If you can taste food and describe the flavors, you can do the same with wine. Perhaps the problem arises because we so often enjoy wine in social gatherings, where we are so focused on chatting, eating, having fun and so forth, that we don't give any thought to the wine being swallowed, so long as it is not unpleasant.
One of the things that I am continually struck by is how little confidence many wine drinkers have in their ability to taste wine. Comments such as, "I don't know anything about tasting — I just drink the wine," are frequent. What I think they are really saying is that they do not have the confidence to articulate what they taste. If you can taste food and describe the flavors, you can do the same with wine.
Perhaps the problem arises because we so often enjoy wine in social gatherings, where we are so focused on chatting, eating, having fun and so forth, that we don’t give any thought to the wine being swallowed, so long as it is not unpleasant.
With that in mind, I thought I’d write up a quick post on how to taste wine like a wine professional. To turn the theory into practice (and fun!) I have listed four wines at the end of the post. I strongly suggest you try these or similar style wines and taste them using the techniques described below. You are sure to find lots to say about each wine.
Important first steps are to make sure the glass you are using is clean, and that you do not fill it too full. About one-third full is best.
As a professional wine educator, I have a very structured approach to tasting. But it essentially boils down to:
• What the wine looks
• What the wine smells
• What the wine tastes
By evaluating these, you can draw conclusions and make certain judgments about the wine’s quality, style, maturity and ageing potential. Here are the basic things you will need in order to taste wine.
What You Need
Clean, dry wineglasses
Wine, such as the suggested bottles listed at the end of this post
1. Evaluate Appearance
The color of a wine gives us clues about the wine. To examine the color, tilt the glass away from you. Observe the color at the core, as well as at the rim.
Color can be an indicator of the wine’s maturity and age, or of the grape variety. The color of white wine deepens with age, talking on a golden or amber hue. A deeper color in a white wine can also be an indicator of oak treatment. Conversely, red wines become paler with age, developing a garnet or brick colored rim. Some grape varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot or Syrah are very thick skinned, resulting in deeply colored (often opaque) wines, while varieties such as Pinot Noir, Grenache or Gamay generally make much paler colored wines.
2. Nose the Wine
To nose a wine, gently swirl the wine around a few times in the glass. This releases the aromas and opens up the wine. Probably the most important reason to smell a wine is to check for faults and ensure that it is in good condition. A quick sniff will tell you whether the wine is flawed - corked, oxidized, or has been somehow tainted due to poor winemaking, maturation or storage conditions.
The intensity of the aromas can give you a hint about the grape variety, as well as the style. New World wines tend to be more fruit forward on the nose than their old world counterparts. More prevalent earthy, mineral notes tend to indicate an old world wine. If you get lots of overt vanilla, coffee, toastiness you can deduce that the wine has had a good whack of new oak treatment.
The characteristics of the fruit are also important. Ask yourself “what am I smelling? Is the wine fruity, floral, herbaceous, earthy? Is the fruit fresh and vibrant? Or, baked and jammy?
Another important aspect of nosing the wine is to see whether the aromas change over time in the glass. Higher quality wines will evolve and become more complex in the glass, whereas, lower-end wines stay the same at best, or dissipate.
3. Coat Your Palate
To taste a wine, take a decent sip. Swirl the wine around in your mouth, making sure it coats your whole palate. If you can, slightly purse your lips to draw in some air. Think about what you taste while you are doing this. Then you can spit or swallow.
When we taste a wine, we examine two things. Firstly, we evaluate the wine’s structure. This means the acidity, the alcohol, whether the wine is dry, off dry or sweet, and in red wine, the tannin. Wines differ in their levels of acidity, alcohol, dryness and tannin. What matters most is that the wine is structurally balanced and in harmony with the fruit. For example I am sure that you have all tasted a wine of just 13% that felt hot and alcoholic, and also tasted a wine of 14.5% that, while warming was balanced.
Acidity is a very important component in wine. Acidity makes a wine refreshing, critical in our desire to take a second sip. Too much and the wine can be a bit tart, too little and you get a flabby wine. The acidity of a wine depends on both the natural acidity of the particular grape variety, and also on the climate in which it was grown. Grapes like Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling are high acid varieties, while Chardonnay is medium, and tends to lose what it has more quickly, as it ripens. As is expected, cooler climate wines generally have higher acidity than warmer climate wines.
In a red wine, tannins are important for structure. Some red wines have a lot of tannin, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, whereas, others such as the Italian Barbera wines, are quite low in tannin. Tannins can be firm, round, gripping, smooth, ripe or even a little green depending on the grape variety, the ripeness of the grapes at harvest, and the winemaking techniques.
Next for evaluation is the fruit – its concentration on the palate and its flavor intensity. Are the flavors simple and one dimensional or layered and complex? Does the fruit have depth of flavor or is it rather dilute? Can you taste oak (toast, vanilla, spice, coffee, mocha, cedar etc) or is the wine un-oaked? Is there too much oak for the fruit or is it just right and well integrated. Judiciously used, oak adds lovely complexity to a wine.
Does the wine have length? Meaning, do the flavors persist across your palate to your back-palate / throat? Or does it seem to cut off mid-palate? Many things influence a wine’s length. Perhaps, the alcohol is too high and kills the fruit? Or maybe it is a simple wine (but pleasant), which has given all it has to offer up-front?
4. Evaluate the Style
When we talk about the style of a wine, we mean, whether the wine is light-bodied or full-bodied, easy-drinking and fruity or restrained and minerally, dry, off-dry or sweet, oaked or unoaked. Is it a terroir-driven or an extracted winemaker’s wine? A modern, international styled wine or more traditional and rustic? Is the wine a food wine, or best drunk as an apéritif? Is it a wine for a casual gathering or a serious wine for a special dinner party?
5. Evaluate the Quality
Quality is a relative assessment, rather than absolute. Aspects to consider when deciding on quality are whether the wine is balanced, has length, has a decent amount of fruit flavor and has non-fruit notes such as minerality or well-integrated oak that add complexity. Whether the aromas and flavors evolve is another marker. Also take into consideration the price-point. Is the wine high quality for $10 or poor quality for $50?
6. Decide If You Personally Like the Wine
Finally, beyond all this objective evaluation lies the most important taste qualifier – do I like this wine? Do I want to drink it again? As a wine consumer, you don’t have to be objective, it is all about what you like to taste and drink. I have met so many wine drinkers that apologize for their tastes. You should never have to apologize for your taste preferences, but, as my great friend and mentor Mary Ewing-Mulligan, MW, once said ‘ but be open to new experiences’. You never know what you might find!
I recently gave a small wine tasting for a group of parents in my son’s class. To keep it simple I choose four wines that easily illustrated key differences. I choose two reds and two whites. One oaked and one unoaked, one New World and one Old World of each. You can do it easily at home with the following wines:
• 2007 Qupé Bien Nacido Vineyard, Y Block Chardonay, Central Coast, $16
– Forward ripe fruit, oaked, fruit driven style, medium acid.
• 2008 Grüner Veltliner "Gobelsburger," Schloss Gobelsburg, Kremstal, Austria, $16
– Restrained savory, mineral aromas and flavors, unoaked, crisp acidity, youthful
• 2004 Cape Mentelle Cabernet/Merlot, Margaret River, Australia, $20
– Deep color, ripe, forward fruit, lots of oak, ripe round tannins – showing some development
• 2008 Beaujolais "l'Ancien" VV Terres Dorées, Brun, Beaujolais, $14
– Medium color intensity earthy, terroir driven, fresh acid, pure, unoaked fruit.
Mary Gorman-McAdams, DWS, is a New York based wine educator, freelance writer and consultant. She hold the Diploma in Wine & Spirits from the Wine and Spirits Education Trust (WSET), and is a candidate in the Master of Wine Program.
Related: Buying Wine: What Are Your Most Important Criteria?
(Images Flickr member feverblue licensed for use under Creative Commons; Joseph McAdams)