Why would anyone want to taste their wine before it's done--while it's still fermenting--before it starts to taste like wine? The answer is simple: To give you a better understanding of wine, whether it be on a more superficial level as a wine consumer or on a more deep-rooted level as a winemaker.
Gaining A Unique Perspective
As a wine enthusiast, consider it a luxury that you are able to taste a wine as it develops--to experience a wine as its character is being molded. With this rare perspective on wine comes an insight and understanding that few get to experience. Even many "experts" who make their living by giving out opinions about wines they taste do not even have this type of experience with wine.
Let me change gears for a moment to make my point more clear. It would be fairly logical to assume that a person who sits and intently watches as an artist paints a beautiful scene on canvas, would gain much more insight and understanding of that painting than someone who was just studying the painting after it had been finished.
In fact, I feel it would be safe to say that the person who observed the painting in progress would be able to quickly point out certain features and nuances to the newcomer that normally one would have terrific trouble identifying on their own.
This is not because the person who observed the painting in the making is more versed in the virtues of art. This is because that person was able to see how the different colors where layered--how the artist used various techniques to produce different textures--how the painting looked before shadow and highlights where added, and so on.
And to take this analogy a step further, the person who had observed the artist at work would now be able to obtain a deeper understanding of other paintings he saw--particularly if those paintings were from the same style or genre as the painting he witnessed being created.
This same idea can be used during home wine making. By tasting a wine through its stages--while it's being produced--you gain an impression of that wine that is more defined. You will later be able to understand and identify the wine's subtle characters and complexities more clearly, and understand why they are there. More so, than someone who experiences the wine only after it has been produced and aged.
In more general terms, by experiencing various wines through their stages, you are able to gain a better understanding and appreciation for all wines. For example, when you taste a wine you have purchased, certain subtle characters may start to become more noticeable and identifiable as you relate them back to qualities you have experienced in your own wines, while they were developing.
This all adds up to an advancement in your personal understanding of wine. One that not only helps you to improve as a home winemaker, but an understanding that allows you to become more proficient as someone who appreciates wine.
What Flavors To Expect
During and right after the primary fermentation the first thing you will notice when sampling the must is that it has a lot of effervescence. This is from the CO2 that is created during the fermentation. Along with this effervescence will be a sulfur aroma. This is also a byproduct of the fermentation.
During this stage the must will usually still be very sweet, but it can be dry if the fermentation is going faster than planned. It will definitely have a rough flavor. You will also notice that the must will have a bitter to woody after taste. This is simply the wine yeast you are tasting that is still suspended throughout the wine. The yeast is also what causes the must to have a milky appearance.
After the must has been put into a secondary fermenter you will notice that it has now become drier. The yeasty bitterness will have the impression of being stronger, more zesty, in the absence of residual sugars but this character will be diminishing a little in intensity every few days.
As this yeasty bitterness diminishes you will then start to experience the development of the wine's actual character. For example, if the wine is made from grapes, you will begin to be able to tell it is a grape wine as opposed to a fruit wine.
As the wine starts to become clear, usually around 4 to 6 weeks, it will start to taste like something closer to wine, but a very young wine. It will still be somewhat harsh in flavor. The aroma may have some sulfur to bready aroma. And the appearance will start to become more translucent.
During the aging process, this is when you will see the wine's final character start to jell. With most white wines the aging process is maximized around 9 months to a year. With red wines usually 1 to 2 years.
During this long period of aging, the wine will slowly change. Features that once seemed harsh and objectionable will still be present but with less intensity and in better balance with the wine's other flavors. The milder version of these once harsh features will now contribute to the wine's overall complexity.
What To Watch Out For
As it has already been said, experiencing a wine in progress is a wonderful way to appreciate and understand a wine more thoroughly. But, examining wine in this way also has a second benefit.
After getting a couple of batches under you belt in this fashion, you will start to get a feel for when something has gone afoul as well as when it has gone right. You will learn how to more clearly discern if an odor or flavor is normal, or a potential problem.
Realize that bad symptoms are very rare. But none the less, making you aware of them can only be an advantage. What follows is a short list of some of the characters in a must or wine that may be cause for concern:
It is sometimes described as the odor of wet wood, or the smell that you encounter when you open an old dresser drawer or wooden chest. This can be an early sign of mold or mildew growth on the surface of your wine.
Vegetable Soup/Hot Butter Odor
This is a sign that the wine is being fermented in too warm of temperature. The odor is actually the result of the yeast producing higher levels of diacetyl.
This odor occurs when too little yeast is trying to do too much work. The heart of the problem is usually an unsuccessful yeast multiplying phase which occurs during the primary fermentation.
Oily/Rainbow Surface or Appearance
This is usually an early indication of mold or mildew. Usually caused by an unsuccessful or lagging primary fermentation and/or unsanitary conditions.
Vinegar Flavor or Aroma
Very simply your wine may be slowly turning to wine vinegar. This is a symptom that does not occur until the wine has started to age, as vinegar production takes several weeks. This also may be caused by a slow starting fermentation and/or unsanitary conditions.
Carmel/Nutty Odor or Flavor
This would be an indication of oxidation. In other words the wine is being exposed to to much air. This symptom does not normally occur until the aging process. This odor is considered normal for Madera, Port and Sherry wines.
Again, please realize that these odors and flavors rarely occur. Most winemakers will never experience any of them in a lifetime. But by detecting them early when they do occur, a correct fix can often be made.
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