A Guide to Wine TastingSee, Swirl, Sniff, Sip and Savor
Spend a few minutes listening to a sommelier speak about wine and they will soon have you dazzled with their talk of aromas and bouquets, unknown wine valleys and silky tannins.
It may feel like you’re a world away from their extensive knowledge, but it is actually quite easy to start developing your tasting skills, sipping and swilling with the best of them to identify wine characteristics.
In fact, if you are already a wine enthusiast, the chances are you’re halfway there. You know what you like and you appreciate this wonderful drink, so all it takes is following a few key wine tasting tips to start refining your palate and sounding like a pro. One of the wonderful things about the wine world is that when it comes to tasting, practice makes perfect.
There is a simple method of three basic steps that the experts use to start identifying wine characteristics. It’s simple enough to follow and is all about engaging your senses.
When you pour a glass of wine, the first impression you have is visual and you can tell a lot from looking at things like color, opacity and viscosity. The best way to start is by tilting your glass and looking through it at an angle against a white background. This way you will be able to see how the wine color changes towards the rim, making it a bit easier to spot some of the following elements…
A world of color
If it is a white wine, you want it to look clear and bright. Then you need to analyze, is it a golden color or a pale lemony green? This can give an indication of grape type and it is also worth keeping in mind that white wines will also generally deepen in color with age.
Red wines promise just as much variety, with much lighter wines such as pinot noir and rich reds like a big bold shiraz. In general if it has a violet hue it is a younger wine, while a rustier, orangey color means it is older.
For rosé, the lighter, more delicate pinks reflect a more delicate flavor, while in sparkling wine you want to have a look at the bubbles – smaller ones are a sign of good quality.
Check out those legs! Yes, really. Wine has legs, also referred to as tears. Tip the glass to the side then see how the droplets roll down the surface, a higher density of droplets means the wine has a higher level of alcohol, while slower moving droplets generally indicate a higher level of sugar.
The aromas you detect in your wine will reveal so much about both the grapes and the winemaking processes used. To release the aromas it is best to give the wine a swirl (for beginners the easiest way to do this is by keeping the glass on a flat surface) then place your nose in the glass and take a few short sniffs.
Know your aromas from your bouquets.
At first it can be difficult to identify the smells of wine, so it is best to start with the broader categories such as the fruit aromas you can pick up from the grapes. These, along with herb and floral notes, are known as the primary aromas and are dependent on the grape used to make the wine.
In white wines you can start with whether you smell tropical fruits, such as pineapple or mango, citrus fruits, including lemon or lime, or stone fruits, which can include peach and apricot.
In red wine, first try to see if you notice a smell of red fruits, such as cherry and raspberry, or black fruits like blackberry and plum.
The secondary aromas are harder to detect and come from fermentation, so can involve familiar smells such as fresh bread from the yeast, while in white wines such as chardonnay, which have been through a second malolactic fermentation, you may detect buttery and caramel notes.
Tertiary aromas come from ageing the wine in both barrel and bottle and are often described as bouquets rather than aromas. They include elements such as vanilla and roasted almond, cedar, clove and dried tobacco, caused by the slight oxygenation of the wine as it ages.
Finally, it’s time to actually taste the wine! This will reveal a whole other set of characteristics, from the acidity or sweetness to the body of the wine and its tannins.
Our taste buds can detect salty, sour, sweet and bitter flavors in different areas of our tongue so it’s important to always swill the wine around your mouth. As you take a sip, try sucking the liquid into your mouth to aerate the wine and help release its flavors.
You should notice that the first flavors you detect reflect the aromas you have already identified, then it’s time to start see what else your taste buds discover. Is it a sweet wine or is there acidity, which would fall in the sour category mentioned above? You are unlikely to encounter saltiness and instead of bitterness you are more likely to find astringency from any tannins in the wine. That’s the feeling that a cabernet sauvignon gives of coating your mouth, drying it slightly.
Does wine have a body?
One other thing you will notice about the wine is how viscous it is and whether it feels light or heavy in the mouth. Think of water and how easily it moves in the mouth, that has no ‘body’, a term used simply to describe the mouthfeel. Then think of skim milk, full-fat milk and cream, these can often be good examples for detecting the three types of ‘body’ a wine can have.
You can expect something like a light refreshing riesling to be light-bodied, while pinot grigio or French burgundy has more of a medium body and shiraz and malbec are more full-bodied.
Hone Your Wine Tasting Skills
As a wine enthusiast you will be delighted to know that to develop your palate and hone your wine tasting skills, you need plenty of practice. Each time you want to try a new wine, go through each of the stages and see how over time you can start to separate out the aromas and flavors. Make notes on the different wines you try and you will start to build up a memory of references.
One other trick is to go to take the time to smell fruits, herbs and spices, then when it comes to tasting a wine the aromas will trigger the memory of each product and help you identify them more quickly. Experts also credit enhancing these skills with a greater enjoyment of not just wine but food as well, ensuring you will have a new appreciation for the whole culinary world.
Once you’ve learned to identify different aromas and flavors, it is then a case of describing them, which is a whole different skill. It takes practice to put into words the sensation each wine gives. Start by reading wine tasting notes to see the language the experts use, try to describe other flavors perhaps as you eat, and just get used to using a different kind of vocabulary. You might even want to meet with friends and try wines together, making tasting notes and describing characteristics.
Learn from the Wine Masters
Finally, why not learn from the experts? The National Wine School (NWS) offers wine qualifications recognized across the country. You can start off small, with the Foundation Program. Then if you’re really enjoying yourself you can work your way through more levels right up to a Level 4 Diploma. Who knows? You could even become one of the elite Masters in Wine.
It all starts with an interest and a little bit of practice. So uncork, sip, swirl and sniff. You’ll soon find yourself developing a palate to rival any sommelier.