We highly recommend that you peruse this article with a glass of wine in hand. You know, for educational purposes.
To someone that is new to the wine world tasting can seem like a daunting exercise. Some people feel overwhelmed or put on the spot trying to pick out different aroma and flavor nuances in a wine. Others box themselves in and only want to taste wines they are already familiar with. But here’s the thing; wine tasting doesn’t have to be scary or intimidating, and the best part, you can’t be wrong. Smell and taste are entirely subjective and differ from person to person depending on their genetic hardwiring and the environments in which they grow up and live.
The other good news: the best way to better understand wine and become a better taster is to taste often. Wine “experts” got to be expert by not only tasting often but by also tasting in a consistent and logical way. Tasting and drinking are two very different things and should be approached in different ways. You taste wine to learn more, build up your wine library and knowledge, and to be better informed about what you do actually want to drink in the future. So don’t turn down the taste of a wine you think you don’t like, don’t chug back your taste like a shot, and follow these 4 easy steps to start becoming a better taster today.
Before you take that first sip you want to look at the wine first. When your looking at the wine you are essentially looking for two things: the hue / intensity of the color, and the legs or tears of the wines.
What can these things tell you about the wine? While you can’t draw any concrete conclusions about the quality or the origin of the wine just by looking at it, you can form some opinions about the type of grapes the wine may have been made from, the region it was made in, the age of the wine, how it might have been aged, and how much alcohol is in the wine. That’s a lot of info whether you are trying to blind taste the wine and figure out what it is and where its from or you are just building up your wine knowledge these are important factors to know about your wine.
What can color tell you about wine?
The first thing to keep in mind is that color is definitely not an indicator of flavor. An intensely colored wine does not necessarily correlate to intense flavor.
But it can give you an indication to both the type of grape the wine is made from, as well as the age of the wine. The skins of the grapes contain all the color pigment in wine, without contact with the skins “red” wine varietals would be the same color as “white” wine varietals. Which means if you know that there are certain varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon and Nebbiolo that tend to have thick skins you know they wines they produce tend to be fairly intensely colored.
Color can also be an indication of age. As red wines age they lose their color and as white wines age they take on more color.
Let’s Talk Legs
The other thing you want to focus on is the legs or the tears. These are the drips that come down the side of the glass after you have swirled the wine in the bowl. You may have previously heard people make a funny joke about a wine with nice legs. Here is my favorite response to that and it’s fittingly from a wine industry legend:
“Leg’s have nothing to do with quality. It is irresistible to point out that wines – like women – should not be judged by their legs. “ – Karen MacNeil
The legs are the result of alcohol having more viscosity than the rest of the liquids in wines and there for falling at a slower rate. Thicker, fatter legs means it is a higher alcohol wine (or the wine has residual sugar).
Smell is by far the most important sense you will use in tasting, but it also the most difficult. It is one of our most primitive senses, but even though our nose can detect thousands of different aroma compounds, the average person is only able to name a handful.
But don’t let that scare you away, and definitely don’t be shy. Get your nose in the glass and approach it with a plan. When you’re smelling the wine you won’t be able to take one sniff and rattle off a list of specific adjectives like ripe mango skin and honeysuckle right away. Even professionals need to take their time. When you are smelling the wine you’re looking for not only the intensity of the aromas but also what major category they fall into: Fruit, Floral, Herbs and Spices, Oak, and Earth. Start off with broad categories first and then see if you can winnow down from there. So if you take your first whiff and you smell fruit, from there you can narrow it down to red fruit and then from there maybe even further to strawberry and then you are on your way.
Taste and smell are clearly linked. The smell of the wine is a good indication of what it might taste like, but you also still smell the wine even as it’s in your mouth and that is absolutely contributing to your perception of the flavor.
One of the most important things to understand is the first sip doesn’t count. That one is a reset for your palate to clear out whatever wine you had before or whatever you just ate. Furthermore, the wine can change dramatically even just in the time that it sits in your glass. As the temperature and the volume of wine in the glass changes you may also notice subtle changes in the wines overall impression on you.
Focus on Flavors and Feeling
Here are some things to look for when tasting the wine:
- Is it Sweet? – This doesn’t mean does it taste fruity but is there any residual sugar left in the wine. The vast majority of wines that we drink are dry, meaning that all the natural sugars in the grapes were converted to alcohol during the fermentation process and there is no sugar remaining in the wine.
- Tannin (only in red wine) – Tannins are what dry your mouth out at the end. Almost all red wines have tannins present in some form but they are more prevalent in certain varietals. Describing tannins in wine can be similar to describing sandpaper, use descriptors like: fine, smooth, medium, gritty or grippy.
- Acidity – Acidity is what makes your mouth water. Low acid wines tend to feel flabby or flat while high acid wines feel light and taste tart.
- Alcohol – You can feel the alcohol in the wine in the form of a burning sensation in your throat. Alcohol level generally contributes to the overall body of a wine
- Body – how all of the above elements come together and the weight of the wine in your mouth. Instead of sandpaper for this one you can think in terms of milk, i.e. skim milk, verses 2%, versus whole milk. Body is typically described as being light, medium, or full.
- Finish – the extent to which a wines flavors and aromas linger on your palate after you have swallowed the wine. Finish is typically described in terms of length of time like a short finish or a long finish.
This is your personal overall impression of the wine. Don’t be shy and don’t be intimidated because ultimately you can’t be wrong. Here’s an easy way to break down your conclusion of a wine:
- Is it in balance? Meaning did any one of the factors overpower another or were they working together?
- Is it complex? Did you smell or taste something new every time you came back to the wine?
- What is your opinion? Seriously, that’s it. What did you think of the wine? Would you taste it again? Would you want to buy a glass or a bottle? You can use any kind of rating system that you like for this.
That’s all there is to it. Look, smell, taste and evaluate. Don’t get intimidated by language or the pomp and circumstance of tasting. Approach it in a way that is comfortable for you but if you approach it in a systematic way you will become a better taster over time and find its easier to pull out specific flavors in the wine. And, finally, if you needed one more excuse, there is a recent study out showing that wine tasting engages your brain more than any other behavior. So really, taste for your health.