What’s your tipple? Christian Robertson serves a guest at last Wednesday evening’s wine tasting event at the Farimont Hamilton Princess. *Photo by Sarah Lagan
What’s your tipple? Christian Robertson serves a guest at last Wednesday evening’s wine tasting event at the Farimont Hamilton Princess. *Photo by Sarah Lagan

FRIDAY, NOV. 09: Have you ever wondered why people swirl their glass before tasting a fine wine? Maybe you have tasted hints of tobacco or strawberry in a wine and wondered how they came to be from the fermented juice of grapes? Perhaps you are intrigued to understand what the body, character or finish of a wine really are.

These questions and more were answered at the Fairmont Hamilton Princess last Wednesday during the hotel’s wine tasting event.

Held in the lobby of the hotel, representatives from Discovery Wines and Burrows and Lightbourne alternate tastings with a connoisseur on hand to answer all your questions.

Anything between 30 and 60 people show up on a weekly basis following the success of the hotel’s previously named Sizzling Summer event. The wine tasting was so popular the hotel has decided to keep it going through the year. Anyone is welcome from experts to enthusiasts to complete novices.

Most weeks there will be a theme to the wines chosen for the tasting whether they revolve around the same grape, vintage or perhaps region.

I spoke to Idaho-born Christian Robertson, head of sales and marketing at Discovery Wines. He is currently studing a two year diploma in wine and will continue a three year course to become a Master of Wine.

What is the first thing to look for when you are served a glass of wine?

Someone should show you the bottle to make sure it is the correct vintage and wine. He or she will then open it for you and pour a teeny bit in the glass so you can gauge the quality.

There is a systematic approach to wine tasting and you could go through a 40-point checklist of analysing that wine.

What visual signs should I look for once it’s in the glass?

How does it look? Is it dull in colour or bright in colour? Dullness will tell you it’s probably got a bit of age to it. You can also look at clarity which will tell you a bit about the age — the less clear it is, the older it is likely to be. It will also tell you whether it has been filtered and maybe give you an indication of where it is from.

Less clear could also tell you it has some faults in it so you need to make sure that you give it a smell, give it a taste it could tell you it is off. One of the first indicators of an off wine is cloudiness.

What’s with the glass swirl?

The reason people swirl it is to oxygenate it. It is helping to wake that bottle up, sometimes you have very old wines that have been in the bottle for 15, 20 years you are allowing oxygen to mix with it giving off more of the aromas and it will make the wine a little more lively. People talk in terms of energy with wine and you can see the ebb and flow of energy in wine. You would do it more with red wine, if it is very old you wouldn’t want it to air out very much.

What can my nose tell me?

Firstly, you are making sure that it is not corked by smelling it — corked wine smells like wet cardboard it is very distinct — a musty, mouldy smell. The second one is the intensity of the nose — is it fruit smells or is it vegetable smells or earthy smells?

What do I look for in the flavours?

Flavour is the tough thing — it is such a personal experience and it’s hard to get people speaking the same language. I always talk about the tri-factor — you are looking for a balance — and there are three things I look for in that balance between the fruit, the tannin and the alcohol. Tannin tastes and feels like strong tea or banana skin. It’s found in grape skins, if you try the skin alone it dries your mouth out a little. You don’t want any of them to be more than the other. Sometimes it takes age for them to come together. The tannin can integrate into it.

Another thing to look for is acidity — it is key for wines. A lot of people don’t like acidity they like it big, jammy and juicy — that’s why Malbec, Shiraz and Zinfandel are popular. It is like a slap in the face with a lot of fruit. Acidity in a wine will give it a bit more focus and carry that fruit from the front of the palette to the back so that it is not just coiny and sweet on your tongue it actually has some structure and finishes clean.

Describe the different stages of tasting.

First is what I call the attack, then the mid palette and finish. The mid palette is a textural thing, you get a lot of minerality from Chardonnays etc). You can feel it on your tongue — go lick some rocks and you will taste it — limestone, slate, try rocks and you will know the different taste of mineral. Mineral is a huge thing in wine tasting though it is misunderstood by a lot of people.

There is a lot of complexity to it there is a lot going on in your mouth. A sign of a well-made wine is that it has character — it is not mono-dimensional.

Character is a word used to sum it all up — does it have complexity to it or is it boring, is it something you just want to gulp?

Why can we taste different flavours in a drink that is made mostly of grapes?

That is because of the chemical change that wine goes through — it starts from a sugary juice then it ferments. You get yeast and it eats all the sugar, and by-products are carbon dioxide and alcohol. It goes through a chemical change. Molecular structures separate, move apart and turn into something different. The new molecules within that juice could be very similar to a banana, or to a raisin, artichoke. The molecular structure of whatever that compound is could be similar to what they actually are. That’s the science behind it. There can be other influences such as what the grapes are grown near.

What is the body of a wine?

Think of the difference between skimmed milk, two per cent milk and whole milk. It is a thickness — it is not a taste or a flavour it is how thick it is and how it fills your mouth. It is giving you that richness. Acidity can counteract that body. Body is just everything that wine makes you feel in your mouth aside from the flavour so minerality will give wine body or oak.

Where are your favourite wines from?

France is the best for reds and whites — they have been doing it forever. Most grapes you hear of originate from France, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon are all French. The only exceptions are that have made great strides are things like grape called Sangiovese which great Chiantis are made from. Another is Tempranillo from Spain. Really the wines that are produced around the world originate from French vines. They have diverse climates, diverse soils and they have figured out the best places in their country to grow a certain grape.

The wine tastings take place at the Fairmont Hamilton Princess every Wednesday. Entry is $10 for a taste of five wines.