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 Learn wine by tasting ... tea? A newspaper story from a smallish California town inspires an instructive new way of looking at wine tasting.
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Learn wine by tasting ... tea?

When circumstances dictate that you have a non-alcoholic drink with dinner - or (yes, it happens) in the event you're simply not in the mood for wine - what's your beverage of choice?

Beer, water, fruit juice, coffee tea or milk ... an argument can be made for just about any tasty fluid. But when I'm looking for a beverage that will provide just about everything I enjoy in wine except the high-octane, my choice is clear: Quality, fresh-brewed tea - either hot or iced - is the winner by a healthy margin.

The single non-alcoholic beverage most like wine is tea, because - except for the alcohol - tea brings us many similar sensory perceptions. Just like wine, fresh tea offers complex fragrances that are typically fruity and floral, that vary depending on the variety of tea leaves and the way they are harvested and processed. Tea arguably even expresses terroir ... distinctive flavors that reflect where the tea leaves were grown.

Tea, like wine, may range from light to full-bodied; and tea, like red wine, boasts an appealing, puckery astringency that's the result of tannins. Add lemon to your tea to adjust its acidity; put in sugar, and you alter its sweetness. Introduce a splash of milk to mellow the tannins and make a fuller-bodied drink.

I've made these points about tea before, but I frankly had never thought of using tea to learn basic wine tasting until I spotted an article this week in the Paradise Post in Paradise, Calif., north of Sacramento.

In "A beginner's guide to wine tasting," Chico, Calif., wine shop owner Brenda McLaughlin, who teaches wine tasting through the local Butte College Community Education, told reporter Valerie Lum that she begins her class on identifying basic wine elements by pouring her students cups of steaming tea.

"That's right," wrote Lum. "McLaughlin said people are sometimes surprised when she brings out four different teas: one plain black, one with a little sugar, one with a little lemon and one with a little milk. McLaughlin said the different teas help sharpen the palates of beginning taste testers, so they can learn to identify the major components of wine, and determine what makes their mouths happy."

The short article didn't go into detail, but it's not hard to "reverse-engineer" a tea tasting to give novice tasters a crash course in basic elements of wine.

  • Brew a pot of strong black tea and pour each taster four hot cups (or four iced glasses)
  • Leave one plain, and dose one each with lemon, sugar and milk.
  • Sniff, taste and think, very much as you would with wine.
  • In the plain cup, try to discern the delicate aromas and flavors. Depending on the tea, you may find citrus, other fruit, floral aromas or even tar and smoke.
  • Compare the plain cup with the lemon-dosed sample and see how a dash of lemon confers acidity ... a tangy, mouth-watering quality that provides an almost physical sense of structure in the drink.
  • Try the sweetened cup, and think of "off-dry" wine. How does the version with sugar differ from the unsweetened cup? Does sugar simply make the drink sweet, or does it change the tea's flavor profile in unexpected other ways?
  • Finally, taste the tea with milk. Note how the "lactic" dairy element softens the tannic astringency of the straight tea, and think of malolactic fermentation that softens the sharper acidic character of wines.

Congratulations! You've completed the course. Now try it again with green tea. Or Oolong. Or even Lapsang Souchong. There's a world of tea out there, and a world of wine. Tasting tea thoughtfully can teach us surprising things about tasting wine.

This project remains a work in progress. If you try it, I hope you'll get in touch to let me know how it goes, in E-mail or by posting to the discussion in our online forum (linked below).

To read the original article in the Paradise (Calif.) Post, click "A beginner's guide to wine tasting,"

If you'd like to ask a question or comment on today's topic (or any other wine-related subject), you'll find a round-table online discussion in our interactive WineLovers Community, where you're always welcome to join in the conversations about wine.

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Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2006
Copyright 2005 by Robin Garr. All rights reserved.

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