Many believe that accomplished wine tasters are a rare breed with special abilities. However, wine tasting involves skills that contrary to popular belief are not difficult to master. Follow these five steps and in no time you will be tasting wine like a confident professional.
Before we get started it is important to point out that each experience varies as everyone’s taste buds are different—the array, type and how many you have. Thresholds and tolerances differ regarding sweetness, acidity, tannins and such, as well as our perceptions of what we are sensing based on our previous experiences and preferences.
A successful wine tasting provides the opportunity to focus on the wines at hand, which in other settings are often consumed quickly with many distractions. Pay close attention, as every wine tells a different story. Each experience is a building block, a sensory experience that will add to your collective foundation, giving depth and breadth to your journey. This is the joy of tasting wine!
Whether you are a novice or a Master Sommelier, the final judge is one’s personal preference. Our goal at Montesquieu Winery is to help fellow wine lovers enhance their enjoyment of wine using their own journey as their guide. No matter what you enjoy, these 5 steps will help you understand more about what you like and why.
Before you start with step one, you will want to make sure you have a clear, patternless wine glass. The bowl at the base should be wide and the rim of the glass should curve slightly inward to help channel the aromas of the wine to your nose, as well as help you swirl the wine without spilling. Make sure to pour no more than 1/3 full in the glass. The glass should have a long stem, which is where you want to hold the glass. Do not hold the glass by the bowl—this would only warm the wine, mark up the glass, and block your view of the very important first step—what the wine looks like!
If you will be sampling more than one wine there are three ways to approach the order in which to taste. The wines may be arranged by body/intensity (lightest to heaviest); sweetness (driest to sweetest); and color (white to red is most common, but some prefer tasting reds before whites).
To start with, the easiest choice is to arrange by color, moving from white to red. As you progress in your tastings, trying other approaches will be interesting and informative. Based on your preferences, and the many possible themes or combinations—by region or varietal for example—you will find the progression that works best for you.
When tasting multiple wines, help keep your taste buds more alert and able to discern key differences between each wine by taking sips of water between each tasting. Additionally taking a bite of baguette or plain water crackers helps cleanse the palate between wines. We recommend if you are tasting multiple wines that you spit the wine into an ice bucket or similar receptacle as professionals do, in order to further preserve your senses.
We also recommend to have a simple journal on hand to record your impressions of each wine and each step. This will help you to focus and take your time, as well as recall the wines you have tasted for future reference. You will find this invaluable for purchasing more of what you like, comparing vintages, and so on. There are no wrong or right answers, just jot down what comes to mind! Don’t worry about your vocabulary, use whatever terminology you are comfortable with. This will evolve with time and practice.
The first step is to look carefully at the wine that you are tasting, keeping in mind color and clarity. Tilt the wine in your glass 45 degrees and hold it up to the light (daylight is generally best), or look at it against a pale or white background (like a napkin or tablecloth). The color of the wine can give you a clue as to the age of the wine. Red wines usually lose color as they age. Young red wines are more red or purple, while older wines tend to be mahogany or a brick-like color. As a red wine ages, the change in color will be seen first at the rim, and with more age slowly progresses to include the core of the wine all the way through. White wines generally gain color as they age. Young white wines generally start out pale yellow or lighter gold and become deeper in color as they age.
Clarity refers to the clearness of a wine due to the absence or presence of particles or sediment. Does the wine look clear and brilliant, or is it cloudy? Generally speaking wine should appeal to all of our senses, including sight. The range of clarity can vary due to wine production techniques including filtering and fining, as well as the aging process. If you are tasting a red wine ten years of age or older, you will want to have a decanter on hand for possible sediment. For a quick reference on why and how to decant see our blog post Decanting Basics, by Montesquieu Winery: Part 2 – How to Decant?
Next, set your glass on a flat surface and gently swirl the wine in tiny circles for 10 to 20 seconds. This allows oxygen to penetrate or aerate the wine and releases the wine’s aromas for you to smell. The motion causes the volatile esters responsible for aromas to be released from being bound in a liquid state to a vapor. 80% of what we taste is a result of what we smell, so swirling is not for show, it is essential to getting the most out of your wine experience!
As you swirl, raise the glass to eye level and observe the streaks of the wine as they roll down the side of the glass. These are the legs of a wine, also known as tears, curtains or church windows. At one time, legs were thought to be associated with quality: the more legs, the higher the quality. Legs, however, are simply a result of the evaporation of alcohol and surface tension, indicating the presence of alcohol and/or sugar, and are not an indication of quality.
The appearance of a wine’s legs can tell you about the levels of alcohol and sugar in a wine. When a wine is high in alcohol, sugar, or both, the appearance of the legs will be wide and move down the glass slowly.
Levels of alcohol and sugar also affect the body (or viscosity) of a wine, which is also discernible by observing the legs. Higher alcohol and/or sugar levels in a wine indicate a fuller bodied wine and will have a particular “mouthfeel” (think whole milk or cream), and conversely lower alcohol and sugar levels indicate a lighter-bodied one (think low fat or nonfat milk).
3. Sniff or Smell
Just after swirling, which releases the wines aromatic vapors, tip the glass up, insert your nose in as far as you can and inhale deeply. What do you smell? What does it remind you of? Take your time, doing this various times waiting a minute or so in between, recording in your journal each time. Your nose needs to recover between sniffs in order for your olfactory receptors to function at full capacity. What you are sensing is called the “nose” of a wine.
The aromas and flavors found in wine are classified as either primary or secondary. Primary aromas and flavors come from the grape itself and are determined by the type of grape (varietal), vineyard practices, the vintage (what happened the year the grapes were grown) and the place they were grown, which includes the type of soil and climate, also known as “terroir”.
Secondary aromas and flavors are the result of the winemaking process, which includes fermentation and oak barrel aging, as well as other variables such as the type of fermentation (malolactic fermentation yields butter aromas in Chardonnay) or vessel used, type of yeast strains, and length of contact between grape skins and juice during the fermentation process.
Aromas that are fruity, floral, herbal, or vegetal are primary aromas most commonly attributed to a particular type of grape. For example it is common for Riesling to have green apple or citrus aromas, Pinot Noir commonly exhibits strawberry or cherry, Cabernet Sauvignon is known for blackberry and black currant aromas, and so on. An example of the influence of soil would be the mineral influence of the Loire Valley on Sauvignon Blanc, yielding aromas of flint or seashells. Aromas that are woody, nutty or spicy ones are secondary aromas usually associated with oak barrel aging, such as vanilla, almonds or smoke.
4. Sip and Taste
Finally the step you have been waiting for! Tasting wine involves all of our senses, so tasting should only be done after all the other steps. Slowly take a sip of wine and let it spread across your tongue from front to back and side to side, covering every surface inside your mouth. Swish the wine around, and if you can, carefully purse your lips and try to bring air in over the wine, making a slurping sound. Pay attention not only to what you taste but also to what you feel.
There are three phases to tasting: the attack, which is the initial impression of the wine in your mouth (or “on the palate”), the mid-palate, and the finish. The first thing you will probably notice is the relative sweetness or dryness of the wine. Generally younger wines and those from warmer climates exhibit a fruitier style. Older wines tend to taste less of fruit and more savory or spicy. Sweeter wines are usually a result of the grapes’ level of ripeness (such as late harvest dessert wines) or fortification with a spirit (such as in Port and Sherry).
Next, you will notice the acidity or tartness of the wine. Acidity is vital as it refreshes the palate, adds vibrancy to a wine and even aids digestion. A wine without acidity would be considered “flabby”. A wine with ideal acidity would have a lovely fresh quality. In general cooler climate wines show higher acidity, a warmer climate less acidity.
If you are tasting red wine, you may also notice the tannins in the wine. These are compounds that come from the stems, skins and seeds of red grapes, as well as oak barrel aging, and in the mouth have a puckering or drying effect. Too much, and they overpower the other aromatic components in the wine (think of overly-brewed tea). In moderation, tannins add structure and complexity to a wine, and are also very helpful for the potential to age.
The sensation that lingers in your mouth after you swallow or spit a sip of wine is the aftertaste called the finish. The finish is where all the components of the wine—sweetness, acidity, tannins, and such—should come together. A wine is balanced when the elements feel seamless, which is a sign of quality.
The flavors may linger for a while on the palate after the wine has been swallowed or spat, and this is referred to as the length. The more length a wine has, the more time you have to enjoy it. And as a general rule, no matter what type of wine you are tasting, a long, pleasant finish is a sign of quality in wine.
This step is often overlooked, but is very rewarding and warrants recording like the other steps. Look back at your notes for each step and reflect. Did you like the wine overall? How did it make you feel? What about it did you find interesting or exciting? Do you think you would like to try it with a meal? Or with more age? Again, there are no right answers, just your personal impression of the wine!
We hope that you are inspired to use these tools to taste as many different wines as possible, armed with techniques that will enable you to get the very most out of your wine experiences, and the confidence to taste in any setting, using your palate and preferences as your guide. Enjoy!