This is the second part of a two-parts article. If you missed the first part, you can find it here: https://vinifero.ch/blogs/discover/how-to-taste-wine-part-1
The First Step: Looking
As all foodies, chefs, and food experts will tell you, eating or drinking is an experience that should engage all the senses. The first sense to engage in the wine tasting process is your sense of sight.
Pour the wine until your glass is roughly 1/4 full, and do the following:
Look at it from above
Look straight down into the glass. This will give you a sense of the wine’s colour, giving you an idea of how dense and saturated the wine is. It’s useful to have a white background to look at the wine through, even a white sheet of paper can help.
Some grapes can also be identified by their colour, for example:
- Wine of a deep purple or near black may be Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah or a Zinfandel;
- Wine of a lighter colour may be a Sangiovese or Pinot Noir.
Look at it from the side
Hold the wine glass up to the light and look at it from the side.
If a wine is cloudy or has some sediment, it means that is not filtered nor fined; generally speaking, it doesn't necessarily mean it's something bad. It may just mean that the wine is more natural, or it could be that the wine was shaken up before serving. For example, there is a particular style of sparkling wine ( called "méthode ancestrale" in French) that has some sediment left on the bottom of the wine on purpose.
Of course, if there is A LOT of sediment, it may mean that there was a problem with the fermentation.
Tilt the wine glass to one side, and study the wine near the rim of the glass. The wine will thin out there, and it will help you to see the wine’s weight and age.
A thin or light wine will usually be pale and watery near the edge, meaning it won’t have a lot of body or texture.
- Older white wines will look brown or tawny near the edge;
- Older red wines will look orange or rust-coloured near the edge.
Swirl the wine around in the glass, and see if there are "tears" or "legs" running down the inside of the glass. If so, this means the wine has a higher glycerin and alcohol content, and it will be a riper, bigger, denser, and more mouth-filling wine. If there are no legs, the wine is thinner and less dense.
Once you’ve engaged your eyes, it’s time to move on to your next sense: the sense of smell.
The Second Step: Smelling
Your nose is able to identify thousands of unique scents, making it one of your best tools to use in the wine tasting process.
To smell the wine, hover your nose above the rim of the glass and take a few slow sniffs. Breath in through your nose, and sometimes closing your eyes even helps with the concentration and focus on smelling. You will pick up all sorts of aromatic compounds – fruits, flowers, herbs, spices etc. – and these will tell you about the wine.
However, what you’re looking for is:
There will be certain "off" aromas that will tell you that your wine has spoiled:
- If the wine smells like a musty attic or damp cardboard, it is spoiled. This will be down to cork taint usually as is known as TCA (Trichloroanisole);
- If the wine smells like vinegar, it has excessive volatile acidity;
- If the wine smells too yeasty, has too much animal-like aroma or cheesey traits, it could be brettanomyces (a different and unwanted type of yeast) infected, this will obliterate fruit flavors;
- If the wine smells like burnt matches, there is too much sulphur dioxide or SO2 in the bottle, which can be improved with decanting or aeration.
These aromas will help you to determine if the wine is faulty.
If the wine has no aromas indicating faults, the next thing to search for is primary aromas.
They can be divided in two big clusters:
- Fruit aromas;
A good wine should smell like fresh fruit; there are only three types of wine that won’t smell like fruit:
- Wine that is very sweet;
- Wine that is very cold;
- Wine that is very old;
- The wine has too much oak and that is all that can be detected.
The fruit aromas will help you determine the origin of the wine, as well as the type of grape used in the winemaking.
These aromas are subtler than the fruit scents, but they’re no less important.
- Rhône reds (blends made mainly from Syrah and Grenache) can smell like herbs from Provence or pepper;
- Cabernet Sauvignon reds smell more like vegetation and herbs (think blackcurrant leaf);
- Sauvignon Blanc whites smell grassy, or nettley.
The floral and herbal aromas are delicate, but they add balance, complexity, and harmony to the wine.
There are deeper, richer aromas in the wine, such as kerosene, nuts, chocolate, coffee, coconut, vanilla, butter, and cream. These scents can come from:
- The winemaking technique (yeast or lees contact, Malolactic Fermentation or MLF);
- The vessels in which the wine was aged (oak);
- The aging process.
They are called secondary and tertiary aromas.
Winemaking technique aromas
The winemaker can help the developing of certain aromas (to a certain degrees) thanks to some techniques, like:
- Autolysis: after fermentation, yeasts in the wine start dying and they release typical aromas of bread, pastry, brioche, and biscuits. In French it's called sur lie and it's fundamental for the production of Champagne.
- MLF: it's the chemical process in which malic acid, naturally present in grape must, is converted to lactic acid. The process is standard for most red wine production and common for some white wines and adds buttery, cheesey, and creamy flavors.
The flavor of the barrels can be affected by:
- Type of oak used
- Barrel making process
- Age of the barrels
- Char on the barrels
- Mixing of the wine in the barrels
- Size of the barrels
The barrels can add another level of complexity to the wine’s aromas. For example you may pick up vanilla, or coconut aromas from wine that has been in oak.
These aromas (called tertiary aromas) have their origin in aging process. The aging process could be oxidative (caused by the action of oxygen), for example, due to a long period in oak. Alternatively, the aging process could be protected from the action of oxygen, for example, due to a long period in bottle.
In both instances, the aging process changes the primary aromas (fruit aromas become less fresh and can take on a dried or cooked character) and add other aromas (e.g. coffee, toffee, caramel, petrol, mushroom, or honey).
You’ve finished smelling the wine, so it’s on to the final step: tasting!
The Final Step: Tasting
Your tongue is covered with taste buds, which are capable of detecting a limited range of flavors. In fact strictly speaking the tongue can detect just four (or five) flavors, and these are sweet, sour, bitter and salty (and umami).
These flavors typically are picked up more specifically on certain areas of the tongue, for example sweetness is particularly strong on the tip of our tongues. Give your tongue the chance to taste the wine, and you’ll get a lot more out of each vintage.
Don’t gulp down the wine, but take a small sip. Hold the wine in your mouth for a moment, then suck air through it to aerate it. This will open up the wine and expose your taste buds to all the flavors, and more importantly send the aromas coming off the wine up to your much more receptive nasal receptors.
When tasting the wine, look for these four things:
A good wine has all the flavor components in the right balance. You want plenty of sweet, but enough sour and acidity to balance it out. There should be very little salty (apart from in some dry Sherries), and the tannins will provide the bitter. Your taste buds will tell you if the wine is well-balanced. If the wine is too sweet, sour, hot, bitter, or doesn’t have enough acidity, the wine is NOT well-balanced
A young wine that isn’t well-balanced will not age well. An old wine that isn’t well-balanced may be "falling apart" – losing its flavors.
A good wine is complex, with multiple flavors and aromas in many layers. Complex wines won’t just have the primary flavors that you experience upon first tasting them, but the flavors will change even as you taste them. These wines are the best, as they are the ones that will give you a unique drinking experience every time.
If the flavors of the wine linger on your tongue even after you swallow, it’s a good indication of complexity. Don’t take another mouthful or move on to the next wine before giving the complex vintage a chance to impress you. If the flavors last a long time we say the wine has good length.
If the wine has a satisfying finish after a balanced, complex, and harmonious mouth-feel, it’s a complete wine. These are the wines you want to try, as they will be the most pleasurable and will offer the best tasting experiences.
Wine Tasting Tips from the Experts
Here are a few wine tasting tips to help you maximise the pleasure of your wine:
1. Swirl the wine right
Swirling will release aroma compounds, giving your nose more to latch onto when tasting. Coating the wine glass with wine gives more surface area and hence more smell.
2. Taste multiple wines
The more wines you taste in the same sitting, the more you will expand your palate. It’s easier to spot differences through comparisons, but take your time and don’t drink too much! – Sipping is de rigueur for many wine tastings.
3. Take a larger sip
This will coat your mouth, and when you follow it up with smaller sips, you’ll have more wine to taste – making it easier to isolate flavors. Move the wine around your mouth.
4. Keep and read tasting notes.
The more you taste, the more you will want to taste. Take notes of each wine you taste, and read others’ tasting notes to learn more about the wine tasting process.
Follow these tips as a beginners guide, and you’ll get the most out of each bottle of wine you drink!
Image credits: Viktor Hanacek