Everyone knows how to drink wine, but not many know how to taste it. Believe it or not, tasting the wine is only one fifth of the wine tasting experience! Even though there are various steps to tasting wine, they all fall under three of the five major senses: sight, smell, and taste.
Aspects of Wine Tasting
- The Groundwork
Some authors have posited that the main reason it is difficult for the layperson to really taste the wine they drink is due to the conditions of the environment at the time of tasting. Noisy and crowded rooms tend to make concentration difficult. With such distractions, one cannot focus on the aspects of the tasting experience (the texture, the flavor etc.). Due to the fact that the scent of the wine is a crucial aspect of the wine tasting process, the different aromas present in a room (for example food smells, perfume etc.) can cloud the aroma of the wine. The temperature of the wine as well as residual flavors in your mouth from other substances that are consumed all affect the wine tasting experience. The way you hold the glass can affect the temperature of the wine. Therefore it is best to hold the glass by the stem and not by the bowl (the part that actually contains the wine) as the heat from emanating from your hands will warm the wine. It is also important to sample wines based on their texture. That is, you should begin with light wines and then progress gradually to the heavier ones. This helps keep the taste buds sensitive. Sipping water in between tastings is also important. Also, it is best to have a clean glass and one that is not too small, so that when we come to the “swirl” aspect (see below) the clothes you are wearing will not sample more wine than you do!
- The Visual
It is important that you examine the color and clarity of the wine you are tasting. Tilt the glass slightly and hold it up to the light or against a white/pale background. The wine should be clear, as a cloudy or murky looking wine may indicate that it is spoilt or past its time (you should still taste it to be sure however). Color is important as it gives you an idea of the age of the wine. You must look at the color of the wine from the rim edges to the middle of the liquid. Different wines also go though different color processes as they age. White wines gain color as they age while red wines lose their color and become brown. Some white wines are so pale there are almost clear in color. These white wines should not be bottle aged but used fresh. The color sequences both types of wines experience can be seen below:
- The Swirl
After carefully inspecting the wine, you should swirl it around using the stem of the wineglass. As stated in the introduction, the glass should not be too small (and there should not be too much wine in the glass). Swirling can be done with the glass on a flat surface. By doing this, you can also observe the body of the wine against the sides of the glass. Good “legs” or “tears” indicate that the wine has more alcohol and is fuller than others that do not have good legs or have no legs at all (the latter indicating a “thin” wine). Another reason the wine is swirled is so to release more aromas as the swirling allows the wine to mix with oxygen, thereby releasing and intensifying the aromas contained in the wine. This process is called aerating the wine.
- The Smell
It is a well known fact that 80% of our taste comes from our nose, so it is no surprise that this is the most important aspect in wine tasting, as the nose tells you more about the wine than the taste of it. However, persons do not spend enough time on this step which is a shame because the smell of a wine can help you identify some of the defects or faults in it. Below is a quote by Kevin Zraly, founder of New York City’s Windows on the World Wine School about the importance of smelling wine:
“It’s simple: Your tongue can only detect four main tastes, but your nose can identify more than 2,000 different odors. Studies have shown that women have a keener sense of smell than men, but anyone can tell whether a wine is good or bad based on its smell. Wine should smell, well, like fruit–not gym socks or vinegar or anything unpleasant. That’s why the tradition of having restaurant customers take a sip of wine to determine whether it’s gone bad is not necessary: It’s all in the nose! The first taste of a wine is always a shock to your tastebuds.”
Authors and experts in wine tasting tend to differ on how you should smell the wine. Some say you should hover just above the wine glass and sniff as opposed to burying your nose directly inside to get a deeper sniff of the wine. Others say that you should do both, but do the small sniff first and then the deeper sniff after. However, you should try both techniques to see which one gives you the best and deepest aromas. Whichever technique you use, sniffing gives you a deeper sense of the type of flavors contained within your glass. They can also alert you to what kind of barrel the wine was aged in. The range of aromas you can encounter are fruity, flowery, leaves, herbs and vegetables. Below lists the common aromas found in white and red wines:
Despite these nice aromas, your nose may detect a few “off” or bad smells”:
- Sherry: indicates that the wine has oxidized from age or improper storage.
- Vinegar :indicates that the wine contains excessive acetic acid.
- Cork/Mustiness: indicates that a defective or inferior cork has affected the wine.
- Sulphur: indicates that the wine contains excessive sulphur dioxide.
- The Taste
Again, it is worth reiterating the fact that the overall taste of a wine is usually a combination of the smells and the flavor of a wine. However, while our nose can pick up over 2000 aromas, the tongue can only pick up four tastes:
There are a few other tastes that you will experience while sampling wine that are not shown in the graphic above. One will usually experience fruity flavors in the middle of the tongue, an alcohol taste at the back of the mouth (with a warm sensation) and the taste of tannin (drying, slightly astringent sensation in your mouth) will give a furry sensation on your teeth. Therefore, based on these factors, one can see that tasting the wine is not a mere sip and swallow exercise.
After smelling the wine, take a decent sip of it and let it spread across your tongue to see which taste buds are activated during this process. Try to intake some air through your lips to aerate the wine and release even more flavors and aromas. This process also tends to prolong the aftertaste of the wine. The taste of the wine should confirm whatever conclusions were drawn from smelling the wine and evaluating the wine by sight. If you experience a bitter taste, that is caused by a high alcohol and tannin content. Tannin comes from the grape skins and is a natural preservative, aiding in wine aging. An indication of a poorly balanced wine is one that has too much tannin and is therefore, quite bitter. A sweet sensation will be the result of residual sugar left after the fermentation process while a sour sensation usually indicates that the wine is high in acidity. When a wine is high in acidity it tends to have a crisp finish (if the wine is balanced); if it is too acidic it will have a sharp finish and if it is low in acidity it will leave a flat, dull finish. One indicator that you are drinking a high quality wine is a long (usually 1 – 3 minutes) and pleasing aftertaste. After this process, you can do an evaluation about the flavors and sensations you are experiencing. Usually, a balance of acidity, tannin, sweetness, fruitiness and a good body is ideal. Afterwards, you can either swallow the wine or spit it out (spitting is recommended when you are sampling several wines). The final step in the tasting process is the evaluation of the wine’s overall quality and this can be done by asking yourself a few questions:
- Did you like it? Why or why not?
- What did you notice about the body?
- How long did the impression/flavor linger?
- Was it sweet? Acidic? Tannic? Fruity?
The bottom line of knowing how good wine is, is this: if you enjoy it…then it’s a good wine! No one else’s taste or review of a wine should dictate whether you believe a wine is good or not. Therefore, it is important to trust yourself and your tastebuds and most importantly, enjoy the tasting process!
To view image sources click here