experienced. We all know what we like, but the difficulty is learning to express it. By listening and tasting with a sommelier you can get a handle on common wine language,” said Villela. If you’re currently excited about Barolo but aren’t ready to splurge on a bottle, be honest and tell the sommelier, advised Villela. “If I have regular customer that wants to taste something, I’ll open the bottle and pour three ounces for them. Then I’ll put the rest on the preservation system by the glass, or maybe they’ll love it and want the whole bottle,” he said. “Sommeliers want to have fun, too.”
Do Your Homework
While tasting is the essence of wine enjoyment, reading is the essence of wine intelligence. Why does merlot thrive in Long Island, Bordeaux and Napa, while pinot grigio does not? Wine combines elements of geography, history, climate, agriculture and so much more. A few choice books make the perfect start to a wine library covering these topics and can help develop understanding of the nuances.
Adventures on the Wine Route: A Wine Buyer’s Tour of France, by Kermit Lynch (Farrar, Straus and Giroux; Second edition, revised, 25th anniversary edition, 2013)
“This book is not about memorizing the grand crus, but about evolving your soul and seeing the beauty beneath the make-up in the world of great wine,” said Gantner.
Essential Winetasting, by Michael Schuster (Mitchell Beazley, 2009)
According to Ganter, read this for “the ABCs of analyzing a wine from appearance, bouquet, flavor and body. All very helpful for beginners. It teaches how to critically think about what is in the glass and why.”
Windows on the World Complete Wine Course, by Kevin Zraly (Sterling, 2009)
“This is a great study guide. I tell people if you develop your palate and know what is in this book, you can be a sommelier!” said Villela.
The World Atlas of Wine, by Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson (Mitchell Beazley, 2013)
“You have to know geography to know wine—the importance of climate and soil. This atlas really puts you there and gives you topography,” said Villela.
5 LOCAL WINES WITH SOMETHING TO TEACH
Learn about: Aging
Macari Merlot Reserve 2007; $36
Only a small percentage of wines are intended to age. This is one of them. The winery held it for four years in-bottle before release. Observe how the color, aromas and textures differ from younger wines, especially in the way they are well integrated and seamless.
Winery Notes: “Aromas of plum, raspberry and hints of clove. The medium bodied palate satisfies with notes of dark chocolate, black cherry, herbs and well-balanced tannins.”
Compare to: Lenz Merlot 2011; $14
Built for immediate drinking or short-term cellaring, this wine retains its youthful fruit and solid tannins.
Learn about: Barrels
Channing Daughters 2011 L’Enfant Sauvage Chardonnay; $35
A white fermented then aged in new oak barrels for a total of 22 months. In addition to obvious wood influence, the wine undergoes malolactic fermentation and rests on the lees (yeast), all of which add creaminess, body and flavors.
Winery Notes: “Aromas of golden apples, lemon curd, pears, just baked brioche, pineapple, brown baking spices and salty minerals.”
Compare to: Waters Creek Steel Chardonnay 2012; $18
A pure, clean fruit-driven wine with no wood influence and no malolactic fermentation. The fruit and mineral shine in this bright chardonnay.
Learn about: Blending
Bedell Cellars Taste Red 2012; $60
A combination of 54 percent merlot, 28 percent syrah, 9 percent petit verdot and 9 percent malbec, this wine demonstrates how winemakers layer and balance flavors. Look carefully and you’ll see that some varietal wines, like those labeled “merlot,” often include smaller portions of other grapes to similar effect.
Winery Notes: “Full of dark juicy fruit, Taste Red has ripe and soft tannins complemented by a deep mouthwatering complexity.”
Compare to: Bedell Cellars Merlot 2012; $35 The medium body, fleshy fruit and approachable style of this wine epitomize merlot.
Learn about: Skin Contact
Anthony Nappa White Pinot Noir 2013; $20
This unusual pinot noir is a white wine made from red grapes. It’s got the character of the fruit without the color, structure and tannins that are extracted from the skins of red grapes when making red wines. It’s also made from both upstate fruit and local ones.
Winery Notes: “Displays a rich, full body in an unoaked style, showing white cherry and strawberry fruit aromas and flavors, leaving you with a long dry finish and a zing of acidity.”
Compare to: McCall Hillside Pinot Noir 2012; $38 Home to some of the finest pinot on Long Island, McCall executes with full ripeness of fruit and skins to impart the color and concentrated flavors of red wine.
Learn about: Sweetness
Wölffer Estate Summer in a Bottle 2013; $24
This wine’s pink color and profoundly fruity aroma might lead you to think it’s sweet. Actually it has just two grams of sugar per liter— less than many dry red wines. Observe how the wine’s long, dry, mineral finish is independent of the fruit basket of flavor.
Winery Notes: “…rich and lush. Its sun-drenched fruit fills the nose with hints of ripe strawberry, lychee, cantaloupe, white peach and rhubarb pie.”
Compare to: Martha Clara Vineyards Riesling NYS 2013; $23
With 16g/l of sugar (eight times that of the Wölffer) this wine delivers sweetness on the palate yet also shows impeccable balance. Lively acidity keeps it from seeming at all cloying.