The ability to accurately describe the flavors of a wine and distinguish between different grape varietals is not an innate gift granted to so-called “supertasters” at birth; instead, it is a learned ability that must be cultivated through study and practice.
There are four steps you can take to become a more effective taster and prove your taste pallet:
- 1. Look—observe color, clarity, and viscosity.
- 2. Smell—detect fruit, non-fruit, or oak.
- 3. Taste—experience sweetness, body, acid, tannin, and alcohol.
- 4. Finish—exhale out of your nostrils after swallowing.
Analytic wine tasting requires the use of all of your senses, and the first way we encounter a wine is by sight. Holding your glass by the stem, tilt it at a 45 degree angle over a white surface in a well lit area and observe the following attributes:
The color of a wine provides clues about the grape varietal, and ranges from straw yellow to gold in whites and from garnet to dark purple in reds. In general, white wines tend to become darker in color as they age, while red wines will become lighter and more translucent over time.
Notice whether the wine is transparent or opaque, as this is a good indicator of the concentration and richness of the wine. This is also the time to notice any visible faults in the wine such as gas bubbles or solid material.
With the color and clarity of the wine established, level the glass on a flat surface and observe the density of any residual droplets that form on the side of the bowl. These are known as the “legs” of the wine, and thicker, slowly-forming legs indicate a higher concentration of alcohol or sugar in the solution.
As we mentioned in our guide on glassware, proper swirling helps introduce oxygen to the wine and volatilize its aromatic compounds. Once you’ve swirled the wine, insert your nose into the bowl of the glass and inhale deeply. Over 90% of what we call taste actually comes from our sense of smell, so pay close attention to the aromas you detect. These fall into three main categories:
Part of what makes wine such a special beverage is its ability to convey a wide variety of fruit flavors despite the fact that it’s made entirely from grapes. White wines tend to show aromas of apples, citrus, stone fruits, and tropical fruits, while red wines usually show notes of red, black, and blue fruits. Note the condition of the fruit flavors you smell – are they tart and underripe, perfectly ripe, jammy, or cooked?
Aside from fruit flavors, wine can express a wide variety of organic and inorganic aromas including flowers, spices, herbs, and earth. These secondary aromas add depth and complexity to a wine.
Fermenting or aging wine in oak barrels contributes telltale aromas of vanilla, butter, and baking spices. The intensity of these flavors will match the degree of oak treatment.
One tip to properly taste a wine is to take a small amount into your mouth and hold the wine on your tongue. From there, make a tiny opening in your lips and inhale some air to further oxidize the wine and ensure that it reaches all of the flavor receptors in your mouth. Notice how the fruit, non-fruit, and oak flavors complement the nose of the wine. You will also experience the “mouthfeel” or structural components of the wine, which are detailed below:
Sugar is detected on the tip of the tongue, so the first thing you will notice is whether or not the wine is sweet. When we describe a wine as “dry,” we simply mean that is has no trace of sweetness, or in other words, that there is no residual sugar in the wine left over from the process of fermentation.
Wines range from light to full in body or weight on the palate, and a useful metaphor for understanding the difference is to compare wine to dairy products. A light-bodied wine will have the same weight on the tongue as skim milk, while a full-bodied wine will have the density of half and half or heavy cream.
Acid is felt as a crisp or sharp sensation on the sides of the tongue, and the degree of acidity in a wine can be measured by the extent to which it makes your mouth water. This is the body’s natural reaction to an acidic substance; salvia helps to even the pH level in your mouth and prevent the erosion of tooth enamel.
Tannin is felt as a drying or gripping sensation on the gums and on the inside of the cheeks, and is most commonly encountered in red wines. Tannin is the also present in several other foods – if you’ve ever steeped a tea bag in hot water for a long period of time only to find the resulting liquid bitter and acerbic, you’ve experienced severe tannins.
Alcohol is experienced on the back of the palate and in the throat as a feeling of warmth or of sweetness. Wines that are extremely high in alcohol will taste “hot” and imbalanced.
In order to say that a wine is balanced, its structural components must be harmonious, and and no single element should dominate the palate. The “hard” elements – acid and tannin – serve to balance the “soft” elements – sweetness and alcohol.
Once the sip of wine is swallowed, any flavors or aromas that linger on the palate are known as the finish. To bring these flavors to the fore, simply exhale out of your nostrils after swallowing. The length of time that these flavors remain is a key to judging the quality of a wine, as the best wines will have rich, complex finishes that seem to go on and on.
Analytic tasting is key to enhancing your understanding of wine. With practice, you will be able to correctly describe the differences between wines and identify your favorite grapes and styles. Learning how to taste wine won’t come quickly, but eventually you will be able to surprise your guests with your knowledge about wine after these tasting tips.