When I speak to people about being a wine judge they think of it as a glamorous thing, but it is as far from that as you can get!
I have sat through hours of judging and tasted as many as 250 wines in one judging. I’ve had the inside of my mouth peeling from trying so many tannic reds and been overwhelmed by the number of wines I have tasted.
With the majority of wine judging you are tasting the wine blind (you have no idea about producer, varietal, vintage or region). All you have to rely on is your senses; yes, its white, red, etc.
Let me take you through the process of judging wine.
What to look, smell, taste for
Typically, you assign points to different categories: appearance, aroma, taste and overall impression:
•Appearance — Does the wine appear cloudy? How is the color? Most wines look pretty good, so this category usually doesn’t have too many points assigned to it.
•Aroma — Are there off-odors or flaws in the wine? A few of the flaws you don’t want to smell in wine are. This is a very important category since a huge percent of tasting is actually smelling (just think about when you have a clogged-up nose — you can’t taste anything).
Make sure you swirl the wine in the glass to release the aromas.
•Volatile acidity — Does that glass of wine smell like vinegar or remind you of nail-polish remover or Easter-egg dye? Volatile acidity (also called VA) is what you smell, and it is bacterial spoilage. The wine is safe to drink, but who wants to drink something that tastes like nail-polish remover?
•Sulfur — Hydrogen sulfide has scent of rotten eggs. While sulfur is used in winemaking to prevent microbes and bacteria, overuse or improper use can cause it to form hydrogen sulfide or dimethyl sulfide.
•Brettanomyces — This is commonly referred to as “brett.” Brettanomyces is yeast spoilage. Many wines, especially Old World wines, may have a tiny amount of brett that some wine drinkers covet. A little brett goes a long way, as far as I am concerned.
Sometimes that is all you smell. Think barnyard or a sweaty horse blanket — not exactly something you want to put in your mouth.
•Cork taint — This means that the wine’s been spoiled or tainted by a chemical called 2,4,6-trichloroanisole (or more commonly as TCA) that can develop in cork. For me, I always get the smell of wet cardboard with cork taint; you can also get wet-dog or moldy-basement aromas from it.
Cork taint is harmless but unpleasant; it masks the fruit in the wine.
If you are not sure about it, let it sit for a bit: Cork taint gets worse with exposure to oxygen.
•Sulfites — Get a matchbook and strike a match; what you smell are sulfites.
Sulfur dioxide is a sulfite and a common antioxidant added to wine, to prevent bacterial contamination. You may get this odor from a newly bottled wine.
At most judging, there are “checkers” who open the wine and check for the above flaws. Some get through to the judges (in particular, cork taint, due to the fact that it gets worse the more it is exposed to oxygen), but most are caught beforehand.
•Tasting — Put it in your mouth, swirl it and spit it out. You’ll need to spit if you are going to make it through the day in one piece.
With the taste you are looking for whether everything is in balance: fruit, wood treatment (if oaked), tannins, alcohol, acids and finish. The balance is the most important thing to me in a wine.
Also take note about how long the finish is: Generally, the longer the finish, the better the wine.
Afterward, assign numbers to each category and add them up. The numbers from all of the judges are added up, and that’s how they come up with placements.
It’s a fun business I am in, but it’s also a lot of work at times. When all is said and done, I really enjoy being a wine judge
JEFFREY DORGAN, is the wine director at the Space Needle.
To comment on this column, write to CityLivingEditor@nwlink.com.