How To Taste Wine
Why do we taste wine, why don’t we just drink it?
Well, just like food, the more we smell and savour, the more enjoyment we will get out of it. If we wolf down a plate of carefully prepared food, which includes herbs, spices and other flavourings, mixed with a variety of textures of meat and vegetables, we don’t really enjoy the contribution that each element gives to the dish; fish steamed with ginger and lemongrass, meat braised with cinnamon and orange, creamy pannacotta with a lively passion fruit coulis – we enjoy a huge variety of textures and tastes every day, and grow to appreciate them. It’s no different with wine.
The more you spend a little time smelling, tasting and savouring a wine, the more enjoyment you will get, the more you will learn about what you like, and also what you don’t like, and you will also learn to identify when something is wrong with a wine.
The Three Steps To Wine Tasting
There are 3 main areas to cover: Colour, aroma and flavour. How do we do this, and how do we release:
A wine’s colour is always the first indicator of its style; take a moment to look at the clarity of the wine in the glass, swirl it around and observe.
What to look for....
With Champagne and sparkling wine, you are looking for small, regular bubbles, fizzing up to the top of the glass.
With young, white wines, you need a lively, pale yellow, almost straw colour, sometimes with tinges of green, fresh and limpid. Generally, the paler the wine, the fresher the style.
Older, or oaked whites tend to be more golden in colour, as do sweet dessert wines, whose texture is also a lot thicker, and almost syrupy, as you swirl it around the glass.
If you pour a glass of a wine that should be fresh, dry and light, and it’s a deep golden or amber, avoid like the plague, as this colour means that it is old and oxidised.
For reds, the colour gives more of an idea about the age and the intensity of the wine; light, garnet, cherry red, which you can almost see through indicate that the wine is likely to be fresh, fruity and with low tannins.
Dense, purply - deep red colour indicates youth, and depth.
Paler, blood red wines, often with a slightly brownish edge indicate older, more mature wines (or in the case of wines to be drunk young, wines that are over their best).
Why do wine tasters always swirl the wine in their glass? Quite simply, in order to get the most of the aromas, and enjoy them! If you pour a glass of wine and just smell it, you won’t get a huge amount of aroma; try again, and swirl it around, and it’s a whole different story.
Swirl the wine around, and you get oxygen and air into the glass, which helps unleash the vibrant aromas of the wine; this is how wine tasters work on identifying what a wine is when they taste blind; but for simple pleasure, it’s like bruising basil leaves and smelling them before using them, and sniffing the tangy freshness of the orange zest as you peel it.
You can tell a huge amount from smelling a wine; you may not be able to identify individual aromas ( although if you’re prompted, you can then often find that hint of fresh lime that someone else has mentioned).
With white wines, it’s all about freshness, and in lighter styles of wine, a vibrant, citrussy aroma; Sauvignons tend to be all about fresh lime, passion fruit and zesty herbs; Chardonnay has a creamy, baked apple and white peach character, whilst Viognier has hints of apricots, and Riesling is full of honeysuckle and appley aromas. Oaked whites smell of buttered toast. This is a huge generalisation, but should set you on the right track.
Rose wines should be bursting with fresh, juicy, crushed berry aromas of strawberries, raspberries and rosehips.
Reds vary wildly; Cabernet Sauvignon often smells of blackcurrants and mint; Merlot has a plummy, almost chocolatey aroma; Pinot Noir is all about ripe raspberry fruit and violets; Rhone wines have a peppery edge, as do big, bold spicy Shiraz, with an added hint of mocha. Italian reds often have a savoury, black cherry and herby tang, whilst Spanish reds, especially Rioja smell of strawberries and vanilla oak.
Here you are looking for balance, and as much flavour as possible. That’s why we, in the world of wine tasting, make those disgusting noises, as we swoosh the wine around in our mouth, and seem to almost ‘gargle’ with it! I don’t suggest you go to those extremes, but why do we do it when we’re tasting? Quite simply, just as with the smell, to get as much air and oxygen into the wine, to release the flavours; by swirling it around in our mouth, we get the wine into every edge, and pick up all the different flavours and elements, such as sweetness, acid, saltiness and sharpness, and then we have that hopefully delicious, lingering finish, as all the elements amalgamate.
There are a myriad different flavours and styles of wine – the most important thing to you, is do you like it? By taking a moment to smell and then savour, do you really enjoy all the elements, would you want to drink this again? You can learn a lot about the styles of wine you really enjoy, just by spending a couple of minutes taking notice of what’s in your glass.
By balance I mean the right mix of fruit, freshness, acidity, sometimes oak, and in red wines, tannins. A wine might be initially appealing on the nose, but then taste thin, or the first taste is very fruity and then the wine fades to nothing. Similarly a red wine might have a lovely aroma of rich, plummy fruit, but then harsh tannins (which can make the sides of your mouth pucker) take over on the palate. What you are looking for is balance – a fresh, zesty white, full of citrus tang, needs a refreshing kick of acidity on the finish, to give it that extra zing, otherwise it promises, but does not deliver. Richer whites need to balance the oak element with enough creamy, fruity richness, and reds, once again, need that mix of fruit, and integrated soft tannins.
Finally, the ‘finish’ – this is the part where you have tasted and swallowed the wine, but hopefully the flavour lingers, and reveals even more hidden charms, as the taste develops in the mouth – it’s that smooth, all-enveloping, satisfying moment, when you realise that you have really enjoyed a great glass of wine!