A couple years ago, my good friend Tom Pletcher came to a wine tasting I was holding. And while we were in a discussion about the wines we had tasted, he made the statement “I know how to drink wine but I’m not sure I know how to taste wine.” I found that to be a very interesting statement, especially from a person I know to be an educated wine connoisseur.
Tom’s statement has intrigued me ever since that day. It has been on my list of wine blog topics for awhile and has finally worked its way to the top of the list.
I really wondered about where to start this article. Was it with “how to taste wine” or something else? After pondering the question for a bit and what I found to be a couple of false starts in my research, I decided I needed to determine if there is a difference between drinking and tasting something (in this case wine).
I quickly determined there is a difference and here are my thoughts:
- I thought back to my younger days and my drinking habits and how they have changed with age. Gone for me are the days of drinking from morning to night at the lake, the beach, at sporting events and so on. This was and is unsophisticated drinking. There are still occasions where you drink because that is what you do…the cocktail hour before a dinner at an event of some sort. We have all been in the situation where a server hands you a glass of wine off a tray. We drink because the social convention says that is what we should do.
- I believe wine tasting goes beyond just enjoying a glass of wine. It involves having an appreciation for wine, a certain degree of wine knowledge and a desire for sharing in the lifestyle that surrounds wine such as enjoying wine with family and friends. Wine tasting requires you to do a sensory examination and evaluation of wine.
I am writing this as a review for you and I am hoping that I’ll mention something you may have forgotten, and after a little thought, will make your next wine tasting better than it might have been.
For some professional guidance, I reached out to Certified Sommelier Miranda Elliot. Miranda studied at the Court of Master Sommeliers and is currently Assistant Wine Director at one of Chicago’s hottest new restaurants: Maple & Ash. Mrs. Tiedemann and I first met Miranda at Del Frisco’s Steakhouse in Chicago and have followed her to Maple & Ash. Here are some of Miranda’s thoughts on tasting wine:
“When approaching a wine, a lot of people forget to just look at it! Our sense of sight tells us so much about the wine. Can you see through it? (It has probably been filtered). Is the color lighter? (It probably comes from a thinner-skinned grape, like Pinot Noir). Do the legs travel quickly or slowly? (The slower the legs, the higher the alcohol content and often the bigger the wine, or sometimes the higher the sugar content… the sweeter the wine).
“The next step is to swirl it, which can be intimidating and awkward for a lot of people—myself included when I first started out. The best way to cheat and not spill all over your neighbor is to hold the base of the glass with your thumb and index finger against a flat surface like a table. Slowly move the glass in a circular motion until the wine forms a bit of a sheet against all sides of the glass. Then put the wine up to your nose and sniff. Some people take quick breaths in, some people take in a long, slow breath; experiment a bit to see what gives you the maximum aromas.
“Make sure the wine is sound and free of faults: if it’s corked, it smells like a musty basement filled with wet, moldy cardboard; if it’s oxidized, it smells like the wine was sitting on top of your stove. Then put it on your palate. You’re looking for balance, for a harmony of flavors, tartness, sweetness or lack thereof, tannins (if any), and the overall impression of the wine. Take a second to ask yourself how high or low the quality is, judged by how long the flavors linger and how complex and numerous those flavors are. And, most importantly, enjoy the wine!”
Using Miranda’s comments as our base, let’s look at the various components of tasting wine. There are four steps in the tasting process:
- Sight. Check the color and appearance.
- Smell. Detect the flavors of the wine.
- Taste. Determine flavor and structure.
- Overall Impression. Did you like the wine and why?
To get started, pour three to four ounces of wine in a standard wine glass. Don’t overfill the glass or you will be swirling it all over the front of yourself. Give the wine a couple swirls and we are ready to go.
You can learn quite a bit about wine just by looking at it in the glass. To get started, hold the glass by the stem and tilt the glass allowing the wine to get near the rim of the glass. Try and look at the wine over a white surface of some type such as a napkin, tablecloth or piece of paper.
Look toward the edge of the wine glass. Check the color (hue) of the wine from the edge to the center. You’ll likely see a difference in color. In today’s post we are only going to try and determine the condition of the wine by its color. There are many other items we could speak to that can determine the type of wine but we’ll leave that discussion and others for another article.
Here is a chart that lists the colors of wine at three stages of a wine’s lifecycle. Remember these as we discussion wine color next.
|Age||White Wine||Red Wine|
|Young and fresh||near colorless
As you can see by the chart, if a white wine has a brownish tinge it has reached an undrinkable stage. A red wine tends to turn paler with age. The paler and more brownish a red wine is, the more mature the wine is…maybe so mature that it is undrinkable. The best place to see this discoloration is at the edges of the wine when looking at it in a glass. A lot of discoloration at the edges could suggest an insipid wine.
Once you have looked at the wine, you want to swirl it a couple more times and hold the glass just under your nose. I like to take a quick sniff to “prime my nose” and then swirl the wine several more times. Remember that swirling the wine helps release the aromas of the wine so it opens up. Smell the wine longer and maybe in different positions around the glass.
Today we are only going to discuss a couple different types of aromas. First, let’s talk about “off” or bad aromas that indicate a wine is spoiled. I have talked about corked wines before in the blog (read that piece here). Corked wines will give off a musty smell (and taste and smell like old wet newspaper). If the wine has these characteristics it is undrinkable. You also want to be suspicious of wine that has aromas of burnt matches, a smell of vinegar or nail polish. I would give wines with these aromas some vigorous (don’t spill the wine) swirling to see if it goes away. If so, it would be good to decant these wines for an hour or more.
The aromas we really want in our wines are those of fresh flowers, leaves, herbs, spices and grassy scents. What we hope to find is a balanced amount these scents. We don’t want to find one that overpowers the others to a large degree.
You will also encounter scents of earth, mushroom, leather, minerals, etc. Too much of one or the other may not be good so watch for that condition. Scents of earth, minerals and rock often found in white and red wines could be indications of “terroir” or the conditions of the vineyard and are nothing to worry about.
Finally, let’s touch on wine barrel aromas. If you smell chocolate, roasted nuts, smoke, vanilla, wood or caramel in the wine, you are most likely picking up scents from the aging of the wine in oak barrels.
There are so many different scents to try and identify, it can be difficult and at times overwhelming to try and figure them all out. We actually do all the looking and smelling of the wine in preparation for the next phase of our journey: tasting the wine.
Now comes the fun part: It’s finally time to taste the wine. I am sure you all knew this, but it is worth mentioning that our taste buds detect four different flavors: sweet, sour, salty and bitterness. Think of your tongue being divided into four zones.
There are two parts or elements that make up taste: flavor and structure. What we are looking to do is determine the various flavors in the wine…flavors such as fruit (red or black), herbs, spices, honey, coffee, cocoa, lemon, coconut, etc. You might also taste some wood or oakiness.
Once you have identified the flavors, ask yourself “do I like them? Are they balanced or do one or two overpower the others?”
Next you want to think about the structure: The level of sweetness, dryness, alcohol and acidity. How does the wine feel in your mouth? Here are couple ways to identify these characteristics:
Sweetness is found at the front of the tongue.
Acidity makes your mouth water.
Tannin (leathery feel) is textural and dries your mouth out. It gives the sensation of pulling your cheeks in, like you are sucking on a lemon.
Alcohol feels like heat in the back of your throat.
Some wines are light and soaring while others cling to your teeth and tongue. What we are looking for is a balance of all these items…a wine that has the right amount of fruit, flavor, acidity and dryness. And for me, another important item is the length of the finish. I personally want a wine that the finish is long. I want the aftertaste of the wine to linger in my mouth for a good 20-30 seconds after I swallow it. Identifying your personal preferences in all these areas will help you choose the wine you like best in the future.
Now that you have looked at the wine, smelled it and tasted it, it is time to determine if you liked it. Was the wine balanced or out of balance? Did one component overpower other flavors? Was the wine unique in any way? Would you try the wine again? Simply try to sum up your feelings about the wine.
Tasting wine is a process of education, examination, evaluation and the enjoyment of wine. One of the fun things to me about wine is that everyone’s palate is different. When you are tasting wine with family and friends (which always makes wine better), you are going to get various opinions on the smell and taste of the wine. I think this is great.
Using the tips and advice in this article will help you better understand the wines you are drinking and why you like or dislike them.
One last thought on tasting and this is a secondary point (one I don’t practice very much): take a minute and write down your comments or thoughts on the wine. I would also suggest that you take pictures of the labels. Sooner or later you will be surprised how much more comfortable you’ll become at tasting or even buying wine.
As always I appreciate your support of our wine blog and encourage you to share it with family and friends. If you care to share your comments on this blog posting or other topics, please do so in the comments section below.
Until next week,