Tasting wine: a 101

I think it is probably fair to say that most people drink wine without too much consideration for what the liquid in the bottle actually tastes of. As long as it tastes nice and doesn’t cost an arm and a leg, that usually is enough. 

I can hand on heart say that taking onboard a few little tips will really improve your wine appreciation.  I admit, some people may stop reading at this point – that’s fine, at the end of the day, as long as you enjoy the bottle you are drinking then ultimately that’s what really matters. 

I just think it is a bit of a shame given the love and attention with which the winemaker crafts his wine, that so few of us take time to appreciate what we are actually quaffing. So for those of you still reading, here are a few handy tips for the next time you open a bottle: You need to use your eyes, nose and mouth!

This is the three step process – I know everyone will be gagging to get to step three but just take a moment to work through the first two steps first.

Step 1: Check the appearance of the wine

Step 2: Smell the wine

Step 3: Taste the wine

Step 1: The Appearance

Take a look at the wine as you pour it into the glass.  The main thing you want to see is that the wine has clarity, ie is bright and clear not dull and cloudy.  If it is the latter, send the bottle back (unless it’s a natural wine which can look like that!) the likelihood is the wine is faulty. 

The colour (and it’s intensity) can give you clues about the wine – if the white wine is very deep in colour, it could mean it’s a) more mature  b) had some oak influence or c) may have been deliberately or accidentally oxidised (see below note on flavours of bruised apples/vinegar). 

Top Tip: With young wines, you tend to find a white wine will be paler in youth and darken in colour with age, whereas the opposite is true in red wines, which tend to be deeper in colour in youth and  take on a paler/tawny-brick hue as they age.    This is only a rule of thumb however, for example different grapes have different hues/intensity of colour and wines subject to Botrytis ie Sauternes will naturally be more deeply coloured even in youth.

Step 2: Smelling the wine

Now take a whiff, but before you do, give the glass a swirl. The reason people swirl a glass is not to look pretentious (although some folk may do it for that reason!) but to release aromas from the liquid.  Smelling the wine before you drink it is another good way to check for faults.

Before I go on to the aromas, here is a quick overview of the most common faults you can pick up when smelling the wine:

Most people have heard the term “corked wine”, but do you know what it smells like?  A clue – it doesn’t smell of cork, nor will you find bits of cork floating about – unless you massacred the cork when you removed it!  Corked wine will smell a bit musty, have very muted fruit, and aromas will be more reminiscent of wet cardboard or a damp dog (conjuring a lovely image I’m sure).

If you notice aromas that smell a bit like a bruised apple – this indicates the wine has been oxidised (and isn’t always a fault as wines like sherry are deliberately oxidative). 

Another which can be a bit unpleasant at high levels is a rather odd, slightly musty/animal smell – the culprit here is “brett”  (in low doses it added complexity, but too much and it can be reminiscent of a farmyard!). 

How to decipher what you smell? A few tips

People often say to me “I don’t know how you can pick up those aromas, I can’t do it, it must be a skill”.  While I’d like to say it is, the reality is no it’s not!  The truth is anyone can learn to do it – the best way is to imagine a number of different sets of aroma profiles and then break them down.  Sounds complicated but honestly, it’s not. 

So swirl the glass and stick your nose in, inhaling deeply.  What can you smell? Just think for a few seconds and take a look at the below chart which will give you a few helpful hints:

Is it Fruity? If so what sort of fruit, ripe, underripe, cooked?   Can you pick out:

  • Green fruit (ie apple, pear)
  • Citrus (ie lemon, lime)
  • Stone fruit (ie peach, apricot)
  • Tropical fruit (ie pineapple, passionfruit)
  • Red fruit (ie strawberry, raspberry, cherry)
  • Black fruit (ie blackcurrant, blackberry, plum)

or are the aromas more along the dried fruit spectrum (ie raisin, prune)  

What about herbs and vegetables? Can you pick up minty notes or recognise aromas akin rosemary and thyme. Or is it more leafy or vegetal – think blackcurrant or tomato leaf, asparagus, peas or green pepper?

Are there Floral notes? Are aromas like white flowers, rose, elderflower or camomile prominent?

It may be the aromas are spicy in nature. Is it pungent spice like white or black pepper or sweet spices such as vanilla, cinnamon, clove or liquorice?

Does it smell creamy or buttery? Or are the aromas’ more toasty/charred or nutty. Or are there hints of chocolate or coffee.  (Note – all of these can indicate oak use/lees stirring and MLF).

It may be the wine is quite savoury in nature and not that fruity at all. So, do you get aromas more like mushrooms, olive tapenade or meat ie bacon? 

As you take that sniff is the aroma reminiscent of a petrol station or a cigar?! I kid you not, Riesling, with age, will often develop a kerosene-like aroma (which I love but can split the crowd), and good Bordeaux will develop cedar/tobacco notes with age.

I admit, sometimes when I read a tasting note I shudder and think it sounds a bit pretentious – and I still remember a critic (who shall remain namelss) talking about a wine smelling of compost!  But here is the rub – when you read descriptors like ‘forest floor’, or mushroom and leather – these are the more savoury/tertiary characteristics that some wines do actually develop with age.

Anyway, I digress, once all the sniffing is done, feel free to take a slurp.

Step 3: Tasting the wine

It might be obvious right…take a sip and swallow?  Hold on a sec though, in order to get the full flavour, it’s a good idea to take a sip and hold it in the mouth for a few seconds, breathing in through the lips slightly (to aerate the wine).  Be careful doing this, my husband has managed to spit it all over himself on more than one occasion!

Apart from being able to assess the flavours you can taste (referring back to the aroma profiles above), you can also spot a lot of other things about the wine beside just the flavour:

Here are a few:

Sweetness – is the wine dry or sweet (don’t confuse sweetness with fruitiness). Top tip – sweetness is usually detected at the front of the tongue

Acidity – does the wine taste zingy and fresh (indicates high acidity) or a bit flabby (low acid). Basically, if the wine has high acid, you will find your mouth will water a little bit.

Is it full or light bodied? “How the hell would I know” I can almost hear you say.  Look at it this way – how does it feel in the mouth?  Does it feel heavy or light?  Think of it like milk: skimmed milk versus full fat milk when full fat milk has a richer, fuller mouthfeel whereas skimmed milk feels a bit lightweight and watery – the same applies to wine.

After you have tasted it does your mouth feel dry around the gums and the side of the mouth?  Is there a bitterness at the back of your tongue? That indicates the presence of tannin. Tannin comes from grape skins so naturally red wines will have higher levels, but white and rosé wines which have some skin contact (by which I mean grape skins in contact with the juice) will also have tannin just much lower amounts. I could talk a lot more on tannin but it gets a bit geeky so I will leave it there.

Do you get a warming/hot sensation in the mouth when you swallow the wine? If so, the chances are it’s quite high in alcohol. Think back to the last time you had a glass of Port – that warming sensation as you swallowed – these fortified wines come in at around the 19-22% ABV , (note – this is much higher than still wine which usually is around the 12-14.5% mark but you can still tell the difference).

The “finish” – After you’ve taken a gulp, do you find that the flavours disappear in a millisecond, this would be described as having a ‘short finish’ and the chances are it’s not a very expensive/good quality wine. On the other hand, if you are left with a lingering (pleasant) sensation of the flavour this means the wine has a long finish and is usually associated with better quality wines.

So there you have it. Tasting wine in a nutshell.

Next time you crack open a bottle, give it a try, and let me know.  I include tasting notes in all my wine cases, so those of you who have bought, see if you pick up any of the things I have.  What is so cool about it though is everyone tastes different things, so there really is no right or wrong answer, just your opinion.

Get tasting….

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Cathy Elliott

    What a brilliant break down for the wine, great to have this handy so I can check it out from time to time.

  2. Sam

    thanks Cathy – see what you can pick out on that next bottle you open!

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