116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
SWISHER — Going into a wine tasting, it can be easy for the average Joe to be intimidated by master winemakers. I know I was.
My first experience ordering high-end wine was at a renowned French restaurant in Washington, D.C., where my friends and I were flashed sneers teeming with contempt by staff after several faux pas during the wine tasting, ordering and serving process.
Being 23 at the time, I drank the sample almost like a shot seated among the high society of America’s capital.
So when Cedar Ridge Winery and Distillery winemaker Kent Foulker asked about my favorite types of wine, I sheepishly replied “sweet, white wines,” the same way I would reply to friends asking for my drink order at parties where others were enjoying sophisticated reds or microbrew craft beers.
I just didn’t get what all the fuss was about.
Though the art form behind tasting wine is something that has eluded some consumers, it’s not something that should intimidate them, Foulker said.
One of the first guidelines of wine tasting is that there are no rules, he said — just suggestions.
“Whatever you do that makes it enjoyable for you — that’s key,” Foulker said. “Someone telling you you’re doing it wrong? Well, (they can) kiss off.”
While taste and smell are very individualized, there are a number of ways you can maximize your enjoyment of wine. With exposure and a little thought, you can learn to distinguish the notes in your favorites as well as branch out to appreciate the types you might not typically gravitate toward.
Steps to maximize enjoyment
When you pour yourself a glass, never fill it to the brim. Give yourself enough room to swirl the wine.
That’s because swirling the wine is more than just an initiation to set the mood — it’s a key to accessing about 80 percent of wine tasting, which happens through smell.
“Eighty percent of wine tasting is through the nose,” said Foulker. “The olfactory bulb is in the back of your nasal passage, on top of your throat.”
There, all the processing of flavor and aromatics happens. While your tongue can sense acidity, sweetness and bitterness, it can’t pick out the specifics in a wine with much more detail.
Since the olfactory bulb is structured in front of the part of the brain that handles memory, people can often be transported to a place in time when they smell something familiar.
After a few swishes in the glass, take a deep whiff of the esters, polyphenols and aromatics released into the head of the glass.
“When you smell a wine, you’re smelling for fruit, herbs, spices, soil composition (earthiness). Everything can be in wine — it’s not in the wine, but it smells like it,” Foulker said.
And some elements of wine will mimic the smell of other things. Different notes you smell can come in layers, detected at different points as you inhale or exhale.
The colder your wine, the more subdued the smell will be. The ideal pouring temperature for white wines is 45 to 55 degrees; 55 to 65 degrees for reds.
“You can get almost everything from the nose — the tongue is confirmation,” Foulker said.
Now, take a sip.
To get the full experience a wine has to offer, the winemaker recommends sucking a little bit of air in while the wine is in your mouth. This aerates the wine a bit, putting all those aromatics inside your mouth.
This isn’t necessarily something you need to do when drinking casually with friends, but if you want to pay attention to the subtleties, it can help.
There’s no ideal amount of time to hold a wine in your mouth, though your tongue may notice more of a bite from wines with higher acidity if you let it stick around for more than a few seconds.
“When you swallow, you’re not getting all those flavors until you exhale,” he said. “When you exhale, aromatics in the lungs go to the olfactory bulb to tell you (what specific notes are in the wine.) That’s when you’ll start to get the full effects of the wine.”
For semisweet whites like Atlas, made with Edelweiss and Brianna grapes, you should get hints of mango and papaya, according to the label. All I tasted was fruit. For blends like Harvest Blush, a bestseller at Cedar Ridge, you might be reminded of communion wine or grape juice, I know I was.
“There’s a huge amount of psychology that goes into wine tasting,” Foulker said. “Not everyone tastes the same way, and that’s totally cool.”
Your exposures to food, taste, smells and the experiences tied to each of those will affect not only what you’re able to taste in a wine, but how positively you perceive it. Those differences aside, there is typically some common ground notes for all tasters to detect in each wine.
Broadening your horizons
Many categorize themselves as either red or white wine drinkers. But if you’re someone who has always enjoyed sweet, white varieties, there are ways to cross over.
“People who enjoy sweet wines versus drier wines are true tasters,” Foulker said. “They’re more realistic. There’s no judgment on it.”
No judgment maybe, but I certainly felt vindicated to hear that red wine is a very acquired taste — something that most people don't like on their first try.
Before wine making was a profession, sweet fruit was nutritious and life sustaining; bitter things were typically poisonous, or bad. Thus, the human body developed those two flavor profiles through evolution, Foulker said.
“People who are drinking dry reds and big, bold cabernets are straight up liars,” he joked. “No one ever in history has drank their first bottle of cabernet and said ‘This is the most delicious thing ever.’”
Social pressure, as it turns out, plays a big part in why red wine drinkers grow to like bold varieties like cabernet and merlot.
The same can be said for first experiences with other things, like coffee or cigarettes. Social acceptance or pressure and the positivity of an experience with wine can play a big role in what you gravitate toward.
Through repeated exposure to something and a little bit of curiosity, a white wine drinker may be able to appreciate a red.
Cedar Ridge Winery’s Nine Sixty-Five is a good entry level for white wine drinkers because of its composition, according to Foulker. Its five grape varieties, fermented and barreled separately, each bring something different to the table.
“I looked at it as a puzzle piece,” said Foulker, the creator.
Frontenac grapes bring a rich aroma. Marquette brings a black raspberry and plum profile. Smaller portions from Petite Pearl bring color and texture from tannins, and Marechal Foch adds an earthy complexity.
Merlot, imported from California, adds structure to the wine that hearty Midwest grapes can’t do well.
Unlike what you may expect from red wines, Nine Sixty-Five won’t leave a fuzzy feeling on your teeth and tongue — something that comes from the tannins and is controlled by how long the skin of the grape is left in before being removed.
The science behind it
Fermentation in wine happens pretty quickly — within roughly two to three weeks. The rest of what makes a wine is determined during the aging process. At Cedar Ridge, many wines are aged in their barrel for at least 11 months, and each batch has to be played by ear.
“The wine tells you how it needs to be made,” Foulker said. “The goal is to be consistent. Mother Nature is never the same each year.”
The color of wine is 100 percent derived from the grape skin. The longer a wine sits with skins while fermenting, the more pigment is extracted. The skin is also the source of wine texture, bitterness and tannins.
Though reds can have more oakiness to them, they tend to be smoother because of how long their grapes stay on the vines. The longer a grape is on the vine, the more its acidity drops.
For this reason, white wines (higher in acid) make you salivate more, swallow faster and set you up to want to drink more. Though there’s no defining characteristic of Iowa wine yet, sweet white wine is much more abundant in the Midwest due to the types of grapes that grow well here.
Barrel aging in toasted barrels allows the wine to grab sugars from the wood and permits oxygenation. The tighter the grain of an oak, the slower oxygenation happens. French oak can add banana and tropical notes, Hungarian oak adds spice and American oak adds a toasty flavor, according to Foulker.
“With wine, it’s a tighter grain (of oak), so not as much oxygen inside the wood,” Foulker said. “That slowly adds minute amounts of oxygen to wine, softening it up and adding depth. Otherwise it will be too loud and people won’t enjoy it.”
Stainless steel barrels are used for brighter, fruitier white wines.
Want more fruit?
If you’re in the mood for fruit, another Marion winery offers a dozen unique options grown without grapes.
Cherry Meadow Winery’s Onomatopoeia semisweet wines offer simple but distinct flavors like lime, apple crisp, blueberry, cherry, and orange and white chocolate that leave little guesswork in finding notes.
Most flavors are true to the taste of the fruit — not like artificial versions some tasters may be accustomed to.
“We’re completely different,” said owner Heidi Liegl. “What they need to look for when they’re tasting here is different from what they’re looking for (from other wineries.)”
Unlike fruit wine offerings at the Amana Colonies, she said her semisweet wine will allow you to taste the fruit before the sugar.
“Fruit wines require some sugar, it’s the nature of the beast,” she said — making it a point to not overpower the fruit flavor with sugar.
With higher alcohol content than most white wines, they’re also suitable to make spritzers.
What I learned
What I expected to learn from my wine tasting experience were the intricacies of how to define the notes of wine without peeking at the label. Not always, but that was OK. I was able to pick out what the wine reminded me of — smells of places I’d visited, foods I’d eaten or experiences that the taste brought to the forefront.
What I did walk away with was a new appreciation for wines outside of my comfort zone that made me more likely to try them — and, dare I say, like them — in the future.
When I ventured for a pour of Cedar Ridge Winery's Nine Sixty-Five to see what it tasted like and the science behind what Foulker could have talked hours about, I asked for a "tiny bit," thinking I would struggle to swallow.
But thanks to the pleasant experience of trying it without the pressure of having to say I liked it, I actually didn't mind. And the more I savored it, the more overpoweringly sweet I found other wines I would have normally gravitated toward.
As I sampled each of the red wine elements that comprise Nine Sixty-Five straight from the barrel, I started to understand what others enjoyed in red wine, after all. The dry grip on the tongue and earthy flavors made sense.
So when it comes to drinking wine, the lesson I learned is that it's OK to drink what you like. Simple as that. Wine preference is simply a matter of taste.
Iowa’s hiking and bike trails may be better known, but Iowa also has a handful of Iowa Wine Trails you might want to become familiar with. So grab some friends — and maybe a designated driver — and plan a trip on one of six Iowa Wine Trails. Get an Iowa Wine and Beer Passport and get it stamped along the way to enter various drawings. The trails are:
The Iowa Wine Trail: this trail leads you along the upper Mississippi River Valley wine region in Eastern Iowa. Along the trail you will find wineries in Baldwin, Bankston, Decorah, Marquette, Guttenberg, Fredericksburg, West Branch, DeWitt and Waukon.
The Heart of Iowa Wine Trail: Experience nine wineries in central Iowa — from Iowa Falls in the north to Indianola in the south with stops along the way in Saint Charles, Des Moines, Adel, Madrid, Cambridge and Melbourne.
Scenic Rivers Wine Trail: Enjoy the rolling hills and Mississippi River on this trail that leads you through Burlington, Donnellson, Keota, Batavia and Wapello.
I-80 Wine Trail: Be sure an detour off the interstate to check out these wineries, all located within 15 minutes of the interstate in or near Minden, Adel, Des Moines, Sully, Marengo, Iowa City, West Branch, Tipton and Le Claire.
Western Iowa Wine Trail: Check out the wineries in southwest Iowa near Minden, Treynor and Glenwood.
Loess Hills District Wine Trail: Sample wines along the Loess Hills National Scenic Byway on this trail. You’ll visit Glenwood, Treynor, Minden and Ida Grove.
Source: Travel Iowa
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