Sam, the Big Six is a basic Robinson approach -- you see it described in her book and in her DVDs. Following are my rough notes from the intensive course I took with her at the French Culinary Institute a few weeks ago. I plan to post them here when I've got them right, but here as a working draft are notes covering the first hour and a half or so of her course which captures the essence of the teaching approach:
Andrea Robinson General Approach
Taste your way to expertise -- the only way to learn.
The tasting tool box:
Big Six Grapes
Over time you will add other words, many of which will somewhat vague; the Toolbox is a foundation.
Learn to taste
Look -- beautiful, shimmers with colors, look against a white background. White wines darken and turn brown as they age; red wines lighten and turn brown as they age. Cause: oxidation -- oxidation causes loss of fruit (like an apple). In young wines, these are the colors to look for:
Pale yellow green
Inky, dark purple
Is the wine light, medium or full. Generally, the darker the color, the fuller bodied the wine. Look down from the top to judge the differences in color.
Swirl the wine around in the glass to vaporize the alcohol. The air borne vapors carry the scent of the wine to your nose. You can taste only four [or five] flavors, but you can smell thousands of scents. The tongue senses temperature, perceives texture or mouth feel. We taste on our tongues; we find flavor through scent. Practice swirling until it is second nature.
Smell the wine. Swirl. Periodically swirl the wine as the alcohol rises. Identify whatever scents you can; experience will teach you additonal scents. Scents can unleash intense emotions and memories.
Taste the wine; take a mouthful and hold it there; swish it around -- it's not elegant but it is very revealing:
Body and texture -- richness and fullness of red wine; lightness and bubles of sparklers.
Taste -- sweetness on the tip of the tongue, bitterness on the back of the tongue; acidity on the sides of the tongue -- a bit tingly and makes your mouth water.
Flavor -- Heat in your mouth sends aromas to your smell center -- identify those you can find.
Balance -- Overall impression -- do all the components -- body, texture, flavors, sweetness, bitterness and acidity -- seem in harmony, seem pleasant?
Quality -- Did you like it? Did the flavor persist in a pleasant way. Did you like it. How much -- nice or wow.
Wine notes: take simple wine notes at first -- avoid being too specific or subjective at the beginning. Add details over time -- walk before you run.
The approach works; Robinson has taught her approach to thousands of people -- restaurant guests, sommeliers, chefs, waiters, bartenders, in a wide variety of restaurants and bars. "The light goes on every time."
The Big Six Wine Grapes -- 80% of all quality wine sold in the US. Great examples can be grown consistently in almost every great wine region in the world. And each can be made in a variety of styles -- these are the wine toddler's basic wines.
Riesling -- REES-ling, not RISE-ling.
Sauvignon Blanc -- Sow-veen-yone BLAHNK
Chardonnay -- Shahr-duh-NAY
Pinot Noir -- PEE-no NWAHR
Merlot -- Murr-LOW or Mare-LOW -- your choice -- and Cabernet Sauvignon -- Cab-uhr-NAY Sow-veen-YONE
Syrah (aka Shiraz) -- see-RAW
Tasting the Big Six
Each has a distinctive varietal tastes (in many variations).
Body -- a textual sensation -- weight, richness, thickness in the mouth.
-- skim milk -- watery, runny, skimpy, short taste -- light bodied.
-- whole milk -- thicker, richer, coats your mouth a bit, longer taste -- medium bodied.
-- heavy cream -- dense, thick, clings to your mouth, flavor hangs on -- full bodied.
Important concept in wine; easy to teach; and you can see the difference as well as sense it in the mouth.
Light Riesling Pinot Noir
Medium Savignon Blanc Merlot/Cabernet Sauvignon
Full Chadonnay Syrah/Shiraz
1. Taste all six at once -- Complete Wine Course DVD demonstrates. Works perhaps best -- good with novices and experts.
2. Taste only whites in one sitting; reds in another. Works fine too.
Taste about an ounce to an ounce and a half = average glass in a restaurant setting.
Use a spit bucket or any opaque cup.
1. Buy your wines -- Robinson has several suggestions at different price points. She urges that you buy all six at the same price point: everyday, moderate and splurge.
2. Set up six glasses on numbered paper with the names of the wines: 1 Riesling, 2 Sauvignon Blanc, 3 Chardonnay, 4 Pinot Noir, 5 Merlot/Cabernet Sauvignon, 6 Syrah/Shiraz.
3. Pour one ounce in the numbered order -- you can go back and have more of any wine you like.
4. Taste the wines in number order.
Riesling -- pale yellow green, mouth watering, refreshing light white wine -- if you pronounce it correctly -- REES-ling -- you have to smile when you say it. Many styles: Germany -- lightest body; Austria and Alsace -- tangiest flavor; California and Washington -- strongest flavor.
Sauvignon Blanc -- great every day wine, ten dollars, match many foods, usually medium bodied. Straw yellow, a little darker than the Riesling, distinctive aroma with lots of punch. Compare with the Riesling -- they are two entirely different aromas. Robinson recommends a wide range of styles from many countries. Try a variety if you like the taste.
Chadonnay -- Darker yellow-gold, full bodied aroma with lots of fruit. Richest, heaviest, best selling white in the US.
Pinot Noir -- Robinson's favorite red -- red wine flavor; white wine texture -- soft, not heavy. Feels like silk in the mouth, lightest red. Look down from the top of the glass against a white background -- you can see through it. Fragrance and flavor are subtle but seductive, luring you back to the glass.
Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon -- Top selling red varietal wine by far. Grow everywhere, good wines at every price point, consistent. Dark, inky, dark and medium to full body. Scent is stronger and more intense than Pinot Noir. Perhaps over powering for some people.
Syrah/Shiraz -- Syrah is a French classic; Shiraz the Australian version made it a major wine during the past ten years. Easy prices and vibrant flavors. Usually full bodied and dark and purple when young -- scent and flavor are big and saturated.
5. Practice, practice, practice. Lots of fun and you will learn something new every time. Robinson repeats the exercise with her waiters several times a year.
Putting flavors into words -- the most important tool is the cork screw, but ...
Four key words occur over and over again: dry, crisp, oaky and tannic. Examples come up again and again; here is a brief overview of each word. Note: fruity is not a key word because the definition varies from person to person; the concept is discussed in another section later in this presentation.
Dry -- for Robinson this word is the most frustrating; it is used in confusing ways, and very different ways for different beverages. A dry wine is one without sweetness but not one without fruitiness; a dry beer is one with slightly higher alcohol a smoother mouth feel; a dry Champagne is slightly sweet ("sec"). But, since she has to, a "dry wine means without residual sugar (left over) because in the winemaking process fermentation usually turns all the sugar in ripe grapes into alcohol. Most of the Big Six are technically dry wines. Wines with residual sugar are usually made that way to achieve a specific style:
Slightly sweet (off-dry): white zinfandel or German Riesling Kabinett.
Medium sweet: Italian Moscato d'Asti or German Spätlese and Auslese.
Very sweet: dessert wines like Port or Sauternes.
Lack of residual sugar is the winemaker's definition of dry, but it also applies to the taster. From the taster's point of view, dry is the opposite of sweet. For your tongue to taste sweetness, sugar must be present. In a dry wine, there is no perceptible sugar and thus no sweetness. Two things determine the sweetness of wine: grapes and winemaking.
Ripeness of the grapes are at harvest; normally ripe grapes normally make a dry wine because all of the sugar is converted to alcohol; overripe grapes can make a slightly sweet to a very sweet wine because not all of the sugar is converted to alcohol. Raisined grapes produce a very sweet wine because much of the water is evaporated. Finally, a mold called botrytis (bo-TRY-tiss) creates a very sweet wine (e.g. Sauterne where the mold is called pourriture noble, or noble rot).
Winemaking -- can control sweetness by stopping fermentation by lowering temperatures or increasing alcohol. The first method is used for wines with light to medium sweetness like white Zinfandel or Asti Spumante. Adding alcohol or fortifying it can add sweetness.
Crisp or crispy -- tingle, tang, tartness, zing and liveliness of acidity in wine. Very good to have in balance with other components of wine. Acidity depends on two factors: the grape and where the grapes are grown. White grapes and wines generally have more acidity than red grapes and wines; Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc grapes generally have more acidity than Chardonnay. Cooler wine regions tend to produce wines with more acidity; warmer areas produce less acidity -- as grapes ripen, acid levels fall and sugar levels rise. Acid wines taste sharper but also have a somewhat different texture:
low acidity -- soft, plump, smooth feeling in the mouth.
high acidity or crip -- an electrical charge -- tangy, tingly, mouthwatering -- the pucker from a squeeze of lemon.
[Note: the foregoing is a very rough first draft of the first hour or so of a very intensive wine course put on by Andrea Robinson at the French Culinary Institue. I plan to re-write after my notes for the whole course are typed up.]