So we first looked at labels, and and today I think we need to stop and learn how to actually taste the wine. Drinking wine and tasting wine are different beasts, as I alluded to in my last post. Tasting wine is something that takes hard work! I know, I know, since when should drinking wine be hard? When you have to taste it!
Ultimately, there are only five steps and there is (naturally) some disagreement on the order in which you do them. One thing is universally agreed upon and that is that to taste wine, you need a clean, clear, wine glass. I have drunk many bottles out of everything from styrofoam to cereal bowls (don’t ask), but the glass does matter. You don’t need to have crystal Riedel glasses, but they should not be tinted, rimmed, or weirdly shaped. Just a plain ol’ wine glass will do the trick!
As you probably know, taste is linked to smell and really that is why wine snobs sniff, swirl and gurgle wine. It is to enhance its smell to better taste the wine, and that is the goal of all the weird-looking hooplah that goes on with wine tasters. It does make a difference, even if you look like an idiot when you do it.
The colour of the wine can give you a number of hints about the type you are drinking. These can be hints to the age or grape varietal. WARNING: This is not a fool-proof system and some suggest that you examine the colour after you taste. It’s up to you. When you get your glass, don’t bother bringing the wine up to a light. This only tells you about the clarity of the wine, which means very little other than whether it was filtered or not. Instead, bring your glass down over a white sheet of paper or a white table cloth. Looking at the wine over a white surface makes it easier to examine the colour.
Let’s talk reds first. Red wines may vary from a brick red to almost black and anywhere in the middle. As a rule of thumb, red wines lose colour as they age. Also consider the meniscus of the wine. That is where the edge of the wine touches the glass and is the best way to judge a wine’s colour. The greater the variation in the colour from the edge of the glass to the centre of the wine, the greater the age. An aged pinot noir will tend to be a brick red with a pale edge; a young cabernet sauvignon will be uniformly garnet. Mostly. This is really just guess work, but it can help you in deciding what the wine is if you are doing a blind tasting. At the very least if you know what the wine is, looking at the colour may help you familiarize yourself with the different colours found in wine.
White wines get darker as they age, but may vary from pale yellow to brown. Unless you are drinking a Sauternes, or sherry, brown is probably a bad sign. There are exceptions, but if someone pours you a brown Sauvignon blanc, RUN IN THE OTHER DIRECTION. The reason a white wine may have more colour is based on (1) age (2) varietal and (3) whether it was aged in wood or stainless steel. Here is a wine colour chart, but frankly you cannot just look at a pale yellow wine and say it’s a chenin blanc. That’s why we have to taste them!
Things are about to get complicated. One should swirl their wine glass by moving it in small circles on a table or in your hand (after some practice). There are those that do not believe that you should swirl, like my boyfriend. He thinks that this can over-aerate your wine. That is possible, but only with really, cheap wine. A good wine needs some air to release its esters, ethers, and aldehydes (fancy chemical speak for smelly molecules) and this is a critical step in preparing to taste. Some argue that you are “seasoning” the wine by swirling and therefore should sniff and taste the wine before swirling. However, the swirling isn’t aerating the wine to the point that it will become flabby. By all means go ahead and try the wine before swirling. You will be amazed at the change in the aromas and taste! You may like it without swirling, and that is fine too, but most wines can use a good swish first. My boyfriend suggests rolling the glass around with the wine instead of swirling, to replicate decanting, but that just seems fussy when I can display bad manners instead and swirl swirl swirl! (We’ll talk decanting another day.) [Mr. ReginaChristina’s comment: Swirling may be for the best. However, once you have swirled the glass you have lost the opportunity to experience what it tastes like straight out of the bottle. I fail to see the harm in a quick pre-swirl sip.]
This is the most important part of wine tasting. Get your nose right into the glass: I promise you it is polite! Since you stirred up all the smells when you swirled the glass, stick your nose in right away and take a series of short quick sniffs. Don’t inhale deeply; short sniffs helps to maximize the scent (like a hound dog searching for a missing person *sniff* *sniff* *sniff*). This is the hardest part of the tasting. What do you smell? It can be pretty much anything. Think hard about what you smell immediately and if you are having trouble, think about other smells you know. Does it smell like blackberries? How about apples? Meat? Cucumbers? Currants? There are hundreds of potential scents and since everyone is different, just because you smell one thing and your compatriot smells another does not mean either of you is wrong. I once had a wine that smelled of popcorn and bubblegum, seriously! Your nose actually stops smelling after six seconds, so don’t just sniff the wine over and over. Just take 3 or 4 sniffs and think about it. This takes a lot of practice and honestly I still struggle with it. Here is an aroma wheel that may be useful, but it only offers a selection of potential aromas in the wine. If you smell other things, that’s great too!
There are things that you may not associate with a good aromas such as smoke, petrol and flint. These are scents that add to the complexity of a good wine. A wine that only tastes like smoke probably aged in an over-toasted barrel and shows bad wine making, but a hint of smoke and tobacco wrapped in black fruits in an Aglianico is beauty to behold!
Finally! You get to put the wine in your mouth! Take a sip that is enough to cover your tongue. DO NOT SWALLOW YET! STOP! I SEE YOU THERE! Let the wine linger on your tongue, think about how it feels in your mouth and the flavours that you can detect. Keep it in your mouth for 3 to 5 seconds, which is actually a pretty long time. When the wine warms up in your mouth, the smell-molecules get more excited and they go up your nasal passage sending messages to your brain (see how scientific we get here?). Think again about what you taste because the flavours can be different from what you smelled in the glass. In a good wine, the flavours will develop and shift in that time in your mouth so you may have tasted raspberries first and then chocolate and plums. Mmm… chocolate… You can swallow your wine now! As an aside, you can also “slurp” your wine by sucking in air with your mouthful of wine. This adds air into the mix and helps you smell better. This is not something you do at a dinner party, but something you do when you are doing serious wine tasting; if there is truly such a thing.
Think about those flavours and smells. You can even write them down, draw them, or think of things that the wine reminded you of: a celebrity, an emotion, or a moment in your life. All are valid and possible things that a wine can remind you of. A fine pinot noir will feel like silk, Burgundy like velvet. This is called mouthfeel and it is often described in terms of fabrics. Then there is the body of the wine. Think of how skim milk feels versus cream in your mouth, it’s not a flavour, but a texture. Wine does the same thing; it can be light, medium, or full bodied, but this does not correlate to light, medium, or full taste.
For white wines, consider the sweetness, or lack thereof. Does the wine have a high acidity? If it tastes vinegary, it is high in acid and badly balanced at that.
For red wines consider the tannins, that sensation on your cheeks and tongue that almost dries your tastebuds. Were they strong yet complimentary to the flavour and body? Were they too strong and overpowered the flavour? Were they too light and made the wine feel weak and flabby?
Aftertaste or Finish: How long does the flavour last in your mouth? How does the flavour evolve or not? This is where you can tell the difference from a good wine and a great one. A good wine will have a finish that lasts a few seconds and may vary a little or not at all in terms of flavour. A great wine can have a finish that lasts up to two minutes and changes and alters over that time. It evolves and evokes different and complicated flavours.
All of these components create the structure of the wine. A white wine that is sweet and no acid has poor structure and is probably not a good wine. A sweet wine with acid and many aromas and changes in flavours is a whole other beast. This is why you should not deride sweet German wines. I promise, there are some that are pure genius!
So what makes a good wine versus a bad one? There are two thoughts on this. Some suggest that a good wine is a wine you like and a bad wine is what you don’t like. I think otherwise. You can like a bad wine and hate a good wine, but there is still bad and good wine. There are plenty of cheap, sweet and mediocre white wines that I enjoy drinking. I know that it is not a good wine, it is just one that I like. Taste and preference of wine does not equate to bad and good wine. For a while it will be difficult to tell the difference. Should you like a bad wine, who cares? In the end it is not a big deal if you just want a glass of wine. If you want to broaden you horizons, however, it is good to understand what makes a quality wine and to be savvy enough to know how to choose better and better wines. Then you’ll be the one people look forward to at dinner parties because of your kick-ass wines!
I think throughout the article, I have managed to give you a good idea of a good wine versus a bad one. Good ones are well structured, have a balance of flavour and aroma, and offer complex and interesting tastes that may change over the evening. A bad wine does none of these things and probably gets flabby and flat over the course of an evening.
So there you have it! How to taste wine in 2000 words or less. If you have any questions, let me know in the comments!