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Entertainment, Food & Beverage

The art of wine appreciation

To enjoy wine and fully appreciate its subtleties, learn to savour the drink
ST701 Editorial Team - April 23, 2010
By: Wong Wei Chen
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The art of wine appreciation

Don’t just drink it. Drink it carefully.

Sage advice indeed for those who intend to learn the art of wine appreciation. Unlike your everyday malt or cocoa beverage, wine is in a different league altogether. To get the most out of it, you need to pay conscious attention while consuming it.

An underlying principle
I’ll be getting a little abstract here, but understanding an important principle behind wine appreciation ought to help you along greatly, so bear with me.

To facilitate the survival of the species, our evolutionary instincts have led us to gravitate towards certain tastes: we instinctively go for sweet things, since sugar means lots of energy; savoury or umami flavours mean protein, which in turn means muscle building and maintenance. Salty flavours were welcomed too, as salt was rare in our hunting and gathering days.

This ingrained taste preference is sometimes known as hedonistic gratification, and we are so attuned to it that, for the most part, it operates at an unconscious level. Was there a time you thoroughly enjoyed your chilli crab, but when someone asked you why you liked it, you were either dumbstruck, or could only croak out a pathetic: “Because it was nice”?

Here’s the crux. Wine appreciation is an art that needs the practitioner to go beyond hedonistic gratification. Simply put – drinking wine (especially good wine) is an acquired taste, and you must train yourself to appreciate the beverage in all its glory.

Experiential learning
True appreciation involves learning and experience. As we consciously reflect upon the flavours and aromas we encounter, we acquire new ways of appreciating them, and gradually learn to like things that may have initially failed to appeal to our taste buds.

An anecdote comes in handy at this point. When I was a bratty kid in love with Alfred Hitchcock and his Three Investigators, I thought people who read the classics were crazy. I still can’t bring myself to read the classics – I gave up Conrad’s Lord Jim about halfway through, and did the same to Salinger’s The Catcher In The Rye – but I don’t regard those who read them as loony anymore.

The nuts and bolts
Here’s a step-by-step procedure to help you learn how to appreciate your wine:

  • Pour a small amount into the glass. Make sure you have enough room to swirl it without spilling.

  • Swirl the wine, then take a generous whiff. What aromas do you detect? Vanilla, oak, citrus, flowers and berry or various combinations of such are some of the more common aromas given off by wines. Do you like what you smell? If so, why? If not, why again?

  • Take a sip but don’t swallow immediately. Swirl it around your palate, all the time consciously reflecting upon the flavours you encounter. What kinds of fruit flavours did you discover? Astringent or sweet? Does the wine feel heavy or light? Swirling spreads the wine throughout the mouth, and allows different parts of the tongue to perceive its different nuances.

  • Some connoisseurs recommend that you spit out your first sip to assess the aftertaste, but my preference is to swallow. After you’ve swallowed the wine, wait for the sensations that follow, then assess them. 

Follow this procedure, then practise, practise, and practise some more. It’s hard work, but your gustatory horizon will expand tremendously, and that makes your effort worth its while. Maybe now you’ll understand why some seasoned connoisseurs can tell you why a wine is nice in a thousand and one ways, whereas all a neophyte can say is – “shiok”!

As for me, I enjoy my wine because it’s nice. I’ve got a long way to go too!

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