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Thinking outside the bottle 

A wine expert rethinks wine tasting

click to enlarge Tim Hanni's new book explains wine preferences
  • Tim Hanni's new book explains wine preferences

Tim Hanni is a trained chef and Master of Wine, a certification of expertise in wine and spirits knowledge. He's also a maverick in his approach to tasting wines, questioning the premise of objective standards in scoring systems for wines. In his book Why You Like the Wines You Like he breaks down an approach that is more like a personality assessment. Hanni embraces the subjectivity of taste and has his own system of tasting profiles. He notes that experts often disagree about wines, and that has as much to do with their own physiology as the characteristics of the wine.

Why did you write this book?

Hanni: I wrote this book to disrupt the status quo. It is intended to empower wine consumers by providing a new understanding of personal wine preferences and insights into the preferences of others.

Should I pay attention to critics? If so, which ones?

H: There are so many critics out there, I recommend that wine consumers who want some guidance find a critic who seems to parallel their — the consumer's — likes and dislikes.

Should I taste blind (a tasting where the identity of the wine is unknown to the taster)?

H: Blind tasting helps to eliminate many prompts that profoundly influence our perception. This exercise also introduces new influences as well. Knowing that you are participating in a blind tasting has an enormous effect on your state of mind and on your perceptions.

How do the new fundamentals in your book define a wine's balance?

H: Balance is the subjective interrelationship between sweetness, acidity, alcohol, tannins or bitterness and intensity that provides the overall flavor profile of a wine. Good balance is determined by personal preferences and expectations.

How can I determine what kind of taster I am?

H: Sweet tasters are the most physiologically sensitive group. This group wants sweet to mask bitterness and alcohol. They add a lot of cream and sugar to their coffee, if they even drink coffee. They use a lot of salt in food, again to overwhelm bitterness. They love sweet wines that are low in alcohol, even with steak.

  Hypersensitive tasters are the largest segment of the population. They live in a sensory cacophony, are often artistic, love fragrances and strong flavors, may be prone to attention deficit disorder and are sensitive to bitter flavors and an abundance of alcohol in beverages.

  Sensitive tasters go with flow. They like coffee with moderate amounts of cream and sugar, but will take the coffee black if those additives are not available. They are compliant to a wide range of sensations but seek balance among all components. They also appreciate complex wines and consider this an important attribute. This group is the most adventurous of the tasting groups.

  Tolerant tasters: This group does not understand what all the fuss is about. They like things bigger, faster, stronger. Bottom-line oriented, tolerant tasters like big red wines, as well as Scotch, cigars and cognac. They are oblivious to high levels of tannin and alcohol.

  If you are interested to learn what kind of a wine taster you are, take the short, free self-assessment at What's the umami thing?

H: I became known as the "swami of umami" because I consider this basic aspect of taste as important as sweet, sour and bitter.

  Umami taste is a savory quality and is mainly associated with Asian cuisines. Western palates struggle with this concept because we are not taught to recognize it.   Think of an uncooked mushroom. Bite it. Now microwave the mushroom. It becomes softer, more approachable and more giving in flavors. The non-umami-glutamic acid is converted into glutamate, a more savory compound, and one we can actually taste.

  Many foods that are high in umami characteristics, such as cooked asparagus and tomatoes, become better matches with wine after the addition of salt and lemon.

How does one learn how to match wine and food? H: These are highly personal decisions. Smell and taste are completely separate and independent sensations. We perceive flavor, both taste and smell, simultaneously using other sensations that influence our perceptions — memories define what we can and cannot identify.

  Personal experiences, even emotions, contribute to the identification process. The mind uses sensory prompts, especially smells, to create an expectation for the experience to come. What you perceive is personal and cannot be replicated by another person.

  The aromatics of wine often remind us of foods such as fruits, herbs, spices and butter. You can create a great match by including ingredients in a dish that echo — and therefore emphasize — the aromas and flavors in wine.

  Given all that, you can appreciate why the best food and wine pairings have to be based on what the diner likes, maybe not some lofty opinion handed down from a third party.

Why do I like the wines I like?

H: Why you like what you like is determined by the coalescence of immediate sensations, pre-programmed intuitive responses to sensory stimuli and memories from our life experiences, all coming together in our brain.

  In the broad picture, everyone is an individual with their own tastes. We all go about the business of tasting the same way, with the overall impressions coming mainly from our sense of smell. That is followed by the limited sense of taste we individually possess in varying levels of strength.

  Strongly coupled with the actual act of tasting are other factors, such as what kind of a mood are we in, what types of surroundings are we in and who are we with.

  At a fun social surrounding, we may find a wine we are just crazy about, and a few days later at a tense business dinner try it again and wonder, "What was I thinking?"

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