Flavors: Fermenting the Language of Wine

Jun 19, 2017

Wines from the 2015 MSUB Foundation Winemaster Symposium.
Credit Stella Fong

The world of wine ferments its own speak. In describing the aroma, taste and sensation in a glass, descriptors abound. Flavors of fruit and non-fruit are not purposefully added to wine, but develop as grape juice ferments into a spirited drink. The words used to communicate what is sensed come from experience and memory. We identify smell and taste from what we have already sensed in our lifetime.

At Simply Wine, sommelier and owner, Sue Ryquist guided me through a tasting of a white wine, a Sauvignon Blanc. Then at City Vineyard, I sampled a red wine, a Cabernet Sauvignon led by wine buyer and store manager, Genia Castro. Ryquist educated me further about pairing wine with food, and then about customer service while Castro talked about storing wine for short and long term.


Sue Ryquist dispenses wine from Simply Wine’s WineEmotion machine.
Credit Stella Fong

Simply Wine, located in bustling Shiloh Crossing, occupies a space that is bright and cheery.  “We usually greet you at the door,” Ryquist shared, “We sell wines from $10 to $400 to fit every budget.” The anchor of the store is a wine bar with an Italian WineEmotion dispenser and preservation system. At all times, sixteen wines, eight white and eight red are available for tasting. “The wine can sit in the WineEmotion for 90 days without going bad,” Ryquist relayed. For the customer, opportunities abound for sampling different varieties of wines at various price points ranging from a French Sancerre Rosé to a Malbec from Argentina.

2015 Sineann Sauvignon Blanc for white wine tasting.
Credit Stella Fong

Ryquist guided me through tasting a Sineann Sauvignon Blanc, an Oregon white. Winemaker Peter Rosback traveled to the Awatere Valley in Marlborough, New Zealand to make wine with grapes secured from the Robert Vineyard. The exercise began with swirling wine in the glass.

Ryquist directed, “Stick your whole nose in (the glass) and take a nice controlled deep breath. Alcohol will evaporate up the side of the glass and go straight up our nose and we are going to be able to smell what goes on in this glass.”

I tasted summer in a glass with Ryquist detecting aromas of fresh cut grass. After taking a sip, flavors of citrus, especially grapefruit, the signature identifier of a Sauvignon Blanc, and wet stone with a touch of grass became evident. While grass characteristics dominated what was smelled, it was less prominent in taste, and vice versa in the citrus notes. One could close her eyes and imagine standing in New Zealand in the Marlborough region near the ocean.

When grape juice evolved into wine, aromas and taste characteristics develop. The taste detected in wine come “from our childhood, from our adulthood, from our travels, what really resonates with us is used to describe” what we taste in wine, Ryquist shared. 

The final sensations as described by Ryquist included a light finish with acid to cleanse the palate. Acid brought about salivation, stimulating the mouth.

Acid cuts into cheese with Ryquist recommending, “Soft fatty cheeses – triple cream, Brie – French cheeses, fresh or aged goat cheese.” At the same time, the clean taste of the wine would stand alongside sushi and sashimi while the other notes would hold up to fresh spices of Thai food. Mimicking the descriptor profile, a fresh green salad with lemon juice and olive oil would pair well with this wine. Ryquist did warn that food with too much vinegar could provide for an unpleasant experience.

Genia Castro of City Vineyard.
Credit Stella Fong

Later I visited with Genia Castro at the Grand Avenue and 17th Street location before City Vineyard moved to their larger space. We sat by the window and tasted a Napa Valley Quilt Cabernet Sauvignon made by Joseph Wagner. Being the grandson of Charlie Wagner of Caymus Vineyards, a premium wine established in the early 1970s, younger Wagner had access to many prominent vineyards in the Napa Valley. The blend of Cabernet Sauvignon grapes came from Napa AVAs (American Viticultural Areas) of Oakville, St. Helena, Atlas Peak, Coombsville, Calistoga and Howell Mountain.

Observing the wine, tipping the glass and looking at the color, a dark ruby color was revealed with some purple tinges. Castro recommended examining the wine against a white piece of paper or a white tablecloth.

2014 Quilt Cabernet Sauvignon for red white tasting

“Take time to observe the wine,” Castro recommended. “The first part of drinking wine is with your eyes.”

Swirling the wine helped accentuate the volatile components, according to Castro. “The second part is smelling. Eighty to eighty-five percent of taste is smell,” Castro shared, “Do not trust your first smell or taste.”

To obtain the best sensory experience, Castro instructed me to stick my nose deep into the glass while inhaling with my mouth open. “Put the glass down and give the senses a chance to reset,” she suggested. Upon smelling again, blackberry, blackberry jam, cocoa flavors and meaty notes were detected. Then vanilla and hazelnut notes showed from the oak aging.

“Very intoxicating, it draws you in,” Castro commented.

After toasting, we took a sip. Letting the wine rest on the tongue before swallowing will provide more insight into the wine’s taste. We examined the nuances starting with noticing fruit flavors of dark fruit blackberry, dried plum and raisin along with blackberry preserves. Nonfruit characteristics included vanilla notes. With this wine aging in 70% new oak barrels and the rest in seasoned barrels, the wine carried a good mouth feel – a swaddling, velvety sensation. Aging and barrel storage helped smooth tannins, which provide the structure and texture of wine. The sensation of tannins is best experienced after drinking a cold cup of tea where the tongue feels a coating of rough fur in the worst case scenario and velvet in its best.  

I liken a good Cabernet Sauvignon to a Carhartt jacket, which provides reliable protection and warmth against the cold. The Quilt Cabernet is ready to drink and what Castro described as, “An affordable, approachable wine.” The wine was ready to drink but aging would round out the wine’s personality.

For a food pairing, we both agreed that a steak, a charred hamburger or lamb would work well together. Cheeses should pair nicely with this wine as the acidity would cut through the creaminess with the fat in the cheese coating the tongue to brace against any tannins. An aged-Cheddar or Manchego accompanied with almonds and olives should play nicely with this wine. 

We then moved to the subject of storage, both for the short-term and for preserving for the years to come. Castro gadget of choice to remove any oxidative effects in the short-term was the Vacu Vin Wine Saver, a handheld pump that extracted air from a bottle of wine and resealed it with a stopper.

For the long-term, storage in a place in the house where “temperatures do not fluctuate as much” was what Castro recommended. Storage is best between 45 to 65 degrees F. with an average of 55 degrees F. Keeping the wine on an interior wall, away from a window should do the job. For the collector, investing in a wine chiller will better preserve the wines. Aside from constant temperature, many storage units have humidity control for the 70% optimal conditions.

Finally, Castro stated:  “Oxygen is a friend of wine and also its enemy.” Decanting wine aerates the wine, bringing out the aromas and flavors. Also, the act of pouring wine into a special glass container can help trap any sediment that has built up over time in the bottle. However, too much oxygen can deteriorate a wine’s integrity.

When wine tasting, take time and attention to sense what is in the glass of wine. Use all the senses beginning with looking to examine color and clarity. Then smell for fruit and non-fruit characteristics, to tasting for nuances and notes, and finally to detecting tactile sensations. With patience and then notice to what you are experiencing, you will ferment your own language of wine to share with the world.