Wine is the most sensual of sips. To fully appreciate any wine, we use four of our five senses: to look at its color and depth of hue, sniff its aromas, taste its flavors and feel its texture. (I bet that a big reason behind popping corks, clinking glasses and burbling conversation is to fill in the fifth sense of hearing.)
As I write this, I have alongside a glass of an admittedly superlative (it's $250 a bottle), massively sensual wine, the 2010 Joseph Drouhin Clos de Vougeot, a French red Burgundy made of pinot noir. I'll use it to take us on a tour of the senses.
Seeing wine: The best way to get a good look at a glass of wine is to hold it by its stem and to look down through the bowl at the wine's color.
The depth of color can indicate how much a wine promises in intensity of both aroma and taste. Its hue may also speak its age: with white wines, from youthful green-tinged straw to older tawny golds; with reds, from early magenta to the brick reds of maturity.
With pinot noir, such as this Vougeot, it's always surprising how faint of color it can be. Despite that this wine is a lofty grand cru of Burgundy, it sports barely enough pigment to darken it into carmine red. The surprise comes when you take a good sniff of it, and this limpid, diaphanous wine transports nearly all the perfumes of nature.
Smelling wine: The sense of smell is crucial to taste; no smell, no taste, as when you get a "code in your node." Smell largely accounts for wine tasting so good.
Smell is the strongest and most primitive of our senses. Its power is such that the mere mention of certain words — "roasting turkey," for example, or "orange peel" — triggers these smells though the objects aren't anywhere around.
Solid, strong draughts of this Drouhin Vougeot — I sniff deeply for five or six seconds — shows where this wine plays strongest with a sense. Its aromas fairly jump from the glass, first as scents of fruits such as dark cherries or (yes!) those forest raspberries carefully plucked from a briar bush, then whispers of wet seasoned wood, moist black earth and "dark" smells such as smoke and coffee, and then longer on in the sniff's last moments there are wisps of herb and vanilla.
A good Vougeot is always richly perfumed, as is this one, but in an insinuating way; it never blares, though the scent is strong. Often, red Burgundy so captivates that it's a knotty decision to pull it away from the nose to take a taste.
Tasting wine: A sip of wine and then a thorough slosh of it around the mouth allow our hundreds of taste receptors to do their jobs.
Tastes ought to confirm what you've already smelled and, consequently, might cover an enormous range of flavors. Remember, most of what you taste is, in fact, what you've already smelled, now in the ingestion seconded by the rear nasal cavity.
In this Vougeot, no sugar remains after fermentation, though the fruit is "sweet," juicing the palate and swaddling the tongue in flavor. It is that same panoply already smelled, all along the flavors of bright and dark.
As for the major tastes of acid, sweetness and bitterness, wines are either sweet with sugar, a little sweet or "dry" (not sweet). They're framed by tangy acidity (or not). Tannins, the astringent feeling you get with many red wines, as if a tea bag had been steeped in them for too long, can be harsh, chewy, soft or barely present.
Tannins taste a bit bitter, in the way that the skin inside a walnut shell tastes (and feels); it's a pleasant bitterness, a taste that "closes" the other tastes.
Feeling wine: It may seem strange to say so, but wine is a very tactile beverage. For example, wine's acidity gives it a "frame" or an edge. The opposite of acidity also is a feeling: A wine that is flat or dull.
Alcohol, extract, sugar or glycerol, in varying degrees, can make a wine plump, viscous or round, or thin, weak or ephemeral. Tannins give a wine grip and aggression, or puffiness or chalkiness. Those are tactile sensations.
The tongue is like a scale when it drinks. It "weighs" wine. Some wines come flitting through the mouth like a stream of spilled poppy seeds. Others roll through, as big and important as Schwarzeneggers.
This 2010 Joseph Drouhin Clos de Vougeot is perfect pinot noir; for a wine of this caliber, that is its point. But it's especially perfect pinot noir from Vougeot: an electric poise between both power and finesse. Power: persistence of aroma and flavor, waves of fruit. Finesse: cuddling tannins, a voluptuous, silken texture.
The wine is young, a bit raw, its finish after a swallow slightly grating. But that is as it should be at this stage. Like a prodigal child, that gangling annoyance also is its promise.
If your wine store does not carry these wines, ask for one similar in style and price.
Bill St John has been writing and teaching about wine for more than 40 years.