Tasting is different from drinking. Drinking can be mindless. Tasting requires a tenacity of mind, actively connecting the information you receive from your taste buds (sweet, sour, bitter, salty & savoury) and your olfactory sensors (smell) to the parts of your brain that manage aroma & flavour — there are closely related to the parts of your brain that manage memory and emotion.
The following tasting technique and terminology are here to help you identify and define your experience with a wine. It should help you decide whether or not you like the wine you’re drinking, and then vocalise your impressions, so wine professionals can help you drink more of what you like, more often!
- avoid assertive food and drink prior to tasting;
- use clean glassware – free from aromas of detergents or packaging;
- if you’re a note-taker – take notes!
- If you’re tasting many wines – spit!
- for the most productive tasting experience we suggest a flight no bigger than six to eight wines. Your palate is like a muscle, and it will get tired, especially if you’re not spitting the wine out!
Appearance – what do you see?
Bubbles (Sparkling) or No Bubbles (Still)?
Bubbles in wine are CO2, a product of the fermentation process. When making a sparkling wine, the winemaker wants to harness those bubbles in a variety of methods. If a winemaker is making a still wine, you would simply ferment in an open container, letting the CO2 to be released into the air.
Clear or Cloudy?
These days there are a lot of cloudy wines on the market, where winemakers choose not to filter or fine the particles is suspension. The philosophy would suggest that when filtering out the bad stuff, you likely lose some good stuff too, namely interesting aroma & flavour compounds anf texturalç characters. Fining agents are often not vegan friendly, and remaining particles in the wine promote texture. A cloudy wine could indicate a fault, but you wouldn’t be able to tell just by looking at it. If the nose is clean (see below) It’s more likely just an unfiltered wine.
Colour can indicate many factors, including age, oxidation, grape varietal, concentration and extraction. Can you read a piece of paper through it? Is it brilliant or dull? White wines get darker as they get older, red wines get lighter. You’ll note the more intense colour pulling away from the rim of the wine and concentrating in the center.
Legs or Tears?
There’s always that one guy at the cocktail party: “Ooh, this wine’s got great legs.” Great legs, however, don’t necessarily mean great wine. The slower the legs or tears are to form and fall, the thicker the wine. The only two components that affect viscosity are sugar and alcohol. There’s no real way to measure it, and even the cleanliness or quality of your glassware can affect how the legs present themselves. I pay them no mind — when it comes to sugar and alcohol, trust your taste buds more than your eyeballs. Make a quick assessment of how the wine moves in your glass and move on to the nose.
Nose – what do you smell?
Clean or Unclean? Damp, dank cardboard or wet dog, along with a distinct lack of fruit aromas likely indicates that the wine is corked, a fault caused by the presence of the chemical TCA. If you think this is the case, ask the wine pro who sold it to you for their opinion, and should they concur, the bottle will likely be replaced or refunded. Most of the time, any other unusual or unclean aromas blow off as the wine continues to breathe. Be sure to give the wine a good long swirl before you make any rash judgements.
Aroma’s are broken into tiers:
- primary aromas – often reflecting the properties of the grapes themselves;
- secondary aromas – that result from winemaking techniques (such as the use of oak or bâtonnage);
- tertiary aromas – which are a result of the wine’s ageing process and development.
Intensity? Is it heavily perfumed? Or are the aromas muted? Certain grape varietals are more aromatic than others.
Sometimes you recognise a flavour or aroma, but you just can’t put your finger on it — check out this easy vocabulary list. Running through it may trigger your brain to help you identify what you’re experiencing. This is not a comprehensive list of all the aromas you might find but is a good starting point to train your nose.
Fruit Citrus, orchard, stone, berry (red or black), tropical
Quality of Fruit Under-ripe, fresh, ripe, Over-Ripe, decaying, baked, dried, candied, preserved
Flowers White, rose, violet, honeysuckle, orange blossom
Vegetables Vegetal, herbaceous, grassy, capsicum
Oak Vanilla, toast, smoke, coconut, hazelnut
Spice Baking spices, white/black pepper, liquorice, coffee, chocolate
Dairy Butter, cheese, cream
Mineral Wet rock, concrete, chalk, slate, earth, flint, petrol, tar
Animal Leather, meaty, farmyard, bloody
Maturity Mushrooms, savoury, tobacco, cedar, honey, forest floor
Palate – what do you taste?
Sweetness? People often say that a wine smells ‘sweet’. But, when you think about it, the word ‘sweet’ technically has no aroma. However, ripe fruit does have aromas, and our brain knows that ripe fruit is sweet, and it simply jumps to the conclusion that this wine must be sweet. Interestingly, you can have ripe fruit aromas in a wine without the actual presence of sugar. On the other hand, some wines with very light aromas can have significant residual sugar. So don’t jump to conclusions before you actually taste the wine and let it linger in your mouth. Ripe fruit flavours don’t necessarily correlate with residual sugar. Is your palate left sticky or refreshed?
Acidity? Assess the acidity – does it make your mouth pucker? How quickly after swallowing does your mouth start to salivate? The more and quicker you salivate the more acid is in the wine.
Tannin? Tannin dries out your palate – assess and describe the texture of the Tannins — are they rough? Fine? Dusty? Velvety? Tannins are generally rougher in their youth and get softer with age. Alcohol? Does the alcohol seem high or low? Alcohol feels heavier on your palate. Can you feel the alcohol going down? You shouldn’t! Remember, it’s all about BALANCE!
ARE ALL OF THESE ELEMENTS
– sugar, alcohol, acidity – IN BALANCE? Or does one stick out like a sore thumb? This is often the most important question and my biggest indicator of a quality wine and skilled winemaker.
Flavours? Much of the time, the flavours on your palate will match the profile of the aromas you found qhen smelling. But sometimes there can be a disconnect. The new information we receive from our taste buds inform the perception of the aromas. Even when the wine is on your palate, you’re still smelling the wine. Think about the journey the wine has on your palate — from the tip of your tongue, to the mid-palate, through to the finish. What do you experience at each step?
Long or Short Finish? Swallow the wine and watch the clock, how long after swallowing do the flavours persist? Generally speaking, the best wines have long finishes.
Overwhelmed? Don’t be. At the end of the day, tasting is about finding what you like, and identifying flavours based on what you know. The more you taste the bigger your vocabulary will get.
An example — On a winery visit in New Zealand, I tasted a Sauvignon Blanc and I smelled grapefruit. The Kiwi next to me (the guy, not the fruit) smells the same wine and picks up notes of gooseberry. But I don’t know what a gooseberry smells like – I didn’t grow up eating them and therefore it’s not part of my palate vocabulary. Keep in mind: neither grapefruit nor gooseberry are actually in the wine. It’s just fermented Sauvignon Blanc grape juice. We’re smelling a chemical compound present in the wine that our brain recognises as something we’re familiar with — for me, a Ruby Red Grapefruit. For my friend the Kiwi, his Grandmother’s Gooseberry Tart — and neither of us are wrong. Sure, there are things wine professionals know about those chemical compounds in various grapes and how they’re affected by varying vineyard and winemaking techniques, empirical data over the history of a region and their widely accepted styles. It’s unlikely that the Sauvignon Blanc would smell like Blueberries — but whatever you taste or smell, be confident in your own personal assessment. Add the letter “y” at the end, nod your head, say it with conviction! “Barnyardy!” Hell yeah!
As mentioned earlier, your emotions have a lot to do with how we perceive flavour.
If our Kiwi friend has a fond memory of his grandmother giving him his first gooseberry tart while patting him on his little cherub-like head, he may have a stronger affinity for that wine – it’s linked to a positive memory. On the flip side, you may taste a red wine that reminds you of your uncle Johnny’s cigar box – but, if uncle Johnny was a creeper – you may not like that wine!
Who you’re with, the time of day, the weather, all have an effect on how you perceive aroma & flavour and on the memories you’ll create of them. I always say that wine will help a bad mood, but don’t waste great wine on a bad mood as you won’t have the full capacity to appreciate it.
Your homework to become a better taster is easy – taste more!
It’s also helpful to taste with context. Ex: You’ll gain a better understanding of oaked Chardonnay if you taste it side-by-side with a Chardonnay produced in stainless steel only. It’s also great to taste in a group – tasting is both objective and subjective and you can build on the collective palates of the room. Don’t be shy! The best exercise is to vocalise your experience. And don’t forget to HAVE FUN!
This is a guest-post by Dan Belmont
Dan is your neighbourhood wine & cheese raconteur. A native New Yorker, Dan fell in love with wine visiting the Finger Lakes wine region in New York State and has since worked as a brand ambassador and hospitality consultant for several notable Finger Lakes producers and represents the statewide industry in Europe. He is a former affineur, cheesemonger, & Education Manager of NYC’s famed Murray’s Cheese. He currently lives in London, where he developed the public education program at Bedales of Borough.