Wine tasting is an enjoyable hobby that can easily become a coveted profession. If you enjoy wine and have always fantasized about becoming known as a wine expert (or the resident wine critic among friends), you may want to increase your knowledge. Once you get rolling it may surprise you how quickly you learn. Here’s some base knowledge to get you started.
Wine Tasting 101: Flavors
Our tongue recognizes four basic flavors: sweet, salty, sour and bitter. However, with wine tasting, the impression that wine leaves in your mouth can be complex. This is because wine tasting involves all your senses. Your taste buds, your sense of smell and sight all come into play. The wine’s flavors and aromas interact with your senses, helping you interpret and assess the wine. Have you noticed how specific wines are paired with food for the most enjoyable experience? Here’s your cheat sheet on how to pair wine with your dinner.
Let’s look at the five main characteristics of wine. Once you learn to spot these, you will learn to develop your palate and then, distinguish between expensive wines and regular wines.
In most wines, the grape brings its sweetness. Grapes contain natural sugar, which breaks the yeast down into alcohol. Both the grapes and yeast leave a residue of sugars and your tongue will pick this up quickly. It starts with a tingling at the tip with a slightly oily feel at the center. This taste will tend to stay. Often, dry red wines of the cheaper variety will have 0.9g/L of sugar.
Wine contains alcohol even though the tongue may not interpret it. Wine’s alcohol content dilates the blood vessels, intensifying the wine’s flavors. When you sample wines, this affects your taste buds and it can often be confusing to differentiate one from the other.
This shows up as a zesty and rather tart taste In wine, acid is often mistaken for alcohol. Wines from grapes grown in cooler climates can be more acidic than grapes grown in warmer climates. Acidic wines tend to taste lighter. There is a tingling on the sides and front of the tongue, giving you that rough feeling when you rub your tongue along the roof of your mouth. The mouth feels wetter, as though you just bit into a juicy fruit.
You can easily confuse tannins with a wine’s dryness. Tannins are the proteins in the seeds and skin of fruits and are like the taste of a used teabag. When a wine has the right amount of tannins, it makes your tongue feel good and brings out the other flavors in it. As the wine ages, tannins start breaking down in the bottle, giving it a softer sensation. In a properly aged wine, tannins define its taste by adding complexity, balance and structure.
Since wines are often aged in oak barrels and casks, depending on how long the wine spends in it, the intensity of the oak taste in the wine will vary giving it a distinct flavor.
While there are other flavors in wine, the ones listed above are the ones to get familiar with before you attempt wine tasting. This will help you fine-tune your wine tasting ability, while appreciating what you’re enjoying.
Wine Tasting 102: WineSpeak
Wine experts have their own language to discuss the subject of wine and wine making. This list of terms will help you make your way through the somewhat confusing world of winespeak.
- Aroma: This is the recognizable odor, scent or smell of the grapes of the freshly made wine. It is the “perfume” of the specific variety of grape used. Do not confuse aroma with “Bouquet.”
- Balance: As the term indicates, balance means all the component of a wine – acid, tannin, alcohol and fruit, are in an equal relationship where none dominates.
- Black Grapes: The description applied to grapes with a reddish, bluish or purplish tinge or hue. Used to make red wine.
- Blend: To mix together 1 or more individual types of wine usually the product of different grape varieties.
- Bottle Age: This refers to the time the wine spends aging or maturing in the bottle.
- Bouquet: This is a more complex smell or perfume. It is the odor of wine aged in the bottle.
Brix: This is used to measure the level of sugar in the unfermented grape juice.
- Complex: This is used when referring to a wine that has many levels of taste and perfumes. This is a compliment reserved for a very good wine.
- Crisp: Refers to white wines with perceptible acidity. It feels clean. Crisp is the opposite of “soft.”
- Decanting: This refers to taking the wine and pouring it into a carafe or other container just before drinking it. This is done with the intent of removing the sediment from and/or airing the wine. Not all wines require decanting.
- Dry: Dry wines are the opposite of sweet wines.
- Dull: Dull wines are unclear. There is no distinct or distinguishing sense of appearance, aroma or flavor.
- Estate Bottled: The term refers to wine that is grown, produced and bottled by the owner of the vineyard it represents.
Fermentation: The natural process through which the sugar in grapes become wine.
- Finish: The final taste of the wine.
- Firm: A wine that, as a result of its acidity is structured.
- Flabby: A wine lacking acidity and, therefore, structure and length of finish.
- Fortified: The term applies to wines to which alcohol has been added during fermentation.
- Full-Bodied: The opposite of light. Full wines are weighty in both flavor and texture.
- Light-Bodied: The opposite of full-bodied wine. May lack texture but still retain flavor.
- Mouthfeel: This term is a synonym for texture.
- Must: This is the juice of white grapes or the skins of black grapes prior to fermentation.
- Nose: This refers to the smell, aroma or bouquet of the wine.
- Proprietary Wine: Wine that has been branded for marketing or recognition factor. Comparable to name-brand products.
- Residual Sugar: Sugar remaining in a wine that has not been fermented out.
- Rosé: A pink wine that may be dry or semi-sweet. It is processed from red grapes.
- Sommelier: A wine steward. He or she is responsible for ordering, storing and serving wine.
- Short: Refers to a wine’s flavor suddenly stopping.
- Sweet: A distinguishing feature of wine. It indicates high levels of residual sugar.
- Tart: Refers to wines high in acidity. Often the result of using unripe grapes.
- Taste: This is a broad term encompassing all the impressions a wine creates in your mouth. Taste may be sweet, sour or bitter.
- Terroir: A French term applied to indicate the entire environmental impact of a specific plot of land or region upon the grapes and wine.
- Texture: This refers to how a wine feels in your mouth. Its texture is its consistency.
- Varietal: Refers to the specific type (variety) of grape.
- Varietal Wine: Wine made from varietal grapes. A single varietal grape comprises the greater part of the wine.
- Vintage: This identifies the year the grapes were actually harvested.
- Vintner: An individual who makes wine.
- Viticulture: The growing or cultivation of grapes.
- Weighty: This describes the sensation of how the wine feels in the mouth. The weightier a wine feels on the palate, the higher the content of alcohol.
Guided and Hands-on-Learning.
Sometimes you need a guiding hand or to soak up the environment first hand. There are many options and some of these are:
Many of these offer courses and workshops that you can consider. For example, Astor Wines in NYC offers workshops at Astor Center.
Keen on getting an education in wine tasting, and making a career out of it? There are universities, colleges and wineries offering courses that give you a good foundation on all aspects of viticulture. Jancis Robinson has a fantastic list of universities here: http://www.jancisrobinson.com/learn/wine-courses#institute-of-masters-of-wine
Wine trails and wine tours give you access to multiple wineries and their best wines all in one visit along with a knowledgeable staff with winery-specific information to share. Some wineries host wine and food festivals and events where you can learn about winemaking from enjoyable conversations with the experts.
Though nothing compares to first hand experience, these wine books will help you along your journey:
- Wine Folly’s Essential Guide to Wine
- The Award Winning Oxford Companion To Wine
- Jancis Robinson’s Wine Course: A Guide to the World of Wine
- The Essential Scratch and Sniff Guide to Becoming a Wine Expert: Take a Whiff of That
Wine Tasting Etiquette
Before you attend a wine tasting event, to put what you’ve learned into action, make sure you are familiar with wine tasting etiquette. Here are some tips to get your started:
- No smoking
- No wearing scented products of any type and this includes your hair gel, aftershave, body lotion, perfume and just about anything else that has a distinct smell.
- Wait until everyone has tasted the wine before voicing your opinion
After the wine is served, remember the following:
- Hold the glass up to the light to observe the hue or color of the wine. Is it clear or dull? Hazy or bubbly? Pale, watery or viscous?
- Swirl the wine gently in the glass to let the aroma escape
- Sniff the wine
- Allow it to swirl in your mouth
- Taste it
- Observe how it feels. Do you find it sweet, bitter or acidic? Does it have body? How is the aroma? Does the wine appear balanced?
- Taste the wine with your nose along with your mouth. Is the aroma reminiscent of fruits, herbs, earth, smoke, grass, flowers? What do you smell?
- Now spit or swallow the wine. It is normal to spit it out while tasting a number of wines. Many organizers have a bucket on hand for the purpose. This helps to keep your palate clear for other wines.
Here is an extra tip: When you attend a wine tasting event at a winery, or are on a wine tour, don’t forget to carry your VinGardeValise. Some of these wineries sell some of their wines exclusively at their vineyard, so you’ll need your VinGardeValise® to carry back your favorites home safely. Don’t have one? Get the ultimate wine carrier here.
Although wine tasting requires knowledge and experience, it is an enjoyable experience where you’re always learning – and the best way to learn is to keep tasting.