How to taste wine
Wine tasting - we all like to drink wine, but when we judge the quality we are more often than not making a judgement on whether we like the wine or not. Assessing quality is a combination of things that we can experience through our senses - namely sight, smell and taste. In this series we look at how you can use your eyes, nose and mouth to find out as much as possible about the wine you are tasting.
The four parts are
Many people in the wine trade get very excited by looking at a wine, personally the pleasure for me in wine is once it has entered my mouth! However, there are some interesting things that can help to put the wine into perspective and help you interpret what your mouth is telling you.
The first thing to observe is the clarity or brightness of the wine. A wine in good condition should be bright not cloudy unless it is an unfiltered wine - most commercial wines are filtered.
The colour of the wine can also give you clues as to where in the world it is from and how old it is. A pale white wine is characteristic of a young wine from a cool climate wine region, while a deep gold white wine may indicate a warmer climate or an aged wine or even a wine that has some oak influence such as being placed in an oak barrels or other forms of exposure such as oak chips or staves. Young wines without exposure to oak often have a lemon or green shade to them, before changing as they age to gold and amber.
Red wine colour fades as the wine gets older, and changes from purple through to brown. Deep coloured reds often suggest a thick skin variety such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Shiraz or Nebbiolo. A pale colour suggests a thin skinned grape variety such as Pinot Noir or Gamay.
Many people are intrigued by the legs or tears of a wine. Swirl the wine and notice how the wine clings to the side of the glass. As the alcohol evaporates from the wine it will start to run down the side forming legs or tears. Wines high in alcohol often have the most legs or tears.
Occasionally you will get a wine with a spritz. This can add to the zing of a crisp wine and is desirable. Occasionally it is a fault caused by an accidental fermentation in the bottle. This is similar to the traditional method for making sparkling wine. This can be very undesirable in some styles such as rich, ripe red wines.
These days you rarely find solid material in commercial wines. But in some wines you can find all sorts of sediments. Usually this is not a problem, black snow-like deposits are often made up of tannins. As a wine ages tannins (the drying sensation in your mouth) form crystals in the wine, effectively removing tannins from the wine softening the wine. As this occurs the blue colour molecule also forms crystals changing the colour of young wines from purple to an older amber or brown. This sediment in old bottles of wine, and is one of the reasons for decanting a bottle of wine.
For more information on why wines change colour See perceving wine: Why wines change colour
Smelling a wine is at least half the experience of drinking wine. This may seem strange but your nose can actually detect over 10,000 different aromas and it is your nose that picks up most of the flavour of wine in your mouth. The wine's vapour has two paths to the sensory system that passes flavours and tastes to your brain via your olfactory lobe. Either through the nose, which is how most of us think we smell things, or through your mouth up behind your throat into your nose. The mouth has five basic taste receptors: salt, sweet, sour (acidity), bitter (tannins) and alcohol. Everything else you sense in your mouth is actually picked up by your nose and your sense of smell. Imagine eating a plate of rich, fried mushrooms. Even just by thinking about fried mushrooms you may be able to imagine the flavour in your mouth. Our brain fools us into thinking we are tasting with our mouth but in actual fact it is the nose doing most of the work. This is one of the great tricks of nature. Next time you eat a strongly flavoured food try blocking off your nose - you won't taste a thing.
One question that has bothered me about this is that we often taste things differently to the way we smell them. The only solution that I can offer is that our mouths are usually at a different temperature to the wine in the glass. When you smell the wine in the glass only certain molecules will boil off and float to the nose and the olfactory lobe. However in your mouth the liquid is warmed and more volatile aromas evaporate and pass up through the back of your throat to the olfactory lobe in your nose. The difference in temperature changes the molecules boiling off and hence the way we perceive the flavour.
The flavours revealed by your nose are part of an evolving story about the wine in front of you. When tasting, first take a gentle sniff of the wine, like a hunter you are stalking the beast! Swirl the wine in the glass to allow air to get to as much of the wine as possible (not just the surface area) and help release the flavour molecules. With the initial sniff its a good idea to focus on the intensity of flavour at this stage as well as subtle aromas which often are swamped when taking a deeper sniff. Next smell the wine again with a deeper, longer sniff. Watch which nostril is working best. Often you will find one nostril works better than the other! This can be quite random and can change several times over the course of a day.
The object of smelling a wine is twofold: it can be enjoyable provided you like what you are smelling but it can also give you an idea about the wine you are drinking. The intensity and style of the aromas will give you the first hint of the quality of the wine. Often the more intense the flavour the more the wine will cost. However this needs to be tempered by the type of aroma. For example, a big jammy red wine may be cheaper than a wine with clean and more defined aromas. Also wines with unusual aromas are often valued higher due to their scarcity.
A tip if you are tasting lots of different wines. After a while your nose will become de-sensitized to the aromas in the glass and they will be harder to detect. You can reset your nose by smelling the back of your hand. It helps if you avoid wearing perfume and if you are taking it seriously make sure you are in a room that is odour-free.
With wine the mouth may only be able to detect four basic sensations, but they are very important. They are sweetness, mouth watering acidity, drying tannins and warming alcohol. Each of these sensations has an affect on each other. For example, a wine with sweetness will often feel fatter and more full-bodied in the mouth than a dry (not sweet) wine. A wine with high acidity that makes your saliva glands go into overdrive making your mouth water, and will often make the wine feel thinner in the mouth. Many cool country wines that are high in acidity often leave a small amount of sugar (known as residual sugar) in the wine to fatten the wine and hide the acidity.
Alcohol has a similar effect. High alcohol wines feel bigger in the mouth and have more body than lower alcohol wines, they also have a sweetness associated with the alcohol giving a fuller bodied wine. The warming effect on the back of the throat can be pleasant or not depending upon how the rest of the wine holds together. As wines age fruits in the wine dry up and disappear, acidity and tannins decrease, but alcohol never changes. As a result of the rest of the wine changing, the alcohol in the wine will be come more and more noticeable.
Tannins, found mainly in red wines, produce the drying sensation in your mouth. If you are unsure where the tannins are, take a slurp of red wine, wash it around your mouth and swallow, now with your tongue rub the roof of your mouth. You should notice a drying grippy or coarse sensation, that is the tannins. Many people don't like tannins but they are easy to deal with. If after opening a bottle you realise the tannins are too much for you, you could let the wine breathe - exposure to air is the easiest way to soften tannins and some acidity. If you can't wait the 3-4 hours required, you could pour the wine into a jug or decanter and back into the bottle a couple of times to speed up the process. If they are still too aggressive try eating some cheese or meat with the wine, this will soften the tannins up considerably and is the reason why so many red wines taste better with food.
As mentioned in Part 2 any flavours in the mouth travel to the olfactory lobe in the nose. The interesting thing is that while it is the same wine and the same receptor (the olfactory lobe) the taste can be different to the smell. The only difference is the path taken compared to the nose. The aromas in the mouth are warmed by the mouth creating additional volatile aromas that then travel to the nose creating a different sensation to those when smelt.
You can see that there are a number of different characteristics that are in the mouth. How each related to each other is called the balance of the wine. Too much sugar creates a fat sticky wine. Not enough flavour and the alcohol dominates. The balance is subjective and a wine high in alcohol may be in balance to some people and out of balance to another group.
One thing that is not subjective is the 'finish' or the length of flavour the wine has. The longer the flavours linger in your mouth the better the quality of the wine. This is not much help if you don't like that flavour but a wine with short length of 5 seconds or less is not going to be expensive to buy while a wine with over 15 seconds is gong to be quite pricey. It is all to do with the concentration of aromas and creating concentrated wines costs money. More in Part 4.
Putting it all together
By looking at the three separate areas of wine tasting it is possible to determine the quality of the wine. A wine's length gives you an idea of the effort put in on the vineyard, managing a vine's natural tendency to produce a large crop with little concentration of flavour. By restricting yields and increasing flavour concentration in the vineyard the wine will cost more to produce, not only because less will be produced, but the maintenance of the vine will be higher. All that TLC costs money and comes through in the price of the wine.
The other key quality indicator is balance. Getting the balance right is more to do with picking the grapes at the right time and the quality of the winemaking. It is possible to get a very cheap bottle of wine that is well balanced if the winemaker is good. Occasionally you may drink a wine that is very expensive but the wine is out of balance, for example the tannins could be too hard. All wines need time in a bottle before being drunk. This can range from a month through to 20+ years. The reason is simple, as wine ages it changes. Tannins and acidity back off, as does flavour intensity. A young red wine designed to age for 10 years will at first be too acidic and tannic and certainly out of balance. Eventually these will back off until they are in balance with the rest of the wine. Eventually they will fade completely, you will only notice the alcohol and the wine will be back out of balance again.
As well as the big structural elements of wine changing (tannins & acidity) the flavours and aromas evolve. Bear this in mind if a wine has tasting notes on the back label and you are drinking it a few years later - there is little chance the description will match the wine inside the bottle. Wine is an evolving liquid from the moment the grapes start growing to finally being consumed.
Once a bottle of wine is opened it continues along a similar but not identical path to the ageing process. A wine that has had a chance to breathe often is softer and will taste smoother (this is why some bottles of wine taste better the next day). So when you are tasting a wine, do be aware and enjoy the evolution of wine as it changes over several hours. That said, while I enjoy looking and thinking about the wine in my glass, don't forget, wine is to be enjoyed. Don't over analyse a wine. Think about it whether you like it and if you do, go ahead and enjoy.