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Wine Tasting Basics

by David on November 1, 2010

There’s a common misconception that good tasters are a rarefied group with special abilities. Nonsense. The reason most of us aren’t good tasters is that we haven’t tried. Most of the time when you have wine you’re conversing and there’s food, music and all kinds of distractions. It’s hard for anyone to evaluate anything under those circumstances. This is not to say that the scenario is wrong – wine is made to be enjoyed with friends and food, but if you really want to learn something about the wine, you’ll need to take a quiet moment and tune in to it. The following suggestions are meant to help you get the most out of your wine by putting your senses to work.

Fill the glass a generous 1/3 full and hold it by the stem or the base, whichever is most comfortable for you. This isn’t just tradition or etiquette, although they play a role. If you hold the glass by the bowl, you can’t see the wine and you’ll smudge it with your fingerprints. A clean, clear bowl will help you evaluate the color and clarity of the wine, and you’ll also avoid warming the wine with your hand.

CLARITY AND COLOR OR HUE

Hold the wine up to the light or against a white background. The wine should be brilliantly clear, and free of UFOs (unidentified floating objects – a little cork won’t hurt you!). The wine should please all of the senses, including the eye. If the wine is cloudy, it may be an indicator that the wine is past its prime or is spoiled, but never let this put you off of tasting the wine to make sure. If it tastes okay, it is okay. However, good clarity is the ideal.

The color of the wine gives you some hints about what to expect from it. It’s best to use a white background and tilt the glass at a 45° forward angle against it. There is a range of color into which white and red wines fall, and the hue can send a message about the stage of development and condition of the wine. Here is a sample list of colors for white and red wines, and the color progression that occurs with age, from young to old:

White Wine Red Wine
Light Green-Yellow Purple
Pale Yellow Ruby
Yellow-Gold Burgundy
Gold-Brown Tawny
Brown Brown

You can see that white wines go from pale with youth, to gold and brown with age, while reds start out with blue and purple tones and gradually turn to brown.

Some whites are so pale, they’re almost clear. Most often these are whites that were not barrel aged and shouldn’t be bottle aged. They are light and fresh in style. When young whites are yellow it tells you that they have probably been barrel aged. Barrel aging before bottling speeds up the aging and turns the pale wine light yellow.

While whites deepen in color as they age, the reds lighten in color over time. In both cases, slow oxidation is the cause. For reds, in addition to browning, the pigment enlarges with oxidation and falls out of solution. This is why you see sediment in older red wines. Brown color is a sign that the wine is old, perhaps too old.

SWIRLING THE WINE

Swirling the wine mixes oxygen into it and brings out the aroma. This is called “aerating” the wine, or if you want to impress your friends you can say you’re “volatilizing the esters”. If you’re new to swirling, put the glass on a flat surface and grip the stem close to the base. Swirl briskly to get the liquid really moving in the glass (it’s smart not to fill the glass more than 1/3 full or you’ll end up wearing the wine!). If you are skeptical or this seems pretentious, try an experiment. Smell the wine, swirl it for several seconds, and then smell it again. You’ll become a believer!

After swirling, you may notice little rivulets of wine coming down the glass. Those are the legs, or they’re sometimes called candles or tears. There’s a persistent rumor that the legs are important, or that “good legs,” are a sign of quality. Not really. Wines of ample alcohol are the ones with “good legs”, but more isn’t necessarily better when it comes to alcohol. Like every other component in the wine, the alcohol needs to be balanced. The best way to find out if the wine is any good is to smell and taste it.

SMELLING THE WINE

Why do tasters spend so much time smelling the wine? Because smelling is half of the equation, and at least half of the pleasure. The ultimate goal of swirling and smelling the wine is to get as much enjoyment out of it as you possibly can. Just as the smell of a delicious meal makes you hungry, a beautiful nose on a wine whets your appetite for it. In grade school you learned that your nose is far more perceptive than your tongue, and so it’s a great tool to help acquaint you with the wine.

The terminology can be a little confusing. Some refer to the aroma as the grape fragrance and the bouquet as the complexity the grape fragrance takes on by being fermented, barrel aged, bottle aged and so on. Most of us use the terms interchangeably. It’s easier to talk about the nose, which combines the two. The nose is the way the wine smells.

Nose = Aroma + Bouquet

To evaluate the nose of the wine, first swirl it, take a deep sniff, and see what impressions pop into your head. First and foremost, the wine should smell good, but let’s go beyond that. As you smell the wine, think about whether it smells fresh or rich. Does it smell fruity or herbal? Coffee-like or oaky? The wine will remind you of aromas you find in other foods so you can put words to it.

Sometimes it helps to have a little prompting. Here are some common descriptors.

White Wine Red Wine
Pear Berry
Pineapple Cherry
Green Apple Plum
Apricot Raspberry
Peach Boysenberry
Melon Strawberry
Banana Rhubarb
Guava Blackberry
Lemon Blueberry
Grapefruit Black Currant
Mango Raisin
Passion Fruit Fig

If you Google the phrase “wine aroma wheel” you can purchase a wonderful tool from University of California at Davis. It includes all kinds of descriptors beyond fruit and really helps to get your descriptive wheels turning. Click here to see the GCU “Wine Essences” article for more information about how these aromas become part of the wine.

Aroma Chart

These descriptors are a big help when you’re at a restaurant or wine shop. If you know how to describe the wine to someone else, you’re more likely to get a wine that you like. For instance, you can say that you want a Chardonnay that’s fruity, and not too oaky and rich, or vice versa. Then your retailer or server can steer you toward one that you’ll really enjoy.

If your description of a wine differs from your friends, even if that friend is an “expert,” don’t be intimidated by presuming there’s a right or wrong answer. There is no right or wrong to perception, and we all have different sensitivities. We don’t experience wine the same way, just as we don’t have the same food preferences. Trust your instincts and your sense of smell, and you will be surprised by how much you can discover and enjoy in each wine.

TASTING THE WINE

For your first taste of the day, always allow for a palate adjustment. The first sip can be a shock, so take another sip, and think about how the wine tastes and feels.

Since the early part of the 20th century, numerous credible scientific studies have mapped out the areas of taste sensitivities on the tongue and it’s become something we take for granted. Today, there are increasing numbers of equally reputable sources telling us that we have receptors for all of the basic flavors all over our tongues and that it’s not area specific. The best thing to do, to learn about yourself, is to pay close attention when you taste something noticeably sweet, sour or bitter. How does your tongue react – and where? File that little piece of information away for future reference. But, for the sake of tradition, here are the areas of sensitivity as we have understood them, along with the tannin and alcohol:

Sweetness Tip of the tongue
Acidity Sides of the tongue
Bitterness Back of the tongue
Salt (not important to wine) Front sides of the tongue
Tannin Drying and “furring” sensation
Alcohol Back of the mouth; general sensation of warmth

If all of these components are balanced, you can notice them, but none of them will stick out.

Does the wine feel light or heavy (skim milk vs. cream) on your tongue? Does it seem to coat your palate or refresh it (cream vs. lemonade)? Is the wine soft or astringent? These elements are part of the mouth feel. Which fruit, vegetal or floral characteristics do you taste? Do you notice any oak influences? Do the flavors complement the nose of the wine? Is your mouth watering (acid), or drying out (tannin)?

After swallowing the wine, notice the flavors and sensations that linger on your tongue. Are they pleasant? How long does the flavor last? The aftertaste is the all important grand finale.

The flavor sensations can be amplified by using a little technique: first, as you hold the wine in your mouth, purse your lips and inhale gently through them bubbling the wine in your mouth (we call this the “reverse whistle”). There’s a passageway at the back of your throat that leads to your nasal cavity, so the reverse whistle brings your nose into play, making you far more perceptive. It does for the flavors what swirling does for the nose and also prolongs the aftertaste. Second, chew the wine, and swoosh it all around in your mouth to draw the last nuance of flavor from the wine. Exhale with your mouth closed.

Let’s go back to the question of whether your mouth is watering or drying out, because it can indicate the presence of two major players in wine: acid and tannin.

When your mouth waters, it’s telling you that the wine is relatively high in acid. You’ll notice it along the sides of your tongue. We tend to think of acid as being sharp, but if the wine is balanced the acidity is expressed as a refreshing, crisp finish when you swallow. If the wine is sharp with acidity, we’d say it’s acidic and out of balance rather than crisp. If the wine is too low in acid, we’d describe it as flat, and it leaves a dull finish.

Tannin is more of a feeling than a flavor. When your mouth dries out and your teeth begin to feel furry, you’re sensing the tannin in the wine. Tannin comes mainly from the grape skins and serves as a natural preservative. It helps the wine to age gracefully rather than becoming old and lifeless. Red wines generally have more tannin than whites, because the reds are fermented with the skins, while white wines are usually not. The skins are the source of all of the color, most of the tannin, and much of the flavor and body in red wine. The tannin is part of the overall texture of the wine and a slight drying sensation is to be expected in young reds. Too much tannin makes the wine bitter and very astringent – poorly balanced.

When you taste a young red wine and notice that it has nice, chewy tannins, it’s an indicator that you can keep the wine longer if you like, providing you store it properly (50° – 60°F). The tannins will soften and the wine will become more subtle and complex with time.

Acid is also a very good natural preservative, and if you notice it in a young red or white, you can assume the wine will soften and develop for a few years under proper conditions.

To age or not to age is a very personal question. You can assume that if a winery releases a wine for sale they consider it enjoyable. Fruitiness is always a youthful characteristic, and if you like fruit-driven wine, you should drink it when it’s young. If you bottle age a wine with potential for it, it develops complexity beyond its youthful fruitiness, and the acid and tannin soften. Will you enjoy it more when it’s young, fruity and vibrant or older, softer and more complex? Only you can say. The best way to find out is by tasting.

Your preferences in wine are as individual as your preferences in food. If you want to become a more perceptive taster, think about forming a tasting group or having a tasting party with other friends who are interested in wine. Besides learning from the wines, you’ll learn from each other and have a lot of fun along the way. Click here to see the GCU article on Hosting a Tasting at Home.

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