You know that awkward feeling, you’re out with a few friends and someone orders a bottle of wine, the waiters brings it to you and stands waiting for your approval, you take a swig decide it’s not vinegar and nod mumbling about how it’s “fine”. Well there’s no dark art to wine tasting and no reason you should ever feel this way again this simple breakdown from wine experts guide will have you swirling your wine sniffing and sipping like a professional sommelier. The basics of wine tasting are simple enough if the vocabulary is somewhat less so. Simply taste with your tenses and practise (drink) a lot! A wine expert relies on his or her sight, sense of smell, and taste buds to expound the wines lengthy notes. Wine Tasting consists of three steps or stages:
Knowing a glass of wine requires more than simply tasting because a wine is more than the sum of its tastes. Firstly examine the pour the wine in to a clear glass and study the hue of the wine in the light. What shade do you see? Is the wine opaque, consistently coloured throughout or darker in the core with a lighter ring circling the glass. What sore of legs does it leave on the glass as you tilt and swish? Beyond looking for obvious defects such as sediment in older wines that need decanting the colour of a wine gives subtle insights the trained eye can pick out.
The colour of a white wine can range anywhere between a pale straw yellow and a rich gold depending on grape variety, sweetness, age and the oaking time the wine has had. Although not a hard and fast rule generally speaking lighter wines such as Sauvignon Blancs tend to be significantly paler than Chardonnays which usually will have a more pronounced golden tinge than younger wines.
Red wines can likewise be analysed by their colour, a deep red will have a more concentrated flavour than a lighter glass, a Pinot Noir for example will look more like a Rose when stood next to a much bolder Shiraz/Syrah which will be closer to purple. A taste of each will instantly confirm this impression. When you tilt the glass to look at the meniscus (the curved upper surface and rim where the effects of age are most noticeable) of the wine you may notice an amber-brown tinge indicating an older vintage.
As you twirl the glass back and forth you may see clear traces of the wine, known as tears or legs clinging to the side of your glass indicating either an above average alcohol content or residual sugar. The intensity of a wines colour intimates the intensity of the flavor which will be experienced by the drinker.
The “bouquet” or “aroma” of the wine when it reaches the nose can likewise tell a sommelier much about the wine but most people through their inexperience rob themselves of the pleasure of this part of the wine tasting experience. This is because the first stage in maximising a wines bouquet is the decanting process during which the wine oxygenated before smelling it. Where possible a wine should be decanted for about 30 minutes before tasting, this is particularly important for young reds. If you do not have the time or opportunity to decant the wine it is advisable to allow it to aerate in the glass for 5-10 minutes.
It is recommended that properly designed glass be used to help capture the wine’s bouquet and funnel it in the direction of the nose. Glasses intended for red wines have a larger bowl than those designed for whites but both will taper towards the top creating a smaller surface area.
As with the appearance the Variety of grape has a profound impact on the aroma of a wine. While the aroma of a Sauvignon Blanc can evoke scents of grapefruit, lime and gooseberry bush Cabernet Sauvignons by contrast are characterised by their blackcurrant quality. As a wine ages its aroma will develop, a white wine will typically begin its life with a fresh floral scent which will mature into a sweet honey.
I know you’re excited but before taking that first delightful sniff swirl the glass allowing it to aerate further and release the full aroma. You may notice the wine has a fruity, spicy, smoky or mossy bouquet. Enjoying these subtle scents before taking your first sip not only offer further insight into the pleasure before you but serve to enhance the whole wine-tasting experience.
Once you’ve seen and sniffed the wine, you’re ready take a small swig and swirl it around allowing it to coat your entire mouth and hit every taste center giving you a sense of the wines texture. Experienced Sommeliers classify the taste in three distinct steps, the initial impression, the evolution, and the finish.
Initially you will taste sweetness primarily at the front of your mouth, the acidity along the sides and the bitterness at the very back. A highly acidic wine will leave your mouth watering where as a tannic wine with do the opposite cause your mouth to dry.
Sip again as the initial flavour will give a wildly different impression than the evolution phase, where the Sommelier will pick up on the up on the plurality of flavors in the wine not immediately parent. Is the wine lush and creamy or light and crisp? Would you characteristic the wine as smooth and elegant or heavy and tannic, fruity, smoky or earthy?
The finish is the lingering taste of the wine in your mouth. Is the wine finish aggressive or smooth? Does it inspire you to reach for the glass to take another sip instantly?
Overall there is no right or wrong answer about the quality of wine, how the wine tastes to you and what you can achieve for your budget are the deciding factors. Although it can be difficult to disentangle the perceived quality of a wine from the price tag it affords even in the UK where wine tax makes up the bulk of the price tag on cheaper bottles there are quality wines for less than £5. Only experience will guide you through this maze.