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WINE

How to taste wine like a professional (according to French experts)

Spitting is frowned upon in polite society - unless of course the spitter is engaged in tasting wines. Here's a look at how to sip wine like a sommelier - according to a selection of French experts.

How to taste wine like a professional (according to French experts)
Illustration photo: AFP
So, how exactly should you go about tasting wine?
 
Tasting wine like a professional is subject to some strict rules. 
 
Holding forth before a rapt crowd at a wine-tasting in the French capital, Pierre-Jules Peyrat, a Paris sommelier begins by sticking his expert nose into a glass of chilled rosé: it is important to get a good whiff before tasting the wine. 
 
Once in the mouth, the wine is swirled around – or chewed – for a few seconds. The taster may then make a “duck face” to allow a bit of air in to detect further characteristics, a step called “grumage”.
   
Next, the mouthful of liquid is spewed back out in an unapologetic burst into a spittoon.
 
“It's by spitting out the wine that you will be even more distinguished in society,” pleads Peyrat.
 
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Illustration photo: AFP
   
What are you looking for?
   
For professionals – winegrowers, oenologists, sommeliers, wine merchants – tasting wine means assessing its appearance, or robe, its interaction with air, its aromas and finally its taste, as well as its “structure” in the mouth.
   
The first step is to identify the wine's basic quality: is it bitter, sweet, salty, acid or umami – that elusive taste between acid and sweet that is prized in Asia?
 
The appraisal then turns to the tactile sensation the vintage creates: coarse, astringent, effervescent?
 
So why taste, instead of drink?
   
Spitting the wine out isn't just a matter of practicing restraint, it is intrinsic to a tasting.
   
“People think swallowing the wine will give you more aromas, but that's false,” said Olivier Thienot, who founded the Ecole du Vin de France in 2003.
   
“The aromas often come after the spitting,” agrees Christophe Marchais, an oenologist from western France near the city of Nantes, acknowledging that the act may seem “a bit bizarre” to the uninitiated.
   
Some object to the sight of good wine seemingly going to waste; others fear looking boorish or foolish, or staining their clothes.
 
Spitting, when the wine mixes with air coming from the nose, can bring out “other prevalent aromatic notes”, Peyrat says, calling the phenomenon “retro-olfaction”.
 
It “is a much more intense pleasure than being drunk,” he adds.
   
For France's some 7,000 oenologists, “spitting is an ordinary act”, says Thienot, noting that a professional taster can assess as many as 100 wines on a given day.
   
France, the world's leading wine exporter in terms of value, welcomes around 10 million oenotourists each year – and their sophistication is growing.
 
About 12 percent of the students taking wine-tasting short courses at Thienot's Paris school are foreigners.
 
Illustration photo: AFP
 
And, how to describe the wine you're tasting?
   
The world of wine has a rich, often poetic vocabulary, much of it borrowed from the perfume industry, to describe myriad sensations.
   
A wine may evoke honeysuckle or berries, or have spicy or woody notes, or be redolent of burnt bread.
   
For all that, consumer groups are demanding that more down-to-earth information be included on a wine's label.
   
A draft rule has been prepared by the International Wine Organisation (OIV) that would require labels to provide data on calories and ingredients such as sugar or cellulose gum, according to Joel Forgeau, a winemaker in Mouzillon near Nantes and president of a wine lobby.
 
But no label can reflect a wine's taste, “because the wine is a creation,” says Thienot.
   
“Its taste comes from the soil, the weather, the winemaking, the know-how and so many other things.”

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FARMING

Cold snap ‘could slash French wine harvest by 30 percent’

A rare cold snap that froze vineyards across much of France this month could see harvest yields drop by around a third this year, France's national agriculture observatory said on Thursday.

Cold snap 'could slash French wine harvest by 30 percent'
A winemaker checks whether there is life in the buds of his vineyard in Le Landreau, near Nantes in western France, on April 12th, following several nights of frost. Photo: Sebastien SALOM-GOMIS / AFP

Winemakers were forced to light fires and candles among their vines as nighttime temperatures plunged after weeks of unseasonably warm weather that had spurred early budding.

Scores of vulnerable fruit and vegetable orchards were also hit in what Agriculture Minister Julien Denormandie called “probably the greatest agricultural catastrophe of the beginning of the 21st century.”

IN PICTURES: French vineyards ablaze in bid to ward off frosts

The government has promised more than €1 billion in aid for destroyed grapes and other crops.

Based on reported losses so far, the damage could result in up to 15 million fewer hectolitres of wine, a drop of 28 to 30 percent from the average yields over the past five years, the FranceAgriMer agency said.

That would represent €1.5 to €2 billion of lost revenue for the sector, Ygor Gibelind, head of the agency’s wine division, said by videoconference.

It would also roughly coincide with the tally from France’s FNSEA agriculture union.

Prime Minister Jean Castex vowed during a visit to damaged fields in southern France last Saturday that the emergency aid would be made available in the coming days to help farmers cope with the “exceptional situation.”

READ ALSO: ‘We’ve lost at least 70,000 bottles’ – French winemakers count the cost of late frosts

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