Tasting wine in a restaurant


This week I am going to give the discovery of the grape varieties a little rest, so I will tell you what to look for when tasting wine in a restaurant or at home and under what conditions you can “send the wine back”.

I will also give a few tips on how to get one over on the overbearing, pretentious, haughty Sommelier, if where you are eating employs such. Most places I have eaten in do not employ the guy with the silver tassie on a chain around his neck whose job is all about theatre and putting the diners in their place. If they can employ someone who job is to do this, they must have some pretty god wine? Keich!

In most cases the tasting of wine before a meal is ritualised badly and I will give a few tips on how to tell if the person serving up the wine knows their business.

When can you send or take back a wine?

The answer is that you can send a wine back when it is off, and really only if it is so.   If you don’t like the wine, that is too bad. You ordered it, and you bought it once the cork was pulled. You should have known better.

Think of it this way, you buy a car, any car, and once you have driven it, you are not happy with it. It is not that the car is breaking down all the time or the hand brake doesn’t work or the mirror fall off. You are not happy because the car doesn’t drive they way you expected, or the gear ratios are wrong or the seats smell cheap. Tough, it is your car and the same principle applies with wine, caveat emptor.

So what are the things that would permit you to send the wine back? Know these and you will have the Sommelier eating out your hand, it is really quite simple.  Follow what a good Sommelier or Wine Waiter does as they serve the wine and you will be more than halfway there.

What a good Sommelier will do.

They will ensure that the bottle is dusted before it is presented to you. The label might be scratched or even wine stained but matters not one whit with respect to the wine in the bottle.

They will present the wine label to you before he removes the cork to make sure that this is the wine you ordered. If the wine is of a particular vintage, vineyard, or producer make sure you remember what you have and check it against what he is showing you. Write it down when you order it if, like me, you have a memory like a sieve. You are the customer. On more than one occasion I have had another similarly named wine or different vintage offered to me, always by accident.

They will remove the capsule over the cork, inspect the top of the cork, in the neck of the bottle and if necessary, wipe clean around the top of the cork and then around the outer neck of the bottle with a clean napkin, which they may then fold around the neck of the bottle as a drip catcher.

The next thing they should do is to remove the cork, inspect it, especially the wet end, and sniff it. If the Sommelier detects nothing untoward he will probably not present it to you and as a bit of counter bullshit I suggest that you ask to inspect it too. If the Sommelier shows a questioning furrowing of the brow, after he has sniffed it, ask for the cork, sniff it, feign the same quizitorial look and agree with him. The Sommelier will be reassured that you know what to do because you are agreeing with his professional opinion. You have won a watch.  Even if there is nothing wrong with the wine, inspecting the cork can also tell a tale about the wine inside.

There are good corks and bad corks, cheap corks and expensive corks. Anybody selling and expensive wine with a cheap cork is pushing their luck and the wine will probably not be worth the asking price. No winemaker of any standing will risk their wine to bad corks.

You should sniff it too and if it is from a red wine of some age look to see how much of the wine colour has penetrated the cork in the inside up. A wine that has been inside a bottle for a number of years and is expensive should say on the cork when it was bottled.  If it says that it was bottled six years ago and the bottom of the cork is showing very light shallow stain, you possibly have bought a new wine in an old bottle. If in doubt ask the Sommelier if the cork looks old enough for the age of the declared bottling. Don’t be afraid, just be confident and calm. He is the one who should panic.

Why did the Sommelier sniff the cork and why should you, if you want? The answer is simple, the cork will absorb the off odours in a wine and any rejectable defect should be evident on the cork.  More often than not I don’t sniff the cork except when I want to take the wee wee from a supercilious Sommelier. They soon get the picture that I am not a “pigeon”.

The next stage is that you will be poured a soupçon of wine to taste for off odours. Remember this well, 95+% faults in a wine that would justify rejection will be discernable on the nose. You should not need to taste it and a good Sommelier will not normally do so. If he carries one of these silver tassie things around his neck and tastes the wine before you he is into the theatricals of wine and, given the choice, I would not return to that restaurant because, if they are playing the clients like that with the wine, what are they doing in the kitchen?

So, what are the faults you are looking for?

Put simply, you are looking for aromas and tastes that should not be there.

Some sort of pre-knowledge is necessary here and I advise you to do a fair bit of training of your palate.

Don’t do it on Ozzie, NZ or USA wines, if you want to experience bad aromas, as they generally are free of them. Go for cheaper French, Italian, especially Sicilian and Greek wines and you will encounter eventually what you are seeking.

The main faults are:

Rotten egg aroma
This is called in the Trade, REDUCED. If drinking at home, decant it stir it up a bit and effectively aerate it and the reduced character should reduce or disappear. In a restaurant, you don’t have the time and the wine should be replaced. If you are presented at the table with a bottle that has been opened out of your sight, it could have been a reduced one that has been juggled about in the kitchen and then recycled to a “pigeon,” you. Even worse, it could have been blended from wine residues from different bottles. Never accept a wine opened out of sight. This obviously does not apply to carafe wines in cheap and cheerful Pizza restaurants where the wine probably comes out of a bag in a box.

This“reduced” character, also known scientifically as either sulphidic, gross sulphurus odours and sulphitic, more complex sulphurous aromas. The first, suphidic is stinky eggs, H2S, Dimethyl sulphite and Trimethyl sulphide. The second sub section contains structures such as thiols, thiol esters, mercapans etc . These give various aromas in wine which can be detected easier in white lighter wine than darker heavier reds. They have been described as vegetal (cauliflour onions, broccoli) sweaty, saddle and even cat pee. They are detectable in parts per million or less.

A veritable pot pourri of weird and odd odours which just don’t belong in good wine.

If the wine has been stored badly in a hot place for a period it will start to take on a stewed or cooked jam aroma and taste. The wine may well have expanded and pushed up the cork partially out of the neck of the bottle. The Sommelier should catch this one before he opens the bottle, but. This is also called “Maderised” after Madeira wine where it is part of the process of maturation, although not in the bottle. A similar process is used in the production of balsamic vinegar.

This is one of the most difficult faults to detect because it is relative to that wine. It is easier to detect in white wines than reds but in both, the wine if flaccid and lacks a fruity character. In white wine you can spot a yellowing or browning colour which is due to the oxidation and in reds the best way to detect it, is by taste which will be lifeless and insipid. In the worst case the wine will taste of vinegar due the action of certain bacteria. This probably did not happen in the bottle but was in the wine before bottling although it could have progressed.

Some wines are still fermenting in the bottle. These are not sparkling wines like champagne, which will have had their secondary fermentation stopped before final bottling but ordinary red or white wine which will look cloudy and taste slightly fizzy on the tongue.  This is due to a bacterial fermentation by malo lactic bacteria which I mentioned in my piece on Chardonnay. The malo lactic fermentation process is part of natural wine making but should only take place in the wine cellar and not on the bottle where it is a fault and would justify rejection.

This is the Mother of all wine faults and is a catchall designation for a series of off taints which can be detected on the cork, before you taste the wine. Most are put into the wine by the cork for one reason or other but sometime it is not the cork’s fault. The cork will absorb many different aromas from the atmosphere around it and this taint into the wine. Sometimes these bad odours can be measured in parts per billion in the wine.

They can be described cellar, basement, skunky and dirty socks. Some people perceive these different aromas, in their pure form, differently from others and sometimes these effects can be potentiated by the presence of other related chemical moieties. Most can be detected in parts per million or even less.  They tend to come from bacteria and fungi in or on the cork and sometimes these micro-organisms can transform some aroma around the cork, a disinfectant used in a shipping container for example into something much more stinking.

This particular defect is a winemaker’s nightmare as it can affect one box of corks, one lot or a whole container load. The whole vintage could be lost because of bad corks and the vineyard would be ruined. This is why most Australian wines are now being sold with plastic stoppers or even screw caps. The Ozzies were finding that between10 and 20% or their wine sold in Europe was corked and when they tracked the source down, it was found to be a disinfectant used to clean the container in which the corks were shipped from Europe. This disinfectant was transformed by fungi in the cork into something quite disgusting when it was rehydrated with wine during the storage period before sale. Since turning to these alternative closures the incidence of sulphur taints has dropped to less than 2%.

So, don’t turn your nose up to wine sold with a screw cap or a plastic stopper. The odds are that it will be better than a wine sold with a traditional cork.  However we wouldn’t need a Sommelier, would we?

I will probably do another piece on wine stoppers which will go into greater details on corks and their faults.

Finally, one fault, which is really not a fault at all.

Sometime you find as you get to the bottom of a bottle of wine you notice grit in the glass or on your tongue. This is not dirt or grit but is tartaric acid crystals.

Wine is supersaturated with tartaric acid which a natural of the juice. In time this will crystallise out, hopefully before the wine goes into the bottle.

There is economic pressure on wineries to make and sell their wine quickly as most of them do not have the finance to store wine for many years and, modern winemaking techniques can make very good table wines quicker and more consistently than several decades ago.

Thus tartaric acid is removed to leave a safe level in the bottled wine. This is expensive and can also strip out some of the wine character so the wine maker is facing a dilemma as to what level to remove. Sometimes they get it wrong but tartaric acid crystals do not affect the wine favour only the mouth sensation and then usually at the end of the bottle. That is why wine used to be decanted. Don’t let tartaric crystals bother you, and if they do, decant the wines you think could be affected.