Wine Tasting Basics
Tasting wine is more than simply taking a big swig and gulping it down. You can read all the books you want and look at hundreds of web site tasting notes to get a better idea of the subject, but at some point you are going to have to pop a cork and start tasting wine to get a better understanding of its complexities.
There are definite steps to tasting wine, which can be broken down into five basic observations and activities: Color, Swirl, Smell, Taste, and Savor.
The best way to observe the color of wine is to hold the glass of wine in front of a white background. The range of colors you may see depends, of course, on whether you are tasting a white or a red wine. Why is color important? Because as white wines age, they gain color, while as red wines age they lose color or brilliance. However, as with taste, there are personal preferences and observations. What is pale yellow-green to one person, may be gold to another.
There are several reasons why a wine may have more or less color:
- It's older.
- Different grape varieties exhibit a different color.
- White wines aged in wood, usually oak, may exhibit a darker color.
- Some wineries offer unfiltered red wines, which may show color changes.
As wines age, here are the traditional color changes they go through:
- Pale yellow-green
- Straw yellow
- Old gold
- Brick red
Why do we swirl the wine? To allow oxygen to mix with the wine, releasing the esters, ethers and aldehydes, which yield its bouquet. In other words, swirling aerates the wine and gives you a better smell. Another reason why one should swirl the wine is to give an additional look at the overall appearance. Look at the color and especially the "legs" that trickle down the inside of the glass once the swirling has stopped. It is sometimes felt that the more noticeable the legs, the fuller the body of the wine. Few legs or no legs at all, probably indicates a "thin" tasting wine.
This is the most important part of wine tasting. You can only perceive four tastes - sweet, sour, bitter, and salt - but the average person can smell over 2,000 different scents, and wine has over 200 of its own. Now that you have swirled the wine and released the bouquet, you should smell the wine three times. The third smell usually gives you more information than the first smell did. What does the wine smell like? What kind of nose does it have? The "nose" is a word that wine tasters use to describe the bouquet and aroma of the wine. Smell is a very important step in the tasting process which people simply don't spend enough time on.
Pinpointing the nose of the wine helps you identify certain characteristics. The problem here is, many people want someone else to tell them what they are smelling. Am I smelling citrus, apricot or straw? What about black cherry, leather or tar? No one knows what you are smelling, only what they are smelling in their own glass. It can be different.
The best way to learn your own preferences of wine styles, is to "memorize" the smell of the individual grape varieties. For white, just try to memorize the three major grape varieties: Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Riesling. Keep smelling them and smelling them until you can identify the differences, one from the other. For the reds, it's a bit more difficult, but you can still take three major grape varieties: Pinot Noir, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Try to memorize those smells without using flowery words. If you need some help, use the Wine Aroma Wheel for some suggestions.
Another interesting point while focusing on smell is you are more likely to recognize some of the defects of a wine through your sense of smell. Following is a list of some of the negative smells in wine:
- Cork (dank, wet-cellar, musty smell)
- Too much acetic acid in wine
- Wine absorbs taste of defective cork
- Too much sulphur dioxide
Sulphur dioxide is used in several ways in the winemaking process. It kills bacteria in wine, prevents unwanted fermentation and acts as a preservative. It often causes a burning or itching sensation in your nose if overused.
To many people, tasting means taking a sip and swallowing immediately. This isn't tasting. Tasting is something you do with your taste buds. Remember, you have taste buds all over your mouth. They are on both sides of the tongue, underneath, on the tip, and they extend to the back of your throat. If you simply take a gulp of wine and throw it down your throat, you bypass all those important taste buds.
As I mentioned earlier, you can only perceive four tastes: sweet, sour, bitter, and salt (but there is no salt in wine, so we are down to three). It is important to determine where the sensations of taste are taking place, and specifically where they occur on your tongue and in your mouth. Bitterness in wine is usually created by high alcohol and high tannin. Sweetness only occurs in wines that have some residual sugar left over after fermentation. Sour (sometimes called "tart") indicates the acidity in wine. Here is where you "find" these sensations on your tongue:
Sweetness - Found on the tip of your tongue. It's a sensation you will taste right away, if it's there.
Fruit & Varietal Characteristics - Found in the middle of the tongue.Acidity - Found at the sides of the tongue, the cheek area and the back of the throat. It's most commonly present in white wines and some lighter-style red wines.
Tannin - The sensation of tannin begins in the middle of the tongue. Tannin frequently exists in red wines or wood-aged white wines. When the wines are too young, it dries the palate to excess. If there is a lot of tannin in the wine, the tannin can actually coat your whole mouth.
Aftertaste - This is the overall taste and balance of the components of the wine that lingers in your mouth. How long does the balance last? Or sometimes stated as what is the length of the finish of the wine. Usually the sign of a high-quality wine is a long, pleasing aftertaste. The taste of many of the great wines lasts anywhere from 1 minute to 3 minutes, with all of their components in harmony.
One thing you should also do as part of your tasting is take a sip of wine and draw a bit of air into your mouth along with it. This further aerates the wine and helps bring out the flavors in your mouth.
After you have had a chance to taste the wine, sit back for a few moments and savor it. Think about what you just experienced and ask yourself the following questions to help focus your impressions. Was the wine:
- Light, medium or full-bodied? (Think skim milk, whole milk, heavy cream)
- For a white wine, how was the acidity? Very little, just right or too much?
- For a red wine, is the tannin in the wine too strong or astringent (it will mask most of the flavors)? Is the tannin pleasing? Or is it missing?
- How long did the balance of the components last?
- Is the wine ready to drink?
- What is the strongest component (residual sugar, fruit, acid, tannin)?
- What kind of food would you enjoy with the wine?
- To your taste, is the wine worth the price?
- Finally, do you like it and is it your style?
How do you know if a wine is a good one or not? If you enjoy it, it is a good one. Don't let others dictate taste to you. When is a wine ready to drink? When all the components of the wine are in balance to your particular taste.