Whenever you come across fertile wine country, wine tasting is often one of the most rewarding excursions available. If you long to walk through the vineyards and admire the grapevines and picturesque backdrop, wine glass in hand, you must first learn to appreciate the subtle beauty of wine.
Look at the wine, especially around the edges. Tilting the glass a bit can make it easier to see the way the color changes from the center to the edges. Holding the glass in front of a white background, such as a napkin, tablecloth, or sheet of paper, is another good way to make out the wine’s true color. Look for the color of the wine and the clarity. Intensity, depth or saturation of color are not necessarily linear with quality. White wines become darker as they age while time causes red wines to lose their color turning more brownish, often with a small amount of harmless, dark red sediment in the bottom of the bottle or glass. This is also a good time to catch a preliminary sniff of thewine so you can compare its fragrance after swirling. This will also allow you to check for any off odors that might indicate spoiled (corked) wine.
Swirl the wine in your glass. This is to increase the surface area of the wine by spreading it over the inside of the glass allowing them to escape from solution and reach your nose. It also allows some oxygen into the wine, which will help its aromas open up.
Note the wine’s viscosity (how slowly it runs back down the side of the glass) while you’re swirling. More viscous wines are said to have “legs,” and are likely to be more alcoholic. Outside of looking pretty, this has no relation to a wine’s quality but may indicate a more full bodied wine.
Sniff the wine. Initially you should hold the glass a few inches from your nose. Then let your nose go into the glass. What do you smell?
Take a sip of wine, but do not swallow it until you’re finished with this step.The difference between drinking and tasting is expectorating! Roll the wine around in your mouth exposing it to all of your taste buds. You will only be able to detect sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami (think: meaty or savory). Pay attention to the texture and other tactile sensations such as an apparent sense of weight or body.
- Spit the wine into a spittoonif you are planning to taste lots of wine. If you consume the alcohol, this might cloud your tasting ability. If you’re driving, you should definitely use the spittoon.
Aspirate through the wine. With your lips pursed as if you were to whistle, draw some air into your mouth and exhale through your nose. This liberates the aromas for the wine and allows them to reach your nose where they can be detected. The nose is the only place where you can detect a wine’s aromas. However, the enzymes and other compounds in your mouth and saliva alter some of a wine’s aromatic compounds. By aspirating through the wine, you are looking for any new aromas liberated by the wine’s interaction with the environment of your mouth.
Take another sip of the wine, but this time (especially if you are drinking a red wine) introduce air with it. In other words, slurp the wine (without making a loud slurping noise, of course). Note the subtle differences in flavor and texture.
Note the aftertaste. How long does the finish last? Do you like the taste?
Write down what you experienced. You can use whatever terminology you feel comfortable with. The most important thing to write down is your impression of the wine and how much you liked it. Many wineries provide booklets and pens so that you can take your own tasting notes. This will force you to pay attention to the subtleties of the wine. Also, you will have a record of what the wine tastes like so that you can pair it with meals or with your mood.
- Wines have four basic components: taste, tannins, alcohol and acidity. Some wines also have sweetness – but the latter is only appropriate in dessert wines. A good wine will have a good balance of all four characteristics. Aging will soften tannins (see Tips for a more detailed description). Acidity will soften throughout the life of a wine as it undergoes chemical changes which include the break down of acids. Fruit will rise and then fall throughout the life of a wine. Alcohol will stay the same. All of these factors contribute to knowing when to drink/decant a wine.
- Here are some commonly found tastes for each of the most common varieties (bear in mind that growing region, harvesting decisions and other production decisions have a great impact on a wine’s flavor character):
- Cabernet – black currant, cherry other, black fruits, green spices
- Merlot – plum, red and black fruits, green spices, floral
- Zinfandel – black fruits (often jammy), black spices – often called “briary”
- Syrah (aka Shiraz, depending on vineyard location) – black fruits, black spices – especially white and black pepper
- Pinot Noir – red fruits, floral, herbs
- Chardonnay – cool climate: tropical fruit, citrus fruit in slightly warmer climes and melon in warm regions. With increasing proportion of malolactic fermentation, Chardonnay loses green apple and takes on creamy notes, Apple, pear, peach, apricot
- Sauvignon Blanc – Grapefruit, white gooseberry, lime, melon
- Malolactic fermentation (the natural or artificial introduction of a specific bacteria) will cause white wines to taste creamy or buttery
- Aging in oak will cause wines to take on a vanillaor nutty flavor.
- Other common taste descriptors are minerality, earthiness and asparagus.
- “Tannins” is a very common term in wine tasting (usually red wine). It refers to the astringent, bitter compounds found in grape skins, stems and seeds as well as the oak barrels in which the wine is aged. If you want to know what tannins taste like, just bite into a grape stem or eat a cabernet grape off the vine. In young red wines, tannins taste bitter and drying, but with age they taste silky.
Try pairing wines with unusual ingredients and note the how it enhances or diminishes the flavors of the wine. With red wines try different cheeses, good quality chocolate and berries. With white wines you can try apples, pears and citrus fruits. Pairing wine with food is more complicated than “red with beef and white with fish.” Feel free to drink whichever wine you want with whatever food you want, but remember a perfect pairing is a highly enjoyable experience.