So, how do we properly taste and evaluate a glass of wine? At any wine tasting function we try to compare different wines of the same style at the same time so as to highlight the flavours and aromas of each. Even tasting two wines from the same vineyard but of different years exposes a lot about the wine.
The following outlines what we try to achieve as tasters renowned
First, we make note of the surroundings of the wine tasting that may affect our impressions and try to minimize its effects as much as possible. You want to neutralize the tasting conditions as much as possible, so the wine can stand on its own.
A noisy or crowded room makes concentration difficult. Interruptions whilst tasting breaks the concentration. Cooking smells, hairspray, perfumes, background smells can prevent you from getting a clear sense of a wine’s aromas. Also if you have eaten, be aware of any lingering taste that will affect your palette. Most wine tastings include water and dry biscuits – not because you want to eat but so you can completely clear your palette between tastings.
A glass that is too small, the wrong shape, poor quality, smells of rinse aid or damp teacloth can also affect the wine’s flavour. Putting too little wine in the glass can skew the scent through over oxidisation.
The temperature of the wine will also affect how it tastes, although most wine tasting have the wine stored at the right temperature. However, some wines and Champagnes can have their tastes hidden by being too cold or not cold enough.
Finally, take a pencil and paper; you will need this for notes. Remember that they are your notes, so write what you sense and feel. You can then match your words with what the ‘experts’ say to get a common language.
Evaluating by Sight
The first step is to examine the wine. The glass should be about one-third full and you should follow the following steps to evaluate the wine visually before anything else. Also, wine glasses should have long stems for you to hold them by. Do not alter the temperature of the wine by holding the body of the glass in your hand.
Straight Down View:
First, look straight down into the glass, then hold the glass to the light, and finally, give it a tilt, so the wine rolls toward its edges. This will allow you to see the wine’s complete colour range, not just the dark centre which is a bit meaningless.
Looking down, you will get a sense of the depth of colour which gives a clue to the density and consistency of the wine. A deeply-saturated, dark purple, almost black colour might well be Syrah, while a lighter, pale red shade would suggest Pinot Noir. Or a host of others!
Viewing the wine through the side of the glass held in light shows you how clear it is.
A wine that looks clear and brilliant and shows some sparkle, is always a good sign. A cloudy wine might be a wine with chemical or fermentation problems. On the other hand, it might just be a wine that was unfiltered or has some sediment due to be shaken up before being poured. In my entire life I have only seen this once; no one wants you to taste bad wine, and no one could sell bad wine either.
Tilting the glass so the wine thins out toward the rim will provide clues to the wine’s age and weight.
If the colour looks quite pale and watery near its edge, it suggests a rather thin, possibly young wine. If the colour looks tawny or (brown for a white wine) or orange or rusty brick (for a red wine) it is either probably an older wine. When returning to the upright position see if the wine forms “legs” or “tears” that run down the sides of the glass when you straighten up the glass. Wines that have good legs are wines with more alcohol and glycerin content, which generally indicates that they are richer, more mouth-filling and dense than those that do not.
Finally, give the glass a good swirl prior fill the glass with its aroma. You can swirl it most easily by keeping it firmly on a flat surface; however this will make you look like a novice. Practice open air swirling with a glass and water long before your wine tasting. This will ensure you do not look like a complete beginner.
Evaluating by Sniff
Now that you’ve given the wine a good look, you’re ready to take a good sniff. Give the glass a swirl, but don’t put your nose inside it. Instead, you want to sniff just above the top. Take a series of quick, short sniffs, then step away and let the information filter through to your brain.
There are many books and guides to help you train your nose to identify key wine fragrances, both good and bad. And there are thousands of aromas in a glass of good wine, so forget about finding them all. Naming all the fruits, flowers, herbs and other scents you can trowel out of the glass can be fun, but it’s not essential to enjoying and learning how to taste wine. Once you’ve taken a few quick, short sniffs of the wine, try to look for the following aromas, which will help you better understand the wine’s characteristics.
It is highly unlikely that you will taste a ‘bad wine’. This is simply because they go through so many checks and tastings that a bad vintage will never make it to the shops. This is not to say that you may not like the taste, just that the wine is not likely to be ‘off’. I will cover more on this later but for now it is not worth worrying about.
Firstly, look for fruit aromas. Wine is made from grapes, so it should smell like fresh fruit, but very rarely of grapes, unless it is very old, very sweet, or very cold.
You can learn to look for specific fruits and grapes, and many grapes will show a spectrum of possible fruit scents that help you to identify the growing conditions, cool climate, moderate or very warm, of the vineyard. There is a list of fruit aromas that tasters use, so when you are stumped to describe a scent, use one from the list.
Flowers, Leaves, Herbs, Spices,Roots & Vegetables
Floral aromas are particularly common in the cooler climates white wines like riesling and gewürztraminer, and some Rhône varietals, including the very fashionable viognier.
Some other grapes can be expected to carry herbal or grassy scents. Sauvignon Blanc is often strongly grassy, while Cabernet Sauvignon can be scented with herbs and hints of vegetation. Rhône reds often show scents of herbs. Usually the herb or spice scent has nothing at all to do with the wine, it is simply the nearest thing to it we have ever smelt. Most people prefer aromas that are delicate and more of a hint than a full on blast. The best wine aromas are complex but in balance, some specific to define but also in harmony with some almost undefinable hint.
Another group of common wine aromas can be characterised as earthy. Scents of mushroom, damp earth, leather and rock can exist in many red wines. A mushroom smell can add style; it can also help you determine a possible grape or place of origin of the wine. Too much mushroom however may just mean that the grapes failed to ripen sufficiently, or were from an inferior growth.
The scent of horse or tack room leather can be an accent, but too much can indicate brettanomyces. This is a natural but specific flaw, but again something you are unlikely to find unless trying specific vineyard tastings.
Scents of earth, mineral and rock sometimes exist in the very finest white and red wines. These can be indications of “terroir”; the particular conditions of the vineyard that are expressed as specific scents and flavours in the finished wine. Most vineyards are extremely proud of their terroir, and argument rage over organic and non-organic farming for regions, such is the passion of the growers.
Wine Barrel Aromas
If you smell toast, smoke, vanilla, chocolate, espresso, roasted nuts, or even caramel in a wine, you are most likely picking up scents from aging in new oak barrels.
Depending on a multitude of factors, including the type of oak, the way the barrels are made, the age of the barrels, the way the winemaker has mixed and matched them, barrels can impart a vast array of scents and flavours to finished wines. Think of the barrels as a winemaker’s colour palette, to be used the way a painter uses paint to personalise an image.
Young white wines and young sparkling wines may have a scent very reminiscent of lager. This is from the yeast.
Some dessert wines smell strongly of honey; this is evidence of botrytis, often called noble rot, and is typical of the very greatest Sauternes.
Chardonnays that smell of buttered popcorn or caramel have most likely been put through a secondary, malolactic fermentation, which converts malic to lactic acids, softening the wines and opening up the aromas.
Older wines have more complex, less fruity aromas. A fully mature wine can offer an explosion of highly mixed scents, beautifully co-mingled and virtually impossible to name. Often the naming of scents is purely down to personal experience, and the wine taster must try to put this into words that others can relate to.
The effort to put words to wine aromas helps you focus on, understand and retain your impressions of different wines. You want to build a memory bank of wine smells and their meanings. That is where the language of wine can add value to a wine tasting event. Learning to talk the talk, when not carried to extremes, helps to dispel some wine myths, and clarify the confusion surrounding descriptions on wine labels.
Evaluating by Taste
It’s finally time to taste! Take a sip, not a swallow, of wine into your mouth and try sucking on it as if pulling it through a straw. This simply aerates the wine and circulates it throughout your mouth.
Again, you’ll encounter a wide range of fruit, flower, herb, mineral, barrel and other flavours, and if you’ve done your sniffing homework, most will follow right along where the aromas left off. Aside from simply identifying flavours, you are also using your taste buds to determine if the wine is balanced, harmonious, complex, evolved, and complete.
A balanced wine should have its basic flavour components in good proportion. Our taste buds detect sweet, sour, salty, and bitter.
Sweet (residual sugar) and sour (acidity) are obviously important components of wine. Saltiness is rarely encountered and bitterness should be more a feeling of astringency (from tannins) than actual bitter flavours.
Most dry wines will display a mix of flavours derived from the aromas, along with the tastes of the acids, tannins and alcohol, which cannot generally be detected simply by smell.
There is no single formula for all wines, but there should always be balance between the flavours. If a wine is too sour, too sugary, too astringent, too hot (alcoholic), too bitter, or too flabby (lack of acid) then it is not a well-balanced wine. If it is young, it is not likely to age well; if it is old, it may be falling apart or perhaps completely gone.
A harmonious wine has all of its flavours seamlessly integrated. It’s quite possible, especially in young wines, for all the components to be present in the wine in good proportion, but they stick out. They can be easily identified, but you can feel all the edges; they have not blended together. It’s a sign of very good winemaking when a young wine has already come together and presents its flavours harmoniously.
Complexity can mean many things. Your ability to detect and appreciate complexity in wine will become a good gauge of your overall progress in learning how to taste wine.
The simplest flavours to recognize—very ripe, jammy fruit and strong vanilla flavours from various oak treatments—are reminiscent of soft drinks. It is perfectly natural for new wine drinkers to relate to them first, because they are familiar and likeable. Some extremely successful wine brands have been formulated to offer these flavours in abundance. But they do not offer complexity.
Complex wines seem to dance in your mouth. They change, even as you’re tasting them. They are like good paintings; the more you look at them the more there is to see. In older wines, these complexities sometimes evolve into the realm of the sublime. The length of a wine, whether old or young, is one good indication of complexity. Simply note how long the flavours linger after you swallow. You might even try looking at your watch if you have a particularly interesting wine in your glass. Most beginning wine drinkers move on too quickly to the next sip when a really good wine is in the glass. Hold on! Let the wine finish its dance before you change partners.
A complete wine is balanced, harmonious, complex and evolved, with a lingering, satisfying finish. Such wines deserve extra attention, because they have more to offer, in terms of both pleasure and training, than any others you will taste. Once you taste the best you can start to identify both the shortcomings and strengths in other wines and technically describe them.
Now that you understand the basic steps with our wine tasting tips, it’s time to experiment on your own. It can be quite helpful to build a wine journal of your adventures. Write complete tasting notes for wines you like and dislike. Noting the characteristics that each wine shares will be immensely helpful as you start learning how to choose wine on your own. Cheers!
Most people do not get to enjoy the luxury of sampling multiple wines and therefore can only appreciate a single wine at a time, often with a meal. This is what the majority of people do without thinking, but with a little bit of preparation and note taking you can still build up a good knowledge of wine, and more importantly start to choose the best wine for certain foods.
Our ultimate aim as wine tasters is to help inform you and help you decide which wines you want to spend your hard earned cash on to get the most enjoyment from.