A Guide to Tasting Wine
To taste wine properly, there is an accepted way to get to know the wine, understand what you are tasting, and to get the most from it. You also need to know when something is not right about the wine, especially if it is an expensive one!
Knowing how to taste also has the added bonus in that you can really impress your friends and, at the same time, take the wind out the sails of some snotty little waiter.
Firstly, Use Your Eyes
After having a look at the bottle (firstly to check it is what you ordered), have a look at the label. There is a lot of information on this, and this should tell you something about the wine and what you should expect to taste.
The label will tell you where the grapes are from, where it is bottled (either on the estate or possibly by a merchant or by a co-operative), the alcohol content, certain country's labels will also tell you the quality of the wine, how long it was aged in the barrel, and in certain instances, the grape variety. The label may even give you a rather flowery description of the taste.
Next is to look at the cork or closure. If it has a cork, smell it. If it smells of cork, that's good. If it smells of wine or red wine vinegar, beware the cork may have been seeping the fluid out and the oxygen in, so the wine therefore becomes oxidised or 'Corked' as it is called.
Plastic bungs, screwcaps and the like, seal the bottle thoroughly, this is good in that it virtually guarantees that the wine will be in pristine condition, but, there is an argument that the wine will not properly develop. More and more of these closures are being used, including in some really expensive bottles.
Next pour about two centimetres of wine into a clear glass (try to avoid patterned glass). Now have a look at it. I normally do this holding a piece of white paper behind it, so I get a true comparison.
The colour of the wine can tell you a lot about it, in red wines the depth of colour will normally relate to the depth of flavour to expect, in white wines it will tell you possibly the grape variety or style of wine (e.g. Chardonnays, are often aged in oak and when they are they gain a golden colour. If not aged in oak they will be paler)
This is very much a comparative art and you appreciate the different colour to taste comparisons with lots of practise.
One thing is a definite, whatever the style, they should always be clear and bright. If a wine is not vibrant, if it is dull, lifeless and cloudy, then the bottle should be rejected immediately.
Now tip your glass to 45 degrees (please do not spill any), then back to the vertical. You will see rivulets of wine running down the side of the glass. Those are the legs. Now it used to be thought that better wines had more legs, sorry but this is not true, What it does tell you, however, is the higher the alcohol content, the more legs you will see (this also applies to sweeter white wines with more sugar content which will have more legs).
The Aroma of Wine
The next thing is to get the wine moving around the glass. We do this for two reasons, firstly to see how it moves around the glass, a heavy rich wine will appear to move more slowly and conversely a fresh young wine will appear more lively in it's movement; and secondly to release the surface tension and to get some of the liquid evaporated into the neck of the glass (this talk of surface tension, should take you back to elementary physics). This is best done by holding the stem of the glass and swirling it using a small circular movement.
Once you have done this for a few seconds, one puts one's nose into the glass and one takes one good long sniff.
You should note, however, that the receptors in the nose close up after they are first activated (to prove this, have you noticed how you fail to notice the smell from those room fresheners after a short while?). By taking one good long sniff we get the full range of the aromas in the wine.
Now during the growth of the grapes and in its fermentation the juice will produce a number of bio-chemicals, which are its flavours and aromas.
These chemicals are also present in other products, for example you will find that certain wines (in particular French red wines from the Beaujolais region) have a distinct note of bananas and the bio-chemical that is in the wine (Ethyl acetate) is actually used to replicate the smell of bananas in such things as sweets and desserts.
So from the smell of the wine you might smell things that you associate with particular fruits, such as plums, damsons, kiwi fruit or melon or you might smell oak or toast from the barrel, the range of smells associated with wines are tremendous.
One thing is certain, that we are all individuals and what I associate with a particular wine may not be what you associate with it.
One smell you do not want to smell in red wine is a smell I recognise as wet cardboard and in white wine—one of vinegar. They are sure signs that the bottle is off and should be rejected.
Incidentally, my record for rejecting bad bottles in a restaurant at one sitting is six!
Deciding Taste by Committee
You know on these television programmes and in magazines they list about 10 flavours in any particular wine? That is normally because they taste by committee and everyone puts their thoughts into the script
Now to Taste the Wine
The next stage in the process is to take a good mouthful of the wine.
Swirl it around your mouth so that the tongue is completely covered. Now the whole process of tasting is a combination of taste in the mouth, feel and smell.
Initially you will get the taste of the wine directly in the mouth and it's feel in the mouth (it might by oily, acidic, etc.). You should note these sensations. You then should breathe in across the wine. You do this by puckering you lips and sucking in making a slurping sound (whilst this is not very elegant, it is the right thing to do)
I would suggest that you practise this over a bowl, perhaps when you clean your teeth!
When you breathe in across the wine you will hopefully get a rush of flavour and detect more of the nuances and notes in that particular wine.
The final thing to note is that the flavour and the sensation of the wine will stay with you for a period after you have either spat or swallowed it (you would normally spit if you are tasting a number of bottles and wish to remain sober!). The time the flavour stays with you is called the length and the rule of thumb is that a better wine will stay with you longer so you say it has good length.
The Most Important Question
The most important question to ask yourself on tasting any wine is:
Do I like it?
I hope you have enjoyed this article. I will be producing further ones in due course.
In the meantime, cheers and bottoms up!