Wine Tasting for … People

Professional Wine Competition

Many people I’ve spoken with start their wine conversation with something along the lines of “I’m not a professional” or “I’m just an amateur” and my response is always that it really doesn’t matter. Everyone is equipped with a mouth, taste buds, olfactory receptors, and a brain to process the sensory data. Are some people better than others at identifying aromas and flavors? Maybe. Arguably, it’s just a matter of training. But does it really matter in the end? I don’t think so.

Many experiments have been undertaken that show that most people can’t tell the difference between a $2 plonk wine and a $100 Grand Cru Classé when tasted blind. But an experiment started in 2005 by a US winemaker tested the judges at one of California’s oldest and well-respected competition: the California State Fair wine competition. These judges consist of wine professionals: oenologists, academics, sommeliers, winemakers and so on. Essentially, judges would taste entered wines as usual, but some wines would be offered to the judges three times (from the same bottle) without their knowledge. The scores of the triple-tasted wines would then be analyzed to determine whether the scoring was statistically significant, and it proved dire for the judges: Only about 10% of the judges were consistent, and even they were consistent one year but not necessarily the next. The experimenter goes on to state that even if some individual tasters are exceptional in their ability to taste and judge a wine, when they are presented with 100 wines, the sheer number is overwhelming and effectively negates their ability.

So what is that makes wine so difficult to judge blindly? In short, it is the immense complexity of it. An analysis done by Dr. Bryce Rankine, an Australian oenologist, revealed that wine contains 27 distinct organic acids, 24 types of alcohol, over 80 esters and aldehydes, and a long list of vitamins and minerals to rival that of a multi-vitamin pill. All of these and more play a role in shaping a wine’s flavor profile. But, at the most basic level, people can evaluate wines based on the balance between three qualities: sweetness, sourness, and bitterness. Think of these as the structure (canvas) on which the shapes and colors (the wine’s flavors) are painted. Just as primary colors can be mixed to create a wide range of colors in a painting, the vast number of aromatic compounds in various concentrations play a role in characterizing a particular wine’s aromatic profile, and to complicate things further, different people have different detection thresholds to any one of those aromatic compounds. I may be more sensitive to TCA (trichloroanisole – the compound responsible for cork taint) than a colleague and will detect it at smaller concentrations, whereas she could be more sensitive to linalool, a monoterpene that is largely responsible for a wine’s flowery or citrus character. All this to simply say that, just as one’s appreciation of a work of art is largely subjective, the same can be said about one’s appreciation of wine.

Dr. James Hutchinson, a wine expert at the Royal Society of Chemistry, says that human beings’ olfactory system has the complexity in place in terms of receptors to identify the majority of wine aromas, but the brain is not always up to the task. This implies that with training and experience, one can more easily identify and judge a wine’s aromatic profile. But physiologically the aromas are being detected, and the brain can probably process the overwhelming sensory experience and distill it into a simple response: I like, or I dislike. And that, my friends, is all that matters in the end when you taste a wine. It even supersedes what a “professional” might tell you. Taste it, if you like it, drink it again. If you don’t, leave it be, but don’t necessarily criticize it. In this context, and barring any obviously faulty or poorly-made wine, there are no bad wines. There are simply wines that are better suited to some people than others. Have fun exploring the excruciatingly large world of wine and finding the ones that tickle your fancy!

What are potential causes of wine headaches?

During the many tastings I’ve had the pleasure of participating in, a lot of people have inquired with me about what causes headaches from drinking wine, with most placing the blame on sulfites or poorly made wines and unjustly often associate headaches with drinking Lebanese wines (vs. foreign wines). The truth is, science has not yet discovered what causes these headaches. Wine is comprised of thousands of compounds1, most of which have not yet been identified. Popular opinion bestows blame on a few, namely sulfites, tannin, histamine, and dehydration.


Sulfite sensitivity is usually only associated with asthmatics and even then, only 5-10% of asthmatics may experience an adverse reaction to sulfites2. This reaction usually comes in the form of breathing difficulties and not a headache. It is important to highlight also that many foods contain sulfites, including fruit juices, beer, instant teas, vinegar, mustard, prepared sauces, dried fruits, pickles, maple syrup, jams & jellies, pizza doughs, fresh seafood, and so on. Look for the E numbers found on ingredients list ranging from 220 to 228, all of these are some form of sulfite. Very few people, if any, associate headaches with the consumption of the foods listed above, therefore it is unlikely that sulfites are the cause of these headaches.


Tannin is the term used to describe a group of phenolic anti-oxidants found in wine, tea, chocolate, and many fruits, which are linked with many of the health benefits associated with drinking wine. It could be that if you experience wine headaches, you are sensitive to tannin. Some people suggest to test your sensitivity to tannin by leaving a tea bag in contact with water for maybe 15 minutes to extract a large quantity of tannin and drinking it. If you develop of a headache you have your answer.


Wine contains a certain amount of histamine, in the range of 1.8-19 mg / L3, and this compound has been associated with headaches in people with histamine sensitivity (generally people with reduced monoamine oxidase activity in their bodies). Sake – rice wine – contains higher levels of histamines (20-40 mg / L). If you want to test yourself for histamine sensitivity, try drinking sake and see if you get a headache. If not, it is unlikely that wine is the culprit in your case.


I personally believe most headaches caused by drinking wine come from the lack of drinking water. Alcohol affects our body in many ways, including inducing dehydration by limiting the production of anti-diuretic hormone (ADH) which tells your body to stop urinating in order to preserve your body’s water content. So, with reduced ADH levels in our bodies, we urinate more than we normally would, leading to increased water loss. When you drink a glass of water, you only retain between a third to a half of that glass in your body, the rest goes out as urine, so you can drink a lot of water while drinking alcohol and still be dehydrated by the end of the night. But I find that water still goes a long way in reducing or eliminating hangovers and headaches in the morning. Try drinking lots of water next time you enjoy some wine and see if that helps!

Blue wine … my two cents

So I get a lot of people asking me, what do I think of blue wine?  The TL;DR version:  It’s not wine.  It should be banished to the “cocktails” section.

The marketing-speak description for blue wine is that it’s dyed with anthocyanin (natural color compound found in grape skins) and indigotine, purportedly extracted from plants.  Indigotine is the same stuff used to color blue candy.  Not too surprising: when I took one sip of a blue wine, it immediately colored my tongue blue, very much like blue candy does.  Anthocyanin is indeed a color compound found in grape skins, and simply put, it is the reason why red wine is red.  However, this compound actually exists in 3 colors – red, transparent, and blue – depending on the pH of the liquid it is in.  The blue state only exists as the pH of the solution increases, and you guessed it, the pH of wine – any wine – is too low for anthocyanin to be in its blue state. Continue reading “Blue wine … my two cents”

Finally, a website

Yeah, we haven’t had a website in a long time. The reason? I don’t have one 🙂 at least not a good one.

So here it is. Our very own Château Qanafar website, albeit a temporary one. We’re in the process of looking for someone to develop our website for us. In the meantime, I quickly put this one together to get rid of the notoriously annoying “Under construction” page.