Over the last few months my team has been tasting a lot of wines with many distributors. Sometimes we will do two tastings a day looking for wines to have at our wine dinners, to offer as our 530 Select monthly wines or to find wines for the new wine bar’s wine list.
Typically, at a predetermined time (it could be 9:00 am or 2:00 pm), a distributor will bring in anywhere from three to seven wines for a tasting. For those of you who have not done a tasting like this, here is how it works. The distributor’s representative will pull all of the bottles to taste out of their wine bag and line them up on the table with the labels facing the tasting group. Generally, they ask what you would like to taste first. We almost always taste whites first, and arrange the varietals so that we taste the mildest first and work our way up to the strongest. Or we might arrange the bottles from the sweetest to the driest.
You will have several empty glasses in front of you, one for whites and one for reds. The representative will pour a small amount in each taster’s glass to try. The first thing to do with white wines is to determine if the wine is too cold…typically that is the case. This makes the wine very tight and closed. We grasp the wine glass in our hands to try and warm the wine to allow it to open and throw off good aromas and open the palate. Once the wine is open you smell it again, swirl it a couple times and take a taste. In just a small amount of time you have to analyze the following: the aromas on the nose of the wine, the mid palate taste, the mouth feel, the body of the wine and the finish. Now you have to decide, based on your analysis, whether or not you will purchase the wine. You might have an hour to make that decision five to seven times.
I have really needed to focus on how to “taste” wine – especially when I started buying wine for others. Back in March of 2016 I wrote a blog on “Drinking Versus Tasting Wine.” Thinking a lot about wine tasting lately I decided to pull that article out of the files and tune it up a little and publish it again, so we could read it and think about how we taste wine.
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.
For some professional guidance, I reached out to Certified Sommelier Miranda Elliot. Miranda studied at the Court of Master Sommeliers and currently has her own wine school “Elliot Wine School” in Chicago. Mrs. Tiedemann and I first met Miranda at Del Frisco’s Steakhouse in Chicago and 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. T he 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 enjoy 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. 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; white/green; yellow/straw||Purple; purple/red; ruby|
|Mature and still drinkable||Gold; deep gold||Brick red; orange; mahogany|
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.
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. 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 is 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,
Upcoming Wine Events For 2021
7/16/21 July Wine Dinner featuring music by Checkmark Sallie – BUY YOUR TICKETS HERE
This Southern-Inspired Wine Dinner will also feature live music by Checkmark Sallie. The event begins at 6:00 pm with dinner starting at 6:30 pm. Cost is $100 per person. Here is the menu:
- Reception: Passed hors d’oeuvres. Paired with an assortment of different wine options.
- First Course: She-crab bisque, oloroso sherry, old bay rice croutons
- Second Course: Lightly blackened Atlantic grouper, smoked bacon and heirloom tomato succotash, pea shoots, lemon thyme beurre blanc
- Third Course: Grilled quail, dirty rice stuffing, Andouille spoonbread, wilted greens, pepper jelly gastric
- Fourth Course: Warm beignets, powdered sugar, chicory ganache
Guests must be at least 21 years of age, with a valid ID and you must purchase your ticket by noon on Friday, July 9th.
7/30/21 Wine Talk & Taste Event – BUY YOUR TICKETS HERE – $30 per person
8/13/21 August Wine Dinner featuring music by Jesse’s Gurl
8/27/21 Wine Talk & Taste Event
9/10/21 September Wine Dinner featuring music by Julia James
9/24/21 Wine Talk & Taste Event
10/5/21 Oktoberfest Dinner with Iechyd Da Brewing Co. with music by Patti Lightfoot
10/22/21 Wine Talk & Taste Event
11/5/21 November Wine Dinner featuring music by Checkmark Sallie
11/19/21 Wine Talk & Taste Event