“A person with increasing knowledge and sensory education may derive infinite enjoyment from Wine.” Ernest Hemingway
Successful wine tasting comes down to three fundamental things: developing a consistent method, tasting frequently, and creating your own personal tasting vocabulary.
Following are all the basics you’ll need to analyze a wine and share your perceptions with others.
HAVE THE RIGHT SETTING
If possible try these general guidelines:
• Taste in an environment that is free from odor and abundant in natural light, and have a white background handy (a piece of paper will do just fine).
• Perfume/cologne, cigarettes, food and toothpaste are all obstacles to tasting, but sometimes unavoidable. Recognize that these factors can influence your perception of the wine, and try to cleanse your palate with water or crackers before tasting.
• Use a glass with a large enough bowl to swirl the wine, and be sure it’s free from soap residue.
• Keep a pen and paper handy to note comments.
• If you’re tasting several wines, arrange them according to color (whites before reds), body (light-bodied before full-bodied) and sweetness (drier before sweeter).
Temperature is vital! If the wine is too chilled, aromas and flavors will be suppressed. Too warm, the alcohol may seem out of balance. For tasting purposes, aim for a “cool” room temperature.
Step 1: SEE THE WINE – TAKE A GOOD LOOK!
Aside from determining color, a quick visual examination of the wine can reveal clues about a wine’s condition, age, grape variety, sweetness and alcohol level. Hold your glass against a white background, tilted slightly away from you. Evaluate:
• Color : Beyond red and white, what is the shade? How intense is the color? Is the edge of the wine different from the core? These factors can indicate age or grape variety. For example:
• Reds lose color as they age, while whites become darker.
• In a red wine, a brown or orange edge can often (though not always) suggest age.
• Pinot Noir is often so pale you can read through it, while Syrah can border on opaque.
• Clarity : Is the wine clear or hazy and dull? The latter can indicate a flaw. Any sediment? Sediment is harmless, and may simply indicate that the wine is unfiltered or mature.
Geek tip : Check out those legs! Thick, slow legs may indicate high alcohol or residual sugar.
Step 2: SWIRLING…NOT JUST FOR SHOW!
Swirling introduces air to the wine, releasing its aromatic compounds. With your glass resting on a table, hold the stem and move the glass gently but briskly in a small circular motion. Feeling coordinated? Pick up your glass and swirl mid-air for effect.
Geek tip : Keep your arm stationary. Remember, it’s all in the wrist!
Step 3: SNIFF…AND SNIFF AGAIN
Why sniff more than once? Because most of your “sense of taste” is really your sense of smell! While the palate can detect sweet, sour, bitter, salty and savory/umami, your nose can distinguish hundreds of nuances. (Try tasting your favorite food while holding your nose – sort of bland, right?) Immediately after swirling your wine, take a series of short sniffs. (This is more effective than one long sniff, as the nose is easily fatigued.)
• Is the wine in good condition, or is it corked (wet cardboard/musty basement), cooked (stewed fruit) or oxidized (sherry smell)?
• Once you’ve established the wine is sound, what does it smell like? Be specific but use terms that make sense to you, whether its blackberries and cherries or the scent of your grandma’s famous berry pie baking.
• Develop your own wine vocabulary – everyone perceives aromas and flavors differently. Create a consistent vocabulary that is meaningful to you . (And don’t worry if you don’t detect the “bramble berry, forest floor and sweaty saddle” noted on the back label).
• No need to limit yourself to scents and flavors. Analogies may feel more comfortable – compare the wine to music, actors, clothing, colors, etc.
Geek tip: “Aroma” and “bouquet” are often used interchangeably, but they don’t really mean the same thing. Aroma refers to the primary , varietal smell of a young wine, while bouquet is a term applied to a mature wine that has begun to develop some secondary scent characteristics.
Step 4: SAVOR…FINALLY YOU GET TO TASTE IT!
While much of our “sense of taste” really comes from aroma, the way a wine feels in your mouth contributes a great deal to its enjoyment, and provides information about body, acidity, tannin, dryness/sweetness, alcohol and finish.
Take a sip and swish it around your mouth, hitting all surface areas on your tongue. Allow yourself time to take in all the nuances before spitting or swallowing. Repeat the process to confirm your initial impressions. Take note of:
• Body – the weight of the wine on your tongue. Use milk as a reference point; skim milk is light-bodied, whole milk is medium-bodied, cream is full-bodied.
• Sweetness – is it dry, off-dry, sweet or cloying?
• Acidity – its presence, which may cause a mouth-watering sensation, is crucial to balance. Too much acidity can make a wine bitter and sharp, while too little renders a wine flabby and flat.
• Tannin – derived from grape skins, seeds, stems and barrels, and mainly found in red wine, tannin may cause a drying sensation in the mouth. Are the tannins smooth, rough, ripe, green?
• Alcohol – often correlates with body (ex. fuller body = higher alcohol). Is the alcohol balanced, or is the wine “hot”?
• Finish – does the wine drop off quickly, or does the taste linger in your mouth?
Geek tip: Impress your friends with “retronasal tasting!” Remember how most of what we taste is actually what we smell? Once the wine is in your mouth, make a small “o” with your lips and take in some air through your mouth. The air will combine with the wine and send aromatic compounds back through your mouth and up into your nasal cavity.
Step 5: YOU’RE NOT FINISHED YET… TIME TO EVALUATE!
Think about the wine you’ve just tasted and consider:
• Complexity – was it simple, or was there “a lot going on in the glass”?
• Balance – were all the various elements (alcohol, fruit, tannin, acid, etc.) in harmony, or did one factor overwhelm the others?
• Maturity – is the wine ready to drink now? Needs time? Past its prime?
• Quality – is this a good quality wine, relative to the price point?
• Overall, did you enjoy the wine? What about it did you like or dislike? Would it be enhanced by food? What type of food?
Record all of your impressions as a future reference for yourself, to keep track of what you like and why you like it, and – most importantly – to communicate to others about the wine.
Congratulations – you’re an expert wine taster!