Wine can simply be consumed like any other beverage. Tasting wine, however, entails a more thoughtful, methodical approach. The following notes are designed to help you to maximize the pleasure you derive from every glass.
It is best to taste wine in a naturally lit, odourless room to allow its true colour to be examined and to avoid other aromas interfering with the sense of smell. Avoid perfume, mints, and smoke. The most important factor when tasting is the shape and size of glass, as this can have a major impact on the taste of a wine (see Storing and Serving Wine).
Looking at a wine can provide valuable clues to its character. Note the colour and check that the wine is clear – cloudiness can indicate a fault. For reds, tilt the glass away from you against a white background and inspect the rim of the liquid to see the true colour. As a red wine ages, it changes from bright purple to tawny and then to brown. So if a red wine looks brown, it may be past its best (although brown would be normal in wines such as sherry and tawny port). A deep golden colour in a white wine may indicate the wine has been aged in oak, but it can also indicate a sweet wine style or particularly ripe fruit.
Smelling wine will vastly improve your enjoyment and knowledge. Firstly, gently sniff the wine. Make a note of any first impressions, as they are often the most revealing. Holding the glass by its stem, swirl the wine in order to help release its aromas. Then take another sniff. Note the fruit aromas you detect now. Are they intense or relatively subdued? Is there a range of suggested “flavours“? If so, this might indicate complexity, a sign of quality. Does it smell of the fruity flavours often found in a young wine, or does it boast more mature, developed aromas such as mushrooms, leather, and diesel? Is any one smell dominant, and do you like it? See Aromas and Flavours for help in identifying some of the aromas you may detect.
This stage often merely confirms the impression received on the nose. Take a small sip and allow the wine to linger on your tongue and mouth. You can enhance the flavours by pursing your lips and sucking a small amount of air into your mouth. This takes practice, but it is something professional tasters encourage as the presence of oxygen amplifies the flavours experienced. If you are tasting a lot of wines in one session, it is normally sensible to spit out each wine after noting the flavours and neutralize the palate by eating a cracker or taking a sip of water. Here are some further guidelines:
Note the sweetness of the wine, detected on the tip of the tongue. Is it dry, medium, or sweet?
Consider the acidity – the element of a wine that keeps it fresh – detected on the sides of the tongue. Is it in balance with the rest of the flavours?
How heavy does the wine feel in your mouth? Do you think it is light-, medium- or full-bodied?
Assess the wine’s fruit qualities. Are they pure and fruity (as in a young wine), or mature and complex (as in an older one)?
Can you recognize any individual flavours?
With red wines, think about tannins – the drying, mouth-puckering elements picked up by your gums. Are they harsh and bitter, or in balance with the wine?
Consider how long the flavours last in your mouth after you spit or swallow. This is known as the “finish“ and, in general, the longer it lasts, the better the wine.
Describing a Wine
It is virtually impossible to express in words the complexities and subtleties of even the most basic of wines. When it comes to identifying aromas and flavours, wine tasters borrow their vocabulary from all kinds of areas, including fruits, flowers, spices, nuts, and types of wood. Some of the flavour compounds actually exist in certain wines. For example, vanilla aromas come from vanillin, which occurs naturally in new oak barrels. However, others are mere impressions that wines create in the mind of the taster. Everyone’s sense of smell and taste is, of course, different, as we all have our own memory bank of flavours.