Wine tastings are the epitome of class and sophistication, and should you find yourself invited to such an event, you don’t want to seem uncultured, but just how do you taste wine?
Beyond this, showing a knowledge of how to taste wine like a pro at dinner parties will impress your friends. Of course, these skills will also help you select the perfect bottle for dinner or a gift.
When you first begin to taste wine, they may just taste like “red wine” or “white wine”, particularly if you’re used to drinking… bottom-shelf boxed wine, (obligatory snort and guffaw).
However, as you continue to taste wine and refine your skills, you will be able to discover the more complex flavors.
As you practice more and more, your nose and palate will improve and with time, you’ll be able to say with confidence that this wine you’re tasting is a “2006 G.D. Vajra Langhe Rosso”, or whatever it is you’re drinking.
Hopefully some of these wine tasting tips for beginners will help you start your journey to becoming a professional wine taster, or if you just want to enjoy your wine then these wine tasting tips should get you on your way.
How to taste wine like a pro: Part 1...(Tasting with your eyes)
Presentation of your wine
Holding a wine glass by the bowl will unintentionally warm it with your body heat, which may affect the taste, therefore you should make it a habit to always hold your glass by its stem.
Natural light is best, but a solid source of incandescent light is acceptable, never fluorescent, (this is important enough for me to bold it).
Make sure there is some piece of white fabric or paper to observe the wine against, as it gives the most unbiased view.
Is your wine clear, or is it hazy?
If it’s clear, chances are it’s been filtered. Almost all domestic wines are filtered, a process by which microbes and residual yeast are removed to keep the wine clear and bright while also preventing spoilage at a later date.
However, some sommeliers (professional wine experts), contend that filtering a wine strips it of essential natural flavor.
It’s not a strict yes or no issue; some wines do perfectly well without filtration, but others become chewy and nearly unpalatable without at least a perfunctory filter before being bottled.
Use your best judgement on this matter.
Color is your best friend when determining the age and condition of your wine.
Generally speaking, white wines deepen in color as they age while reds become paler with time.
Tilt your glass slightly so you can see the edge color as well as the center. The variations in color will tell you a lot about the wine quality.
With red wines, the older they are the more variation you will see between the core color and the rim, or meniscus, color.
A young white wine will have a greenish tinge around the edge.
Rim colors can vary from green, to bronze, to pink or purple depending on the kind of wine, the age, and the circumstances under which it was made.
The amount and type of sediment will tell you more about how and where your wine was made, more so in fact than the taste!
All wines throw off some sediment, and the older they get, the more they throw off.
Small white crystals in the bottom of a glass of white wine are known as tartrates. Some larger wineries choose to cold-stabilize their wines by quick-chilling them to just above freezing to prevent excess tartrates.
However, such crystals are perfectly harmless and can be solved by warming the wine ever so slightly so that the crystals dissolve back into the body of the wine.
Older red wines or minimally processed young red wines tend to throw off tannins, which can be fine or chunky depending on the type of wine.
While these sediments are perfectly harmless; they do not make for the most pleasant tasting experience.
Legs & Tears
When you swirl a glass of wine and observe how the legs make their way back down into the glass, this can give you valuable clues about the environment in which the wine was produced, the relative alcohol content, as well as the presence of residual sugar.
Thin, fast-moving legs indicate a light to medium bodied wine, low alcohol content, and no residual sugar.
Thick legs that stain and slowly drip back into the rest of the wine will indicate a much fuller body with higher alcohol content and/or residual sugar.
While the legs & tears give important clues about the body and alcohol content of a wine, they do not speak at all to the quality of a wine, simply to the climate in which it was grown.
Cooler climates do not allow grapes to mature as fully, leading to a lighter body, while warm climates allow grapes to mature more, which creates a fuller body.
How to taste wine like a pro: Part 2...(Tasting with your nose)
Nose, or smell of the wine, is the most important part of wine tasting.
While we can only taste five things (sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami, which is best defined as savory); scientists have determined that we are capable of smelling over 10,000 unique scents.
Everyone has a different method for smelling wine, but using a technique called active inhalation may be more effective than simply using your nose, or passive inhalation.
Tilt your glass to just under 45 degrees and inhale while parting your lips slightly, using both mouth and nose to smell.
Some find the difference subtle, others say it changes their entire experience. Find what method works best for you.
The first thing to check for when smelling a wine is faults.
If it smells musty, it was probably corked and is then less than pristine.
If it smells baked, that means oxidation.
If it smells wrong, it is not going to taste very good either.
Of course, you can only confirm this by actually tasting it.
Experienced tasters are able to tell by nose alone when a wine just isn’t going to taste good, and they will often decline to actually taste an obviously faulty wine.
Until you become proficient and can taste wine like a pro, you may end up with a few mouthfuls of less than perfect wine.
Of course, you may end up being pleasantly surprised and you might find that you have a wine tasting gift?
The next thing to examine is what fruit flavors are present in your wine.
This refers specifically to the grapes from which the wine was made, not the actual wine-making process.
White wines may have fruity notes of tree fruits such as, but not limited to:
- Citrus fruits
- Tropical fruits
- Stone fruits like peaches or nectarines
Red wines tend to have more berry notes such as:
- Black fruits (black raspberries, boysenberry, black cherry)
- Red fruits (strawberries, cherries, or pomegranate)
- Dried fruits like raisins or dates.
There are many more aromas available, and many vineyards will have tasting charts available to aid in your experience.
Wines may also have secondary aromas that are often non-fruit, such as green herbs, spices, flowers, or others.
The more complex a wine, the more aromas both primary and secondary, you will be able to discover and as your palate evolves, you can pick out more flavors from even a simpler wine.
Older wines, particularly from older, established European wineries (known as “old world” wineries), have a distinctive earthy quality.
New world (non-European) wines rarely have earthy flavors, and tend to be brighter and fruitier.
Woody flavors can tell you a lot about where and how a wine was produced, and these flavors might have smoky, sweet “baking” tastes (this comes from caramelizing the inside of the barrel) or distinctly oaky flavors, particularly in red wines.
You will also be able to confirm what you know about the alcohol content from examining the tears or legs; the higher the alcohol content, the more heat you will feel in your nose.
How to taste wine like a pro: Part 3...(Tasting with your mouth)
Now it’s time to actually properly taste the wine.
If you are already an experienced wine taster, this will merely be confirming what you already know from observing and smelling the wine.
Below are the things to look for when you taste wine.
Dryness and sweetness
This is pretty simple to determine, but if you’re having trouble, pay attention to the finish.
Sweetness isn’t fruitiness, and there is a whole world between dry and sweet that you will be able to determine as you become more proficient at tasting wine.
Also known as mouthfeel.
This is a measure of the level of alcohol in the wine.
This should only be confirming what you already know from observing the legs and the heat in the nose, but if you’re having trouble, think of it in terms of milk.
A light body will feel like skim milk, a medium body like whole milk or half and half, and a full bodied wine will have the same weight as heavy cream, (OK so this sounds a bit weird, but it really works, especially if you are looking for wine tasting techniques for beginners that you can actually use and make sense.
Fruit, Earth, and Wood
Firstly you should confirm what fruit you smelled, primary and secondary aromas.
Note any discrepancies, and if the flavors are more or less pronounced than they were in the glass.
Next taste for the earthiness, meaning does it have elements of dirt, minerals, or chalk? You may actually be able to feel or sense the earthiness, particularly on the roof of your mouth behind your teeth if it is a very old-world wine, or a particularly aged vintage.
Wood is the final element of the primary tastes in wine; wood tastes can range from caramel to an overly woody taste, much like drinking wine laced with sawdust.
The wood taste is created from the oak barrels in which wine, particularly fine wine, is aged, and the longer a wine is allowed to mature inside these barrels, the oakier it becomes. Oak is generally tasted on the back of the tongue, near the bitter receptors. Wines that have been aged in their barrels too long can take on an excessively bitter quality, in which the oak overpowers the other elements.
Structure: Acidity, Tannin, Alcohol, Finish
There are four acids found in wine:
The key is finding a balance between bland wine that’s incapable of aging, and wine so bitter it’s undrinkable.
The mix of these structural factors created during the wine-making process are often referred to as the “bouquet”, as opposed to the aroma or nose, which are inherent to the grapes themselves.
Tannins are made from grape skins and the inside of the barrel, and they make wines complex and capable of aging.
In excess however, they make even the best wine taste like over brewed tea. In general, red wines will have more tannins than white, although there are exceptions to the rule.
When tasting your wine, alcohol will be felt as a glow of heat in the throat or chest. Again, you’re essentially confirming what you already discovered from the legs and the heat in the nose.
Finish is how long you can taste the wine after you’ve swallowed or spit it out. Any longer than 20 seconds, and you’ve got a really good wine, regardless of any other factors.
Balance and Complexity
These words get tossed around a lot in wine circles, but they’re really not as complicated as it first seems and when researching how you can taste wine like a pro, you should not get put off by those phrases, (or any in this article for that matter!).
Balance can be thought of how all of the elements we’ve discussed mingle together; if any one element in particular sticks out, then the wine is not well balanced.
Complexity is a bit harder to define; it’s more a case of “you’ll know it when you see it”.
A simple wine is one-note; it doesn’t much change once poured, nor does it reveal more flavors as it travels across the palate.
A complex wine however will change as it moves across the palate and even more dramatically in the glass, like a symphony in your mouth over a simple strain of music.
Now that you’ve observed, smelled, and tasted the wine the time has come to spit it out!
This is essential for wine tastings as you may be tasting dozens of wines in a single day and you don’t want to get drunk, (trust me, getting slowly drunk throughout a hot summers day at a wine tasting event, surrouned by some very sophisticated folks is not a good idea).
Unless you’re tasting a single bottle at a restaurant for taste, it’s considered standard to spit out your sip of wine.
To Sum it all up
Taste as many bottles of wine as you can, and your skills will improve.
Even a rudimentary knowledge of wine tasting, such as we’ve just discussed, will improve your wine tasting skills and more than likely make you the most knowledgeable of your friends.
You may find your taste in wine improving, and you may even discover a new kind of wine that you love. The only way to tell, is to try.
Note: Drunkenness and acts of extreme stupidity resulting from mass wine consumption is not the fault of The Kitchen Guy!