The Art of Tasting Wine
How do you taste wine? Do you just put some wine in your mouth and then swallow it? Or do you go through a process that involves looking at it, smelling it, swishing it in your mouth, and then swallowing it. If you just swallow it, then you’re drinking wine, not tasting it. Wine is something to be experienced. Like good food. Yes, there are wines that are just for consumption. Like getting a cheeseburger at a fast food restaurant. Unless there is something special about it, like a sauce or seasoning, then it’s just food. But there are so many wines out there that deserve more of your attention. Here I will go through the technical aspects of what and why we taste wine the way we do. Being able to distinguish the myriad of scents and flavors takes time. You won’t be able to do it like an expert overnight. Hopefully this lesson will at least educate you on the “behind the scenes” aspect.
So, what does tasting wine involve? There are three main steps. Look. Smell. Taste. All three are important for the overall experience. All three can give valuable information. They can all be rewarding in their own right. Let’s get started with the first step.
Looking at a wine can yield some important information. We look at the color and clarity. No, it’s not diamonds, but just like diamonds, color and clarity can yield information. Color in and of itself doesn’t indicate the quality of a wine. However it can give clues about the wine. Clarity, however, can indicate flaws. With the modern filtering systems used today, the vast majority of wine will not have a cloudy appearance. If a wine does, then very likely there is a problem with it. Unless the winemaker intended to create an unfiltered wine, you probably have a problem. However, fairly old wine can have sediment (which is OK), or just be cloudy.
So what can the color tell us? First, it can indicate age. It’s not an exact science like I said last week. But it can give a general indication of age. As whites age they will get darker in color. Very old whites can become brown in color. A young white that is brown may have an issue, but that should be rare. With reds the opposite is generally true. Red will get lighter with age. The wine color chart in Kevin Zraly’s Windows on the World book is an excellent example of wine color (2006 edition p. 8).
Second is flaws. Generally wines are filtered very well and won’t be cloudy. However, if there was a problem in the filtration process, or it’s an extremely old wine, then it might be cloudy. There are also things called tartrate crystals. These are naturally occurring potassium or calcium crystals. This is what gives wine it’s tartness. In white wines sometimes the crystals are visible. It doesn’t mean the wine is bad per se, just that something didn’t go quite right in the making of the wine.
Next, different varietals have different color characteristics. While initially all reds look the same and all whites look the same to many people, in reality, there are some slight and not so slight differences. For instance, Chardonnay usually has a deep golden color while a Sauvignon Blanc may look like straw. A Cabernet Sauvignon may have a dark red/purple color that is almost black while a Pinot Noir will be very light and almost see-through.
The best way to evaluate the color of wine is to hold it in front of a white background. Unfortunately you can’t always be somewhere with a white tablecloth. Also, different people will perceive color differently. While we all might agree that it’s a white wine, we may differ slightly as to how yellow, green, or straw color it may be.
This is what is called the Nose or Bouquet. One of the most overlooked parts of this process is the nose. First of all, most people just open the bottle and drink immediately. So many times the nose of the wine may not be developed. One reason for opening a bottle, and decant it if possible, for upwards of several hours prior to drinking it is to allow it to breathe. Allowing the oxygen to interact with the wine creates the aromas we experience. This is also the main reason why we swirl the wine in a glass. It allows the wine to aerate. While we can only taste four different tastes, we can distinguish thousands of scents.
Each varietal will also tend to have different characteristics. Chardonnay typically will have a buttery component to it. It can also have some tropical fruits, toast, and vanilla. Some of this is from aging in oak barrels. For those aged in stainless steel (aka Un-oaked) you will get more of a mineral type nose. Think wet rocks, slate, blue stone, limestone. Cabernet Sauvignon can have black fruits, pepper, asparagus, ginger, oak, vanilla, earth, etc. Pinot Noir can have some of the same characteristics as Cabernet Sauvignon like oak, vanilla, earth, but it will have brighter fruits like strawberry, raspberry, cherry. It can also have some floral elements such as rose petals. Sauvignon Blanc typically can have these: cat pee, grass, bell pepper, grapefruit, lemon-grass, and mineral. And these are just a few of the characteristics of these varietals.
However, there are some smells that are universally bad. Things such as vinegar, cardboard, wet mold, sulfur, and oxidized (Sherry). The last smell can be intended for actual Sherry. But a non-Sherry should not exhibit that. A cardboard or wet mold smell is an indication of a “corked wine” So what is a “corked wine?” Technically speaking it’s a wine with a chemical called TCA (2,4,6-trichloroanisole). While the chemical is harmless, the smell is very unpleasant and will overpower the natural aromas of the wine. This will end up making the wine undrinkable. Humans are capable of detecting TCA in parts per trillion, however not everyone can detect TCA the same way.
So why do we smell all these different things in wine if they are not added to it? It’s a thing called Esters. For this I’m going to lift the explanation from Wikipedia:
Some of the aromas perceived in wine are from esters created by the reaction of acids and alcohol in the wine. Esters can develop during fermentation, with the influence of yeast, or later during aging by chemical reactions. The precise yeast strain used during fermentation and temperature are two of the strongest indicators of what kind of esters will develop and helps explain partially why Chardonnay grown in the same vineyard but made by two different producers could have different aromatics. During bottle aging hydrogen ions, found in higher concentration in low pH (high acid) wines, serves as a catalyst in the formation of esters from acids and alcohols present in the wine. However, at the same time these hydrogen ions encourage esters to also split apart back into acids and alcohols. These two counter-balancing acts gradually inch a wine closer to a state of equilibrium where there is equal parts alcohol, acids, esters and water (a by product of the reactions). During this period the ester influenced bouquet of the wine is constantly changing due to the concentration, formulation and splitting of different esters. This is partly the reason why a wine will have one set of aromas at one time and other aromas later in its life.
To properly taste wine you need to swish it in your mouth so that it has the chance to hit all areas of the tongue and mouth. You want to coat your mouth. We have four main tastes; Bitter, Sweet, Sour, and Salt. Salt is something that isn’t in wine, so if you taste something salty, that could be a bad thing. For Bitter you are getting the alcohol and/or tannins of the wine. Sweet is the residual sugar. Sour is the acidity.
So what about the flavors? Remember the esters from above? This also explains why we have different tastes in wine. Combined with the heat of the mouth and aerating it (the funny sound of sucking in air while tasting wine), the flavors’ aromas are sent up the nasal passage called the retronasal passage. The aromas are carried up the back of the nose. And it’s very normal to taste different things versus what you smelled. And just like the nose, varietals can have typical flavor profiles.
Once you are done swishing the wine in your mouth what do you next? Well, if you are evaluating quite a bit of wines, the best thing to do is spit. Huh? Yeah, I know it seems like a waste, but you’ll thank me later if you are trying to taste 20-40 wines in one sitting. Even as little as 10 wines. If you drink all of that wine, then the alcohol starts entering your system in significant amounts. This dulls the senses and means you smell and taste less. While the fun factor might be going up, the ability to evaluate wine goes down.
That’s why there are spit buckets at all of those wine tasting events. It’s not rude to spit. It’s actually expected. However, some of these wine tastings will have untrained pourers and they will look at you funny when you spit. They might even question if you liked the wine. I just let them know that it’s not that I don’t like it, it’s just that I’m going to be tasting a lot of wine and I’d like to be able to drive home safely. Personally, I find that spitting helps me to evaluate since I’m getting that extra retronasal action.
There is also the issue of palate fatigue. Drinking all that wine can contribute to it, but just the act of tasting will eventually dull those receptors in the nose and especially the taste buds on the tongue. Experts at wine tasting can taste for hours before they experience palate fatigue. Most people however will experience it much sooner.
Isn’t that what we’ve been doing? Yes. But this is that “post-game” report. How did the wine smell, taste, and feel. Feel? Yes, wine can have a feel. Sometimes called the Body. Does it feel heavy, light, coat your mouth and tongue? You are also looking for the Balance. Are all the components in harmony – smell, taste, feel. Are they fighting? Is there one overpowering taste? Are the tannins too harsh. Is there too much acid? And then there is the Finish. How long do you taste the wine? A few seconds? Does it last 2-3 minutes? Better wines have longer finishes. And what about the tannins? Are they overpowering right now, but you can still taste the fruit? That is probably a good indication that the wine will age for a long time.
And finally, did you like it? No matter what, the final evaluation is what do you like? You and I may like different wines for different reasons. It’s like debating who has the best BBQ sauce. They are all made with the same base ingredients. It’s how it’s made and what extras are put in that make the difference. Don’t worry about a score. Your 92 may be my 82 or vice versa. It is a very subjective area.
I hope this was helpful in understanding the mystery of tasting. If you have any questions, then feel free to email me using the link to the right. Or post a comment below.
Thanks for Stopping In,
Mark V. Fusco
Aspiring Sommelier in Training.