How to taste wine properly is simple. Yes you read that correctly. Let me share a parallel concept: Wine is simple – it is simply fermented grape juice. When you think about from that point of view, how to taste wine properly is in fact simple. There is nothing complicated about it, there is no advanced degree needed on how to taste wine properly. There is no reason to become overwhelmed by the process of tasting wine. Within this review, we discuss the How to taste wine properly: 4 steps.
Before we jump straight into these 4 steps, it might be beneficial to know or understand why we care about how to taste wine properly. For some, it provides a safety net when ordering wine to ensure that that individual gets the wine they like. For others, it provides a springboard to new uncharted wines. While for the select few, it provides the fundamental components to help identify wine: the grape varietal, the region/appellation, the barreling method, etc. Experts within the wine world, can utilize the same 4 steps we are going to discuss to help identify the specific wine they are drinking without any hints or clues, other than their senses: sight, smell, taste. Sound overwhelming? Let’s break down the 4 steps to how to taste wine properly.
- Visual – looking at the wine against a neutral/white background
- Aromas – smelling of the wine
- Taste – assess the structure of the wine as well as the tastes that are derived
- Analysis – put the previous steps together to decide your interpretation of the wine
Let’s get the easy one out of the way.
There are certain wines that are white (Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, etc) and certain wines that are red (Syrah, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, etc). So, your first step in looking at the wine is deciding whether the wine is red or white. But there is more to it than that, even within red wines, different wines produce different hues and can be exceptionally helpful in identifying the wine – take a look at the color palate that we have prepared:
White Wine Color Profile
As you can see, certain wines tend to be lighter in nature (Pinot Noir) as compared to Syrah which is classically one of the deepest colored wines. These hues can overlap to some degree depending on where the grapes were harvested, addition of different varietals, among other winemaking techniques
Legs = alcohol content
Beyond the color of the wine, one can also gain some insight into the amount of alcohol that is in the wine. While swirling of the wine helps to open up the wine to detect aromas (more on that later), it is also helpful as it produces legs which help determine the alcohol content. After swirling the wine, the residual beads of wine will trickle back into the base of the wine glass due to gravity. When someone says that a wine has long legs or slow legs – they mean that after swirling the wine takes a long time to return to the base of the wine – also, long is a relative term as we mean that it will take several seconds to drift towards the body. These types of wine are generally higher in alcohol content. On the other end of the spectrum, wines that are low in alcohol produce legs that retreat quickly to the body of the wine (generally 1-2 secs). Developing a good idea of the alcohol within a wine takes a good deal of practice. Instead of immediately looking at the alcohol content of a wine, try swirling the wine and utilize previous experience to guess the alcohol content. With some practice you should be able to make a more educated guess surrounding alcohol content.
Cloudy = sedimentation
Wines, especially wines that have aged for long periods of time (or remained in the fridge) can develop sedimentation or debris. This debris, is not debris at all. In fact, it is crystallization that occurs due to naturally occurring acid that is found within the wine – potassium bitartrate. The crystals are harmless but they can be sometimes unsightly for people who are unfamiliar to them. Thankfully, the use of a decanter will help to remove the sedimentation and produce a crystal clear (or free) wine ready to be tasted!
Smelling the Wine. Part of the fun with wine tasting is to decipher the various aromas that are produced within the wine. Certain wines produce certain aromas based solely on the grapes being utilized; however, barreling, climate, soil can all influence the aromas that are produced within a wine.
Example Wine Profiles
Often described as the most difficult aspect of wine tasting, describing the smell of the wine can be challenging especially given the subtleties of certain aromas. During our experiences (and through educational books), the smelling of the wine has been portrayed in a step-wise approach. Based on our experience we will go through the technique that has worked best for us.
- Swirl the wine – the reason for this very important step is to help release the aromas of the wine. This is especially important in wines that are “tight” which tend to hold their aromas. Swirling the wine helps to improve the wine-to-oxygen contact helping to release these aromas. Be careful with swirling the wine as spills can easily happen – personal experience(s). The best way to ensure spills do not occur is to gently swirl the wine on a flat surface – your swirl does not have to be big and bold but simple and gentle.
- Smell the wine –
- Primary aromas ⇒ fruits/florals
- Secondary aromas ⇒ fermentation (winemaking practices)
- Tertiary aromas ⇒ aging and barreling techniques
One of the frustrating things with smelling the wine is when people don’t get “what they are supposed to smell in wines.” There is no right or wrong smell with wines – there have been several times when my wife and I have different interpretations of the wine. Very rarely do we get exactly the same aromas. Just because the winemaker says there are notes of vanilla, cocoa, baking spices, anise, etc doesn’t mean that you have to get every one of those. More importantly, just because you don’t get them doesn’t mean that you are necessarily doing anything wrong. Experts have incredibly refined palates, picking up on seemingly undetectable aromas – it is part of their job. Don’t be discouraged when this happens – just continue to try broadening your palate through wine tasting.
Tasting the wine. I recently read an interesting educational section of a book that pointed out that you can only truly taste 6 things (based on new laboratory research): sweet, salty, bitter, sour, umami, and fat. However, we hear it all the time that people taste blackberry, or detect cranberries within a wine. The point of this statement isn’t to point out that one can’t taste these unique flavors or aromas but to simply clarify what is meant. If you don’t believe me try this:
- Pour yourself a citrusy beverage
- Before you drink, plug your nose and take a drink, describe the flavors – at a loss??
- Now, take a drink normally, allowing the aromas to sensed through your oral cavity – confused?
What we described as “tasting” blackberry flavors in wines is not actually tasting these flavors but smelling them through an internal process known as retronasal olfaction. Basically, the scents and aromas that are produced within a wine are detected as the internally migrate from the oral cavity into the nasal passage. So, the importance of “swishing and swirling” the wine in the mouth is important to ensure the aromas are smelt when entering the nasal passage.
So, what are we actually doing when we “taste” the wine?
- Is the wine dry or sweet?
- What is the body of the wine? Full bodied like a Merlot or Shiraz or light like a Sauvignon Blanc or something in between like a Pinot Noir?
- Is there acidity to the wine – is it tart or smooth?
- What type of tannins does the wine produce? Soft? Round? Firm?
- Texture of the wine – Juicy? Silky? Oily? Velvety? Smooth?
Now that we understand what we are trying to taste in the wine, how do we actually taste wine? Is there a proper way?
The most common manner to taste wine that we have found is the 3-sip method.
- Coat your mouth with the wine with a decent sized sip – this should not be a “tasting” sip but merely to acclimate your mouth with the wine
- On your second sip, swish the wine around your mouth to enhance the contact with your mouth as well as increasing the aromas that are detected by your nasal cavity
- You are trying to identify the primary aromas of the wine – fruits and potentially herbaceous notes
- On the third sip, again swish the wine but focus on the secondary aromas which include spices to help identify aging of the wine
Analysis – Putting it all together. Potentially the most important thing in tasting wine – deciding what you liked and didn’t like and most importantly trying to remember attributes of the wine. If you are really interested in learning about wine this step will significantly help with your wine-ventures. Remembering what you liked and didn’t like can help guide you in deciding what wines you potentially should and should not try in the future. If it’s obvious that you didn’t like light, crisp, refreshing citrus wines – then make note of what they were and avoid them in the future. Also, if you don’t like red plum or jammy wines then make note of them and avoid them.
An important component in tasting wine relates to a bit of concentration. You can try wine in any setting imaginable – but to truly taste and analyze it must be done while concentrating. Trying to decipher key attributes of the wine is not easy and even less-so when compounded with noise and distraction.
One thing that Charlcie and I have started doing is taking notes when we are tasting wines. Not only does this provided us a consistent manner to taste wine, but it also forces us to focus on specifics of the wine. Color. Clarity. Aromas. Balance. Most importantly, it allows us a reference to look back on if there was a wine we particularly enjoyed. There are multiple guides or tasting books available, but the one that we use and enjoy is called Wine Tasting Notebook. It is simple and easy to use.
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