How cooking improves your wine tasting abilities

Through tasting more and learning more about tasting wine, I have continued to improve my wine tasting abilities and experiences.  Yet, I was always surprised how many of my chef friends seemed to have a better palate than mine.  I assumed it was because they were super tasters (people with significantly more taste buds and lower sensitivity to certain tastes) than me.  I attributed their skills to their in-born capabilities.  My wife was taking cooking lessons several years ago and I was highly supportive because I was benefiting from eating better at home.  We ate better, more healthily and far less expensively now at home than when eating out (except for a few known restaurants that are among our favorites).

I decided to follow my wife’s lead and took about 10 cooking lessons myself, including a 6-part beginners course for ‘blokes,’ a knife skills lesson, a pasta making lesson, and a Christmas dinner banquet lesson (including ham and turkey).  But it was really practicing making meals from beginning to end at home that opened my nose and palate to being able to smell and taste many more flavors and with greater sensitivity.  What became apparent to me was importance of sauces, spices, and all the ingredients necessary to alter or enhance the flavors of the primary ingredients be they meat, fish or vegetables.  Noticing what a teaspoon of paprika (or smoked paprika), saffron, chili flakes (or freshly cut chilies) or nutmeg could do to enhance flavors became noticeable.  Understanding why chopped basil worked better than mint or parsley (or Spanish onions better than spring onions) in certain circumstances also became apparent.

Cooking spices 2

By learning to understand and appreciate various flavors, I was able to more immediately determine when to drink a softer, more versatile wine such as a Verdelho over a Pinot Gris (or vice versus) with the meal, or a sharper, edgier wine such as a Riesling or Sauvignon Blanc worked better.  What I really noticed though was that instead of being able to match up broad categories of wines with food, I was now able to much more easily ‘micro-match’ a wine style with a particular meal.  I was able to determine which  sub-category (young or aged Semillon, for example) and sub-style (Hunter Valley versus Barossa Valley Shiraz) and determine which wine more uniquely was a better match with food, even to the level of individual wine makers (a young Andrew Thomas Semillon versus a Tyrrell’s Johnno Semillon) and vintages.

Most people believe they are limited in their ability to taste and appreciate good wine (and often as a result, buy wine based on price, thinking a higher price is better quality), but this is simply not true.  There are rare exceptions of people who were born or through a severe illness, have lost the ability to smell.   However, for the most part and within usable tolerances, almost every one of us is able to with a high degree of accuracy be able to smell and taste wine.  Through practice and learning, any one of us can influence our abilities to taste and enjoy wine more so than through our natural abilities.  And by learning some basics of cooking and what ingredients are used to make meals, you can learn much more quickly.

“Learning to cook has improved my ability to taste wine more than any other activity over the last several years!”

My book Wine Sense helps you understand how to train and use all of your senses to improve your wine tasting experiences.  But on its own, learning to cook (even a little as in my case) has greatly improved my ability to smell and taste.  I am able to much more quickly identify flavors and nuances and determine why I like one wine over another with a particular meal, whereas before I would have thought they tasted pretty much the same.  Do not limit your ability to enjoy wine far more than you currently do, and make learning to cook an important part of that training.


Steve Shipley, author Wine Sense, out early 2014. Published by InkIT Publishing
© 2013.  Steve Shipley
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Wine and soapy glassware do not mix!

I have learned a great deal about wine over the last fifteen years and take my wine drinking seriously.  But from time to time, I make a stupid mistake.  In my upcoming book, Wine Sense(s), I discuss the importance of rinsing glassware thoroughly so as to not leave any food odors or soap films on the glasses or decanters.  Unfortunately, I did just that and poured a $200 bottle of wine into a decanter which I did not realize had a leftover soap film from the last time I cleaned it!  Ugh!  What a waste and what to do?

I was leaving the wine to decant, then poured a glass for me to have.  I returned the rest of the wine into its original bottle and stoppered it to keep it fresh for the rest of tonight and tomorrow.  It was not until I was rinsing out (without any soap) the decanter that I realized it had a soap film from the last time I cleaned it.  Such a shame and such a waste.  I went to give the decanter a good rinse with plain hot water and all of a sudden, I was pouring out soap bubbles!  There was not much soap, but it did have a number of bubbles and I had to give it a really good rinse to get it clean.  Unfortunately by then, the damage had been done.


The brick purple color was dulled slightly from the soap and it appeared to have just a touch of grey to it.  More importantly, I could taste that the wine was a bit off, even though the underlying flavors were still evident and huge.  Still since I am having it with a spicy, hot red Thai beef curry, I am going to drink this wine (or some of it).  And I feel I need to do that as penance for my mistake and to cement the lesson learned.  I want to never, ever make this mistake again!  It is still an excellent wine, if not a bit soapy.  Interestingly enough, the tactile sensation via  mouth feel is the same or possibly even slightly enhanced by the soap!  But the aftertaste and finish is not what it should be.

I continue to learn and want to pass those learnings onto others.  More and more in talking to the people at Riedel and others, I have heard them tell us that (1) do not clean glasses with soap between courses of a meal; there is nothing better than alcohol (from the previous glass of wine) for cleaning your glasses followed by a rinse of water, and (2) glasses and decanters are dishwater safe.  I am now going to follow their advice.  I have been washing all of my glasses and decanters by hand and also using too much soap.  From now on, I will look to clean them with no or very little soap and then rinse them or use an alcohol spray to disinfect and clean them (this is what most restaurants do), and for larger gatherings, will now use the dishwasher to clean and THOROUGHLY rinse my glasses and decanters.

I made a large mistake this evening and hope to never repeat it.  Feeling bad as SAZ in the Cellar!


Steve Shipley, author Wine Sense, out early 2014. Published by InkIT Publishing
© 2013.  Steve Shipley
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Storing wine once the bottle has been opened

Opening a bottle of wine changes its taste dramatically over a few hours and accelerates in next day or two exponentially.  This is due to massively more air that the wine comes in contact with after opening as compared to the very little it has experienced while sealed and laid down in the cellar.

During the time in the bottle, only about 5 – 10 ml of air space exists in a 750 ml bottle of wine for the wine to mature by interacting with the air.  With cork, a few more ml seeps through each year (through evaporation of wine) to continue to help the wine mature.  If there is a cork problem, though, and a lot of air is leaking into the bottle, the wine will mature far too quickly and not be drinkable.  For this same reason, once opened and exposed to much more air, the bottle will become undrinkable after a few days.

Unless you are going to drink the entire bottle over several hours, you need to concern yourself with preventing as much air as possible from interacting with the wine to decelerate the ruin of the wine.  There are several ways of storing wine:

  • Stick the original cork back in to stopper the wine bottle (keeps wine good for about 1 – to 1.5 days)
  • Use a simple consumer manual rubber stopper and vacuum pump set to extract excess air from the bottle (keeps wine good for 2 – 3 days)
  • Use a commercial pump and storage 2-bottle set (keeps wine good for 4 – 6 days) 
  •  Use a carbon dioxide, nitrogen, and argon gas replacement system  that is completely closed sealed (keeps wine good for up to 2 – 3 weeks)

After decanting wine for the right period of time, it is important to get the wine back into a bottle and stopper it as soon as possible.  While several minutes to several hours (in most cases) of decanting will improve the wine, anything after that will only help the wine deteriorate and turn into vinegar.  To slow this process down to ensure you can finish the bottle of wine prior to it going off, you need to minimize its interaction with air to the least amount of time possible.

Every time you open the bottle again to pour another glass, you are letting new air into the bottle, and as the bottle of wine empties, the amount of new air introduced increases, which quickens the pace of deterioration.  Therefore, it is important to stopper the bottle immediately again once you have finished pouring to minimize any excess air in the bottle.  This is why vacuuming the air out and replacing it with a gaseous blend is the most effective way to keep wine fresh for several weeks.

If the cork is still intact or you still have the screw top after opening the bottle, you can use it to stopper the wine.  While there is no expense to this method, the wine will worsen overnight and not be as drinkable the following day, or at least certainly not drinkable by the second day following opening.  If the bottle has been left half empty overnight, you have introduced a lot of new air into the wine which will quickly deteriorate it.  This approach can be used successfully for keeping a bottle of wine fresh for several hours or maybe from afternoon until evening, but I never would use it to store a half-empty bottle overnight.  I use this approach when I have decanted a fine wine for several hours, then re-bottle it to bring to a restaurant within the next hour or so.

The most cost effective way to store wine and keep it drinkable for one or two more days is to use a vacuum pump and cork set.  These tend to cost around $20 – $25 for a pump and a few stoppers and you can buy more stoppers if required.  This uses a special artificial stopper with small holes and one-way openings.  The pump is used to extract as much air as possible and create a vacuum in the bottle.  This significantly reduces the amount of air in contact with the wine and slows the deterioration process, extending the life of the wine by another day or two.

I have a vacuum pump set and have found this to be great value.  For only $20 – $25, you will save many quarter- to half-bottles of wine for another day and over time this can mean keeping thousands of dollars of wine drinkable.  Since it is just my wife and I usually at home for dinner, we may not drink more than a half bottle or little more during any evening.  We will usually have two or three bottles opened at a time, as our mood changes or as we have a snack or meal.  Using the vacuum pump and stopper method keeps several bottles fresh and available to provide us with good choice.

Additionally, when we have larger dinner parties, we will have eight or ten bottles of wine we want to serve upon arrival, with each food course, and for after dinner.  But you are never sure how many people are going to be drinking (one night a friend who we did not know was pregnant was not drinking, for example), and we may have already decanted several of the finer wines, so we might have three or four partial bottles left over at the end of the night.  By using this vacuum pump, we can then keep and drink the partial bottles over the next few days.

The vacuum pump set is a great option for the money.  However, the technology is more limited than with the next higher up commercial model.  Sometimes the rubber stopper seal will be nudged (possibly even upon removal of the pump) and let air re-enter into the bottle.  (You can tell if this has occurred when you open the bottle and there is no popping of the vacuum.  If there is a definite vacuum breakage popping sound, then you know it was sealed properly.)  If this occurs, you should make sure to drink the rest of the wine right away, or you risk it going bad over another day.  If the seal has remained intact, you may be able to get another day of good drinking from the wine.  Unfortunately, there is really nothing you can do to determine if the seal is intact or not until you open it again.  I just try to be very careful to remove the pump from the stopper after pumping by lifting it straight up.  But the seal also may break sometime during the night based on the opening of the bottle.  Based on bottle type, there may be some small differences in the diameter of the bottle opening, causing the seal to be more fragile for wider bottle openings than for narrower ones.  Additionally, if there is some residual wine liquid on the neck where the stopper has been inserted, then there may be some slippage and the seal could break.

The next day or day after, you will have noticed some changes in the taste of the wine.  It is usually smoother (which can be a pleasant improvement if it was tight when you opened it), but you have usually lost some of the grape fullness of flavor.  Therefore, the wine might taste slightly less robust.  After a couple of days, it may even taste ‘dead’ or totally flat using the vacuum pump method of storage.

The next higher up option for wine storage after opening the bottle comes in a small refrigerated unit that has two compartments to hold two different bottles.  Each bottle has a pumping and extraction capability and for most models, each bottle can be stored at a standard white wine or red wine temperature.  Each compartment is set separately you can either store two whites, or two reds, or one of each at the right temperature.
This more commercial option cost between $500 – $700 based on the features and technology provided, but they all work basically the same.  They also require being placed close to an electric outlet.  This technology provides a better seal and air extraction system than the manual vacuum pump which is why it provides several more days of storage without noticeable change in the quality of the wine.  I have considered buying such a system, but I have not yet, as I have very few bottles that would require five or six days of storage.  Additionally, I have not been entirely comfortable with the value point of the technology.  I expect more competition in this field, with improved quality and durability and a lower price in the near future.  I am open to buying such a system, but have not done so yet.  I keep monitoring this type of device though to see what is available and if it is coming to a value point where I am comfortable purchasing one.

The top of the line unit to store opened bottles costs several thousand dollars and can be configured to store as many bottles as you like.  They typically come in a configuration to store four bottles, but can be customized to store less or more.  Additionally, they can be provided as a counter top unit or designed to be built into the wall or cabinetry.  Wine features such as this type of storage unit plus Vintec or other manufacturer’s cellar units are now being featured as key aspects of kitchen renovations.  I love things that are very functional and very stylish and this type of system fits both characteristics!

These systems are manufactured as closed systems where a tight seal is provided for each bottle.  They typically have temperature control to be able to adjust the temperature to be suitable for a certain type of wine (sparkling versus white versus red).  They have much higher quality parts and are custom assembled to suit your needs.  I am hopeful to get such a unit someday when I have the money and also know that I will be living in that house for a long, long time.  They will allow a wine to be opened and drunk over several weeks. The reason they work so well is that they ensure air cannot creep into the space in the bottle as the air has been replaced with carbon dioxide, nitrogen and argon.  By doing so, oxidation has been reduced drastically, preserving the quality of the wine longer.

There are a number of suitable options to keep your wine as fresh as you need it once you have opened the bottle.  They come at different value points and vary based on how long you would typically need to keep bottles opened before finishing them.  The important thing is to always stopper the bottle with one method or another as soon as you can and to extract as much air as you can from the bottle.  This will slow the rate of deterioration and preserve your wine at a level enjoyable for drinking for a longer period of time.


Steve Shipley, author Wine Sense, out early 2014. Published by InkIT Publishing
© 2013.  Steve Shipley
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French versus American Oak – is there a winner?

I have noticed recently a bit of wine competition going on.  Of course, living in Australia and having a place in The Hunter Valley, I have my favorites and will defend them to the death.  But I am a pretty open-minded guy who loves to continue to taste new experiences and continuously learn about new and different things.

Next Friday I am going to a ‘Best of USA versus Australia’ wine tasting and four-course meal in Melbourne.  What a great night that will be!  Its only $150 per head and the 13 wines and food look magnificent.  If you are interested, I would love to see you there.  Contact Top Australian Wines or just order tickets online.

And this weekend, I will be watching the movie Bottle Shock, which is the 1976 competition between French and Napa Valley wines, which is entitled as it is because of the shock that the Americans came out on top.

But the focus of this blog post is the comparison between wines stored in French Oak and wines stored in American Oak.  The difference is mostly two-fold in terms of the effect it has on wine.  French Oak is a tighter grain with the American Oak being courser.  And American Oak has twice to four times the amount of lactones, which provide sweeter and stronger, yet different vanilla overtones.  I had a rare opportunity to compare the exact same wine using the same grapes and from the same vintage stored in both French and American Oak, the wine being the 2008 Rothvale Chardonnay.  Both wines were magnificent!  If I remember correctly, I spent about $22 per bottle for these wines and only bought four of each.  This is the first time I have tried either one as I had been waiting for the right moment to compare both.  My bride, DAZ in the Kitchen, felt the wines would go well with a cheese platter this afternoon and also go well with the mushroom soup we are making this evening.

We sampled and greatly enjoyed both wines.  They are truly spectacular and drink like $50 – $75 bottles of Chardonnay.  Both wines have some similar characteristics:

  • Exact same ingredients and stored in respective oak barrels for 9 months
  • Both have a smooth mouth feel, almost velvety
  • Both are bright yellow, turning golden in color
  • Both are very easy to drink and of extremely high quality

Yet, there are some noticeable differences.  The 2008 Rothvale Chardonnay in French Oak was:

  • More elegant and beautifully balanced
  • Edgier, and slightly more acidic, more lemon citrus flavored
  • Purer, subtler vanilla taste
  • Taste like a typical Montrachet

Whereas the 2008 Rothvale Chardonnay in American Oak was:

  • More in-your-face vanilla flavoring but courser
  • Sweeter, honey-like taste plus smoked almond taste as secondary flavors
  • Richer, more robust flavor overall, but not as integrated or balanced as the French Oak

I would have to give a slight nod to the 2008 Rothvale Chardonnay in French Oak as the better drinking wine today, but I am pretty certain that the 2008 Rothvale Chardonnay in American Oak will drink better in several years time.  I just hope I have a few bottles of each left by then to prove the point!  I am definitely stopping by the winery tomorrow to see if there is any of the 2008 Chardonnays left or if there is an even better vintage since where the Rothvale Chardonnay has been stored in both the French and American Oak.

I have limited experience with great Montrachets, but have certainly been drinking more of them recently and truly enjoy a great Montrachet.  I was under the impression that the characteristics of the individual Montrachets had to do with the locale and soil conditions and I have noticed the differences between a Puligny-Montrachet and a Chassagne-Montrachet.  I thought the difference characters unfolding in the wine were mostly the results of the grapes being in different locations.  But after comparing the Hunter Valley Chardonnay in both French and American Oak, I can understand how impactful the French Oak is in making any Chardonnay (of very good grapes) taste like a Montrachet.

I greatly look forward to drinking both of these wines with the mushroom soup we are making this evening to see if either goes better than the other with the soup.  Hats off to Rothvale on making great wines using both French and American Oak!


Steve Shipley, author Wine Sense, out early 2014. Published by InkIT Publishing
© 2013.  Steve Shipley
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Tasting, not Drinking – Intoxication, not Drunkenness

Many people drink for the sheer ‘pleasure’ of getting drunk.  I don’t understand that, or why becoming drunk would even be an objective for anyone, but I have seen it occur many times.  I gave up hard alcohol by the time I was 30 because I could not handle it, nor did I enjoy it.  I still drink the occasional beer, especially on a hot summer day, but beer bloats me if I have more than a few.

Wine is my drink of choice for many reasons, and I almost exclusively drink wine now.  I have never been drunk from wine, nor would I want to be.  I enjoy drinking wine for the taste and flavor and for its diversity of grapes and styles.  I can drink multiple wines in an evening, and sharing time and food along with the wine with friends for a great experience.

But I ‘taste’ my wine, not indiscriminately drink it.  I take the time to swirl it to open the bouquet and increase the pleasure of nosing it, fulfilling my sense of smell.  I then pour it onto my palate and experience the taste as it impacts my taste buds – but I do not swallow immediately!  I enjoy the wine as it warms up further in my mouth, releasing more new flavors and sensory (if not sensual!) perceptions.  I let my tongue and taste buds pick up on the sweetness, bitterness, or whatever flavors it finds.  I might keep the wine in my mouth for 1 – 3 minutes before actually swallowing it!

I also love to match up wine with foods, or just chocolates or cheeses, and having some food nourishment along the way helps to reduce the impact of alcohol also.

This process and experience intoxicates me, and it constrains me from getting drunk.  I drink less because I get more flavor and satisfaction out of each sip of wine and I slow down the amount I drink over any period.  This is similar to the advice of chewing your food 25 times before swallowing.  You pick out much more flavor and nourishment from your food, become more satisfied and ultimately, eat less.

Drunkenness is not a state I enjoy during or after drinking, and I avoid it.  Avoiding drunkenness comes easily for me since I taste my wine while drinking and before swallowing, combine it with food which further absorbs and disperses the alcohol content, and enjoy it and let it satiate me along the way.

I recommend you do the same.  You will enjoy your wine far more and treat your body far better along the journey!  Remember to taste, not drink (or guzzle) your wine to become intoxicated, not drunk!


Steve Shipley, author Wine Sense, out early 2014. Published by InkIT Publishing
© 2013.  Steve Shipley
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Do you suffer from palate fatigue?

Is is possible to have ruined your palate and not be able to discern the taste and quality of the wines you are tasting?  The answer is a resounding, “Yes.”

Several years ago, we spent ten straight days at The Hunter Valley and we tasted a lot of wine.  I was quite enamored by the 2007 Hunter Valley Shiraz’ (and I still am) and we tasted a lot of them, in addition to expanding our search for some more aged Semillons and some good Australian Verdelhos.  We were relentless in our pursuit.

However, by Day 7 onwards, I really was not liking much of what I was drinking, and thought some of the wines were down-right tainted.  The combination of sampling wines every morning and afternoon and having wine with all dinners and most lunches, I had simply overloaded and ruined my palate!  We may have sampled over 300 wines during that trip!

It was only two to four months later that when trying some of the same wines, that I realized how great a few of them I thought tainted were.  In particular, I had passed over the 2006 Seppelts St Peters Shiraz (not all wines we were tasting were Hunter Valley Shiraz BTW!) as not being suitable, but when I tasted it again several months later, I realized how spectacular a wine this is.  I could not believe this and several other wines I had rated as insufferable only a few months earlier.

Not that I need to worry about this, but people who exercise regularly find they still need to take at least a day off every week to allow their muscles to recover and build.  And the same is true with wine tasting.  During our ten day trip to the Hunter, I had accumulated so much tannin on the inside of my cheeks and had saturated my palate so thoroughly that I could not discern readily one taste from another.  My palate had been ruined from excessive tasting.  Fortunately, it came right once again.

I drink a glass or two of wine almost daily.  I love drinking wine for several reasons, including that I love the taste, I love the experience of drinking a good glass of wine with a good meal and sharing a glass with friends, and I also find it lifts my spirits and attitude and helps me think, write and do other mental and emotional activities better.  But if I do not take a break of a day or two every now and then, I get to the point where I notice my palate is not working at 100%.  And this will diminish your wine tasting experience.

This is a rare situation where I am writing this blog without having a glass of wine to inspire me!  And I am planning to be wine-free for a couple more days.  By doing this over the last few weeks, I have noticed my palate is functioning better and I have been able to discern far better the characteristics and quality of the wines I have been drinking.  Last night, I attended a members dinner for one of the wineries in The Hunter Valley.  They had 55 wines to sample, but I only tried about a dozen.  By not having any wine the day before and by limiting my selection, I was able to better taste and appreciate the differences and quality of each of the wines I sampled, and was far more confident in my selections (I actually did not buy any, but was confident in my assessment in passing in on them.)

Wine judges have the (enviable!) task of having to judge many wines in a given session.  However, even with spitting out all the wine, they still can suffer palate fatigue which is why they don’t judge more than a maximum of 60 – 80 wines for session.  And they keep their palates in shape and prepare for each judging by ensuring their palate is in optimal shape.  (They also make sure no mint toothpaste, lipstick or other impediments curtail their ability to taste.)

I have found my wine drinking experiences have benefited from following a few rules:

  • Take off a day or two per week from drinking any wine or other alcohol to rest and detox your palate
  • Every month or two, take a break of at least three to five days without drinking anything (or limit it to a glass during that time if you feel the need to imbibe)
  • If you are going to enjoy a great bottle or two of wine, make sure to not drink for a day or two beforehand, so your palate is in optimal shape to enjoy that truly great bottle
  • If you are going to taste or drink four to five glasses or more in any day, mix it up by having some whites and some reds and of different grapes, and follow that with a day of not drinking

I never get drunk while drinking wine.  I drink wine in a controlled manner for the taste and enjoyment and to be able to share the experience with others.  Yet, I still control my approach to wine drinking to get the most out of the experience.  If you are suffering from palate fatigue, give it a rest for a day or two!


Steve Shipley, author Wine Sense, out early 2014. Published by InkIT Publishing
© 2014.  Steve Shipley
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Twitter:  Steve Shipley @shipleyaust;   InkIT Publishing @inkitpub