Tasting Wine: A Primer
When it comes to drinking wine, the process usually goes something like this: wine gets poured into a glass, wine gets drank, rinse and repeat. And there's nothing wrong with enjoying wine in this manner. After a long day at work, the last thing many of us want to do is analyze whether or not our Nappa Cabernet Sauvignon has pyrazines. (hint: it does).
For many, wine is a beverage that is consumed during a meal or celebration or relaxes us after a long day. But like meeting that person at the bar in the dead of winter, peeling back the layers reveals so much more and often leads to a much more enjoyable experience at the end of the night. I'm here to teach you the basics of wine tasting so you can rid yourself of the that #basic moniker for once and for all.
I know. I know. Once that liquid hits the glass, you want to get it inside your body without hesitation but slow down, you're missing one of the most important aspects of tasting, and that is sight. Like anyone who isn't blind, we taste with our eyes first. This is why looking at all of the foodporn on Instagram can make us hungry and our mouths water with anticipation. Given you have adequate light, simply looking at a wine provides clues to a the grapes, climate, and viticulture process of that wine. For red wines, a darker color might suggest a thick skinned grape variety or prolonged skin contact during maceration. A lighter color could mean the opposite or that the wine has seen some oxidation or age as red wines begin to loose their color as they get older. Whites wines tell a similar story except that they actually become darker with age due to oxidation. If you left your white wine in the refrigerator too long after it's been opened, you might even notice the formation of tartrates, which is crystallized tartaric acid and is completely harmless. These look like small bits of broken glass in a bottle so many winemakers choose to filter these out before bottling. As you can see, there is a ton to learn just by looking at a glass of wine so next time you have a glass, just take a minute to look at it first.
This is undoubtedly the most important part of tasting. Sounds counterintuitive doesn't it? Next time you eat your favorite food, do it while holding your nose shut and watch how quickly it stops becoming your favorite food. Your olfactory system can detect roughly 10,000 aromas, an amount that the scientific community refers to as a "sh*t ton". Without your nose, you can't taste which essentially makes smelling the wine am extremely vital part of the tasting process. When you smell a wine, you want to first notice at what distance from your nose when you begin to pick up aromas from the wine. More aromatic grape varieties (Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Muscat) will be noticeable far from your nose while others (Pinot Noir, Pinot Grigio, Merlot) aren't wildly aromatic compared to the aforementioned white varieties. Now, these are general guidelines as a wine's aroma can be wildly influenced by the choices of the winemaker in the vineyard or in the cellar or event the select vintage (year of the harvest).
Smelling the wine can also tell you about the decisions of the winemaker during vinification Is there new or old oak on the wine or did they use oak chips or something more synthetic? Is the oak French or American and what size are the barrels? Did they decide to use malolactic fermentation (apparent in white wines)? Is it clean or are there faults such as TCA (corked wine) or brettanomyces, which can be signifier of style like in the French winemaking region of Jura. A wine's "nose" so to speak, can reveal so much that it can be an article unto itself so it's critical for becoming a good or even great taster, you must certainly pay attention to what's going in your nose.
Last, but not least, DON'T SWIRL the wine as soon as it's poured. I know you want to look like a wine connoisseur but trust me, your experience will not be enhanced by creating a mini hurricane in your glass. Doing so releases some of the delicate aromas that quickly dissipate in the air. Swirling is only appropriate after you've already gained an initial impression of the wine and need to pick up some of the secondary and tertiary aromas.
Finally, the fun part!
As an introductory lesson, we'll only focus on these four structural characteristics of wine: sweetness, acidity, tannin and finish as these foundational elements will give you the broadest picture of any wine regardless of price. Now, let's taste some wine!
Detecting sweetness in a wine is a bit tough for beginners as sometimes fruitiness can be confused for sweetness. Sweetness only refers to how much residual sugar is left in the wine after fermentation. A wine can be intensely fruity but also dry as well. A good exercise for calibrating your perception of sweetness is to buy two wines (a dry and a sweet one) and taste them side by side. Having two wines on the complete opposite ends of the spectrum will serve as benchmarks on which you can use to taste future wines.
Acidity is next and probably the easiest to detect because our body produces a natural response to acid. Squeeze lemon juice into your eye and it begins to water. Suck on that same lemon, and your mouth begins to pucker and water. Because of these involuntary actions, detecting acidity is as simple as listening to your body. Take a sip of wine, swallow (or spit) and then hold your mouth open. If it doesn't water that much, then the wine probably has low acid. If your mouth turns into Niagara Falls, then it's safe to say that the wine is moderate to high in acid. The reason for these responses are because your body automatically produce a base (saliva) to counteract the acidity in wine. The more acidic the wine, the more saliva your body will produce. Now all of our bodies are a bit different, but without the addition of food, there's simply no way to fight this response. A good exercise for calibration is to, side by side, taste a low acid wine, dry sherry (Fino, Manzanilla) next to the high acid Sauvignon Blanc. Your mouth will react very differently to these wines and will teach you quite a bit about acidity.
Tannins represent a diverse group of chemical compounds that affect the color and texture of wine but for today, we'll only focus on how it affects a wine's texture. Found mainly in the skins, seeds and stems of red wine varieties (also, in oak barrels), tannin in wine will give a drying sensation in the mouth as the compounds react to the proteins found in saliva. When tasting red wine it's important to note the nature and volume of the tannins which can tell you about the grape variety, the soil on which is was grown and a myriad of other factors. Tannins can either be soft and velvety (a Merlot for example) or rough and grippy (young left bank Bordeaux). They can be low in volume or seem to coat your entire mouth with their intensity. When perceiving tannin, you must be careful not to confuse it for acidity as sometimes the sensations can appear to be similar. Acidity will always be determined by your mouth's saliva production while tannin is determined by how the wines "feel" along your gums, cheeks and lips. Once you drink enough red wine, in time you will notice how different these two sensations truly are.
I was once told by my instructor that "You pay for a wine's Finish" and as I've consumed more and more quality wines over the years, his words have begun to ring true more and more. Simply, put a quality wine will always have a good to great finish. Unlike the previous characteristics we've discussed however, this might be the most subjective and hardest to grasp. Some important questions to ask yourself when evaluating a wine's finish are: What structural component is driving the finish? (sweetness, acidity or tannin) Is the finish short, medium or long? Is it pleasant and do you want to keep drinking or does your face cringe after every sip? It's very difficult for low-quality wines to fake this aspect so judging a wine's finish will give an excellent indication to it's quality level as well.
As you can see, tasting wine involves much more than just putting it into your mouth. And although these steps seem complicated and long, the supercomputer inside of your head, your brain, can do all of these actions in a matter of seconds. Now that you know how to taste however, it's your job to slow down that process a bit and pay attention to the various stimuli that are present in a glass of wine. So slow down, drink up and start tasting with purpose!