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- Tasting Wine
- Written by Fred Swan
Tasting wine is more than simply drinking wine. Drinking wine is great and you don’t need to read this section for that. However, reading it may lead to a greater understanding and appreciation of what you drink.
Tasting is a process for examining, understanding, and evaluating a wine. The full process can be divided into four basic steps: visual inspection, aromatic evaluation, judging the palate, and drawing conclusions about the wine.
Visual inspection of the wine involves looking at the color, clarity, and viscosity to begin to determine:
Is the wine in good condition?
How old is the wine?
Is the wine typical for a particular varietal or style?
What might its flavor be like?
Sniffing the wine provides even more information about condition, varietal, style, age and typicity. It also allows one to enjoy the complex fragrance of the wine and identify its different elements.
Experiencing the wine in one’s mouth is next and is about more than just perceiving sweet, sour, savory and salty characteristics or identifying specific flavors. It also includes evaluating the body of the wine, its levels of alcohol, acidity, tannins, intensity of flavor and its length.
Finally, the taster can make decisions about what the wine is, whether or not it’s typical and/or good for its style, variety and region, whether it is a good value for the price, with what foods it might best be paired, whether it is ready to drink immediately or should be cellared and, of course, how much the taster enjoys the wine.
To get an overview of the process in table format, you can look at the WSET Systematic Approach to Tasting Wine here.
Now, we’ll go through the tasting process step-by-step.
Look at the wine.
Does it appear shiny or does it look dull?
Is clear or is it cloudy or have a lot of floating particles?
A dull or cloudy wine may be in poor condition.
What color is the wine and how dark?
White wines get darker as they age, red wines get lighter. Both move toward shades of brown as they age.
If it is a sparkling wine, how large are the bubbles? Are they fast or slow? Are there many or just a few?
Many small bubbles is indicative of a good sparkling wine.
When you tilt the glass, is the edge of the wine the same color as the center?
The rim of wines get more pale as they age.
Swirl the wine gently in the glass, then stop and watch it.
Does the wine move in long paint-like drips or does it come down like a curtain?
The long drips or “legs” are a sign that the wine has a lot of alcohol, glycerin, sugar or some combination of the three.
Is the wine coating the side of the glass colorless or tinted?
If the wine tints the glass, it is probably a red wine that spent a lot of time on the grape skins and/or comes from grapes which contain a lot of pigment.
Without swirling the wine, move the glass toward your nose and inhale gently.
Does the aroma of the wine leap out of the glass to greet you?
Is it clearly present but not outgoing?
Is it subdued? Some grape varietals are more aromatic than others.
Does the wine have any strongly off-putting aromas? Most wines are fine. So, don’t look too hard for faults, but...
If it smells like wet cardboard or newspaper, it may be “corked.”
If it smells very strongly of barnyard or deli meat, there is probably brettanomyces, which can be acceptable in small amounts but not in excess.
If it smells strongly of green bell pepper or other green vegetables, the grapes may have been picked too early.
If it smells like Sherry, but isn’t, the wine may be oxidized.
If it smells of vinegar, nail polish remover, iodine, rotten eggs, sulfur, onions or garlic, plastic or is just putrid, it may also be faulty. Or somebody may be playing a gag on you...
Now, swirl the wine gently.
Put your nose in the glass and smell it again.
Does the wine smell only like freshly crushed fruit or does it have secondary aromas such as mineral, spice, vanilla or oak?
By the time they are released in bottle, most wines will have some secondary aromas.
If the wine smells of oak, cedar, vanilla, chocolate, etc., it has probably spent time with oak.
Does the wine have aromas similar to leather, tar, or petrol but diminished or no fruit?
; margin-bottom: 10px; margin-left: 0px; font: normal normal normal 14px/normal Arial; color: #463c3c">As wines age, their fruit flavors gradually disappear. In fine wines, these aromas are replaced by a myriad of interesting things. In wines that are past their prime, there is no fruit but nothing else of interest either.
What specific aromas can you identify? Think of things in these categories:
Red or black
Tree or berry
Fruit with pits or with seeds
Unripe, green, ripe, over-ripe or cooked fruit
Flowers and blossoms
Light or dark
Sweet, savory or pungent
Coffee, chocolate, tobacco or vanilla
Vegetable, leafy or grassy
Fresh, dry or old
Soil or mineral
Mushroom, truffle or musk
Leather or lanolin
Petrol or tar
Oak, cedar, or lead pencil
Fresh cut wood, sawdust, untreated board, or antiques
Charcoal or smoke
Evaluating the Palate:
If this is your first taste of wine for the day or the first red after whites, take a bit of wine in your mouth, swish it around and then spit it out. The first wine, or red wine, can seem overly strong, acidic or high in alcohol because your palate is “surprised.” So, it’s best not to evaluate the very first mouthful.
Now, take an ounce or so of wine into your mouth.
Swirl it around in your mouth for 5 to 10 seconds, breathing in a bit of air through your mouth if can do without inhaling wine or choking. (Practice this with white wine and in privacy.)
Now, either spit the wine out or swallow it.
Think about all the sensations from the wine. Doing this should take a full minute.
Was it sweet on the tip of your tongue?
Was it acidic? Did it make your mouth water?
Was it thin in your mouth like skim milk, kind of medium like milk, or thick and tongue-coating like heavy cream? This is the viscosity of the wine and is determined by alcohol, glycerin, sugar, pectins and tannin.
Did it make your mouth dry or your tongue rough? That sensation comes from tannins. Tannins are mostly found in red wines.
Did the wine burn your throat as you swallowed or make you breath feel hot? Those are signs of high alcohol.
Together, acidity, alcohol, viscosity and tannins make up the body or structure of a wine.
How intense was the flavor of the wine?
How was the balance of sensations? If the flavors and all of the other sensations seemed harmonious, the wine is said to be in balance. If you sense the acid, alcohol, or tannin as having been overly aggressive and dominating the experience, then the wine is not balanced. Good wines are balanced. Some wines, especially red wines that have strong tannins, may improve their balance over time.
What flavors can you identify. (See the list above.)
How long after you spat or swallowed the wine did the balance of the sensations last in your mouth? This is the finish. Long finish is a sign of a good wine.
Did the wine seem like something you would enjoy drinking?
How much did you like it and why?
Do you think the (red) wine might be more enjoyable in a few years because it has strong tannins or dominant oaky flavors.
What is the price of the wine?
Do you think that is a good value?
Would you buy the wine or recommend the wine to others?