Tasting—rather than merely drinking—increases appreciation for wine. With practice, it becomes subconscious.
Putting sensations into words helps us to remember the wine long after we have tasted it.
Check the wine’s appearance first, then the nose, then the palate, and finally, use your impressions to draw a conclusion about the quality of the wine. WSET® uses the ISO glass for wine tastings.
- Faulty wines
- The main reason for looking at the appearance of a wine is to check for faults— wine that is is too old, has been badly stored, etc.
- The most common fault is failed cork seal (allowing air to damage the wine), etc. which shows itself in the appearance.
- Dull look
- Hints of brown (Also in healthy old wines, particularly those that have been aged for very long periods in oak.)
- Haziness (Also in no-fault, unfiltered wines).
- Check the wine’s color
- It is worth making a quick note of the colour. Look at the intensity: is it particularly intense or pale?
- If it is a red wine, is it ruby (purply-red) or garnet (orangey-red)?
- Purple is an indication of youth (wines with a dominant purple colour will be called purple).
- Orange, amber, and brown colours are indicators of age (wines more dominant in these colours, rather than red, will be called tawny).
- However, bear in mind that some wines change colour more rapidly than others, so no definitive conclusions about actual age can be reached.
- If it is a white wine, is it lemon (yellow with a hint of green) or gold (yellow with a hint of orange)?
- Green indicates youth; orange and brown indicate age.
- If it is a rosé wine, a bright purply-pink indicates youth; orange and brown hints indicate age.
- The colour of a wine from any particular region or grape variety depends greatly on the age of the wine, and the winemaking techniques used.
- Swirl the wine it in the glass to release as many aromas as possible, then take a sniff. Make a note of the condition of the nose. Are there any off-notes?
- Faulty wines
- The most common fault detectable on the nose is cork taint.
- At low levels, this can strip the wine of its fresh, fruity aromas.
- At its worst, it can add a pungent, unpleasant damp cardboard or musty smell to the wine. Out-of-condition wines will smell dull and stale, and may have excessive oxidative aromas (toffee, caramel, or sherry).
- The most common fault detectable on the nose is cork taint.
- However, the presence of oxidative aromas does not always indicate a fault: some wines, such as Oloroso Sherry, are deliberately oxidised.
- All faults can be detected on the palate too. When a fault is really bad it can easily be identified on the nose and the wine can be put to one side straightaway. However, in some cases when the fault is only minor, it is sometimes necessary to take a sip and assess the flavours on the palate in order to confirm that the wine is faulty.
- Assuming the wine is healthy, how intense are the aromas? Are they particularly pronounced, or are they light and hard to detect? Describing the smell is a more subjective aspect. It will greatly depend on your previous experiences.
- Some of the descriptions may sound fanciful at first. However, there are well-understood reasons why aromas such as butter, vanilla, rose, or raspberry appear in some wines. Other aromas are less well understood, but wine tasters can be quite consistent in their use.
- Some writers avoid using aroma descriptors, but in order to evoke the wine their tasting notes often use words such as ‘feminine,’ ‘elegant,’ ‘clumsy’. These words can be very appropriate, but difficult to define. A more scientifically objective approach would involve naming the particular chemical compounds which are present, which is almost impossible to do accurately and would be useless to most wine drinkers!
- WSET has included a table of suggested aromas/flavour words, and how they might be grouped together. This is not an exhaustive list, but it is a very thorough starting point.
- Taste the fruits, vegetables, and spices, and smell the flowers, the leather, the bread, and so on. Make your aroma description vocabulary as wide and precise as possible.
- Always be aware, however, that one purpose of a tasting note is to help describe a wine to someone who has not tasted it. Terms such as ‘the back of my garage’ or ‘the glue we used to use at school,’ while useful for you, are unhelpful to others.
It is often said that tasting is an entirely subjective matter. It is true that our sensitivities to sweetness, acidity, tannins, and certain aroma compounds differ. Therefore our private experience of tasting the wines may be entirely different. However, we can usually agree which of any pair of wines is sweeter, more acidic, or more tannic. From this, it is a short step (although it requires a lot of tasting experience) before we can say whether a wine has medium, or particularly high or low levels of these components.
When assessing a wine on your palate you use your sense of taste (for sugar, acid, and bitterness) and smell (for flavour characteristics). All parts of the tongue are sensitive to all tastes, but some areas are more sensitive than others. The exact pattern of sensitivities varies from taster to taster, but, generally, sweetness is most easily detected on the tip of the tongue, acidity at the sides, and bitterness at the back. To ensure you gain the clearest possible impression of the wine, take a small tasting sip, then draw in air through your lips. This will ensure that the wine coats all parts of your mouth, and the vapours are carried up the back of your nose, where your sense of smell will detect the flavour character.
- Sweetness is an indicator of how much sugar a wine contains, although wines made from very ripe grapes can have a slightly sweet flavour even when there is no sugar. Almost all red wines, and most white wines, are dry, that is, they contain almost no sugar. White wines that taste slightly sweet are described as ‘off-dry’.
- Acidity is what makes lemons taste sour. It causes the mouth to water, and its presence makes wines taste vibrant and refreshing. It is present in all wines, although levels in white wines are generally higher than acidity levels in reds. Certain varieties, such as Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc, give wines that are particularly high in acidity. Cool climates generally result in higher levels of acidity than hot climates. Acidity is very important for sweet wines. If it is too low, the wines taste over-sweet, and cloying.
- Tannin is what makes strong black tea taste bitter and astringent. Tannins are present in grape skins, and their presence in a wine depends on the amount of skin contact during winemaking. White and rosé wines receive very little, if any, skin contact, so they rarely have any detectable tannin. Thick-skinned varieties (Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah) have much higher tannin levels than thin-skinned ones (Pinot Noir, Grenache). High levels of soft ripe tannins may indicate a hot climate wine. Note that astringent tannins from unripe grapes can cause a strong, mouth-drying sensation, even when their levels are low. The bitter flavours are most strongly tasted at the back of the tongue; the astringent sensations are most strongly felt on the gums. Soft, ripe tannins contribute to the viscosity and the body of the wine.
- Body is also sometimes described as ‘mouth-feel’. It is the sensation of richness, weight, or viscosity, and is a combination of the effects of alcohol, tannins, sugars, and flavour-compounds extracted from the skins. It is possible for a wine such as Beaujolais to be high in alcohol (13% ABV), but still be light in body because it has very little tannin, and is lightly flavoured.
- In contrast to sweetness, acidity, tannins, and body, which are detected in the mouth, flavour characteristics are detected when aroma components in the wine evaporate off the tongue and rise up to the back of the nose. This is why we cannot taste properly with a cold. To help these volatile flavour components reach the nose, many tasters slurp the wine by drawing air in through their lips while tasting it. The groups of flavour descriptors are the same as those for the nose.
- The Finish refers to how long the desirable flavours linger in the mouth after the wine has been swallowed or spat out. A long, complex finish is an indicator of quality.
Finally, having described our wine, we may form an assessment of its quality. A good starting point is to ask yourself whether you like the wine or not. If you like it, how much do you like it, and what do you like about it? If you did not enjoy it, try to articulate what you did not like about it.
Of course, an objective assessment of quality goes beyond personal likes and dislikes. You may dislike a particular wine because you do not like acidic or oaky wines, for example, but other wine consumers do like these styles. The key question is, is it a good example of its type? This question becomes easier to answer as you gain more experience. Assuming the wine is not faulty (badly made, out-of-condition, affected by cork taint), many criteria can differentiate between a poor wine, an acceptable wine, and a great wine. These include:
- Balance—Fruitiness and sweetness alone can make a wine taste sickly or cloying. Acidity and tannin alone or in excess can make a wine taste hard, unpleasant, or austere. In a good quality wine, the sweetness and the fruitiness will be in balance with the tannin and acidity.
- Finish—A balanced, pleasant finish where the flavours linger for several seconds is an indicator of a high-quality wine. For inferior wines, the flavours may disappear almost instantly leaving no lingering impression, or the flavours that linger may be unpleasant.
- Intensity—Dilute flavours can indicate a poor wine. However, extreme, intense flavours are not necessarily a sign of quality, because they can easily upset the balance of a wine and make it difficult to drink.
- Complexity—Lesser wines often have one or two simple flavours and quickly become boring. The greatest wines generally have many different flavours.
- Expressiveness—Lesser wines taste as if they could come from anywhere and be made with any grape variety. Great wines express characteristics of their grape variety and/or their region of production (climate, soils, traditional winemaking techniques). In a few rare cases, the individual vineyard can be identified from the flavours of the wine.
SELECTING AND RECOMMENDING WINE
When choosing wines for an occasion, or making a recommendation, it is important to take into account the tastes and preferences of those who will be consuming the wine (and budget!) When catering for large numbers of people with diverse or unknown tastes, it is wise to avoid extreme styles of wine such as Alsace Gewürztraminer or Barolo, and it can be a good idea to offer alternatives (dry/medium, red/white/rosé). When matching a wine to an occasion, remember that apart from in exceptional circumstances, the wine should not be the centre of attention. However, it should be of an appropriate quality: for special occasions it can be a good idea to trade up to a premium-quality wine. However, very fine, rare, special bottles may be best saved for a modest occasion where they can be given the attention they deserve: they will make that occasion a special one. Food is an important consideration when selecting a wine for an occasion.