Part 2: Tasting Wines
Are you confused about wine or wine tasting? So were we, and if truth be told, some things remain a mystery. But our mission is to demystify wine for you, and for us.
In our last post (click here to read the post), we talked about different types of wines. In this post, we’ll talk about the confusion surrounding wine tasting. Again, we hope you have some comments and ideas, so please don’t hesitate to contribute to the discussion.
You Like It or You Don’t
Do you get confused by words like terroir, complexity, or finish? Before we get into how to taste wines, we’d like to clarify a couple of things.
First, regardless of what we say from now on, or what anyone else says, for that matter, wine tasting ultimately comes down to whether you like a wine or not (or the degree to which you enjoy it). This means two things:
- Tasting wine is subjective; and
- Anything other people say about a particular wine is not necessarily relevant to your own experience.
The first point is essential, so it bears repeating: tasting wine is subjective. Although there are tastes and smells that are typical for certain varietals (types of grapes), which of these you smell or taste may differ, depending on a number of things.
Professionals aside—and even then, some are better at this than others—you may pick up certain smells or tastes, which might be different than other people, because of where you grew up, what you like to eat, your own physiology, your previous experience, the food pairing, or even the temperature of the wine.
Second, don’t believe everything written on the back of a wine bottle. Although some wineries consult their respective winemakers for descriptors to include on labels, not all do this. We know this seems nonsensical, and based on some discussions we’ve had with winemakers, it can be a real bone of contention.
Marketing departments have been known to write up labels of their own accord. The wine may or may not have been tasted in its final form (i.e., bottled and ready for sale), as the wine might have been in barrel when the labels were prepared, thus still developing or in production.
The Wine Tasting Process
With these aspects out of the way, let’s go through a (hopefully) easy wine tasting process you can use the next time you open a bottle.
In the spirit of full disclosure, we are not trained professional sommeliers. We appreciate wine and have learned what we know from may conversations with experts, including winemakers, winery owners, wine tour operators, and professional Maître D’s, in North America, Europe, and Australia. What follows below represents the combined knowledge of all these people.
Now for the wine tasting, a six step process…
Step 1: The Wine Bottle Presentation
Other than our own wine tasting sheets, we don’t know of many wine professionals who consider the bottle presentation. However, we know more than a few people who select wine based on the look of the bottle, including the colour, label, shape, texture, or a combination thereof.
As many wineries spend thousands of dollars on marketing and design for their wines and wine bottles, we believe we need to give credit where credit is due. As well, the look of the bottle, wine name, and label can sometimes, though definitely not always, tell you about the inspiration/philosophy behind the wine.
As an example, Henry of Pelham has a nice and affordable line of wines titled Sibling Rivalry, named for the three brothers who own and operate the winery (all great guys, by the way). But, the name and label design also point to doing things differently, such as producing sometimes unconventional blends. Other examples include, but are not limited to, Flat Rock Cellars’ Twisted (white) and Seriously Twisted (red) wines, as well as Peter Lehmann Wines’ (red and white) Layers wines.
Step 2: Appearance of the Wine
We’ll assume you have the wine in a proper glass—more on that in another post. But please, no plastic glasses because they make it difficult, if not impossible, to smell and taste wine properly.
To start with, look for fingerprints, water spots, and unexpected smells (soap comes to mind). If you notice any of these, ask for another glass. And, always hold your glass by the stem, if it has one, as holding the bowl will change the temperature of the contents, which may affect, usually in a negative way, your wine tasting experience.
To examine your wine, look at it against a white surface (a napkin, a tablecloth, or your server’s shirt will do), as opposed to holding it up to the light. We learned from a professional taster and winemaker that holding up one’s glass to inspect the contents is “sacrilegious.”
Tipping your glass slightly against a white background will allow you to observe both the overall appearance of the wine and its edges.
For white wines, the colour can range from very light/pale yellow or green, almost clear or insipid, to deep yellow or golden. Aromatic wines, like Riesling, as well as many young wines, are usually on the paler side, whereas older and sweet/dessert wines, as well as oaked Chardonnays, are typically on the more golden side.
For rosés, shades tend to be either salmon or red-based, with an array of shades within each colour palette.
For reds, you’ll see bluish/purple in very young wines, which turns to varying shades of ruby red as the wine matures. Another sign of aging (besides grey hair!) is the emergence of an orange tinge around the edges of a wine. Older wines can take on a garnet or brown colour, although that might take decades. As an aside, corked or oxidized wines can also have a brownish colour, so be wary of this.
As a general rule, wines seem to need at least five years before they develop an orange tinge, although there are certainly exceptions. For example, we’ve tasted several Spanish wines recently that were six to seven years old and barely had any orange around the edges, which also suggests these wines could be cellared for many years.
To understand why some experts use light, medium, and dark as descriptors for reds, look straight down into your glass. If you can easily/clearly see the bottom, the wine is probably on the lighter side. If you can’t see the bottom, it’s dark. Then, you have everything in between.
Step 3: The Nose of the Wine
To get a sense of the nose of the wine, also known as smell, bouquet, or aroma, requires you to immerse your nose completely into the glass and inhale deeply. We’ve found that closing your eyes helps.
We’ve often found that we can recognize a certain smell, but cannot identify it, like there’s a disconnect somewhere in the “system.” If this resonates with your experience, you might heed the advice we’ve been given, which is to practice smelling different everyday items and food, such as leather, coffee, fruits, vegetables, flowers, your wet dog, and so on.
In fact, you can purchase kits to help in this regard, which have been a big hit at some of our wine tasting evenings (see the resource section below for a link).
Ideally, you should swirl the wine in your glass a few times to allow it to breathe—hopefully the wine’s already been decanted, but we digress. Letting the wine breath will allow its notes or nuances to emerge.
For whites, one trick is to think of white, pale, or green fruits, vegetables, and flowers, such as peaches, pears, grapefruit, lime, grass, lychee, minerals, cedar, butterscotch, hay, or honey.
For reds, think of darker fruits, vegetables, flowers, minerals, spices, and man-made products, such as berries, dark chocolate, black licorice, earth, leather, wood, especially oak and cedar, violets, vanilla, charcoal, green peppers, or black pepper.
Rosés are somewhere in the middle, often smelling of pinkish fruits (e.g., strawberries) or flowers (e.g., roses).
A complex wine will have multiple notes, so look for this and savour them.
Coming back to what we mentioned earlier about having some healthy scepticism vis-à-vis what is written on the back of a wine bottle, you may smell different notes than your neighbour because you are used to, or can better identify, certain smells. Whereas one might smell white peaches in a white wine, someone else might detect flowers or hay, which is certainly possible, so embrace it.
Also, you may have heard the word terroir, or a wine reflecting a terroir. A French word, terroir refers to the natural environment of a winery’s location, as Jancis Robinson notes in “The Oxford Companion to Wine” (2006), meaning the particular combination of the soil, climate, amount of sunlight, and topography of the area.
As an example, and as we recently learned, if there are eucalyptus trees growing on the corner of a property, or if the soil is composed of slate, you may taste these in a wine. Keeping in mind where a wine is produced can help you detect aromas.
Step 4: Tasting the Wine
This is one of the best parts! Swirl your wine a couple more times, then take a small sip, sucking in some air.
Swirl the wine around your mouth and/or chew it, so it touches all parts of your tongue. Contrary to popular belief, your tongue is NOT divided into tasting sections. We’ll tackle this popular myth in another post, so stay tuned…
Depending on where you are, if you are driving afterwards or not, or how many wines you have to taste, you have the option of spitting out the wine into a spittoon/crachoir or swallowing it. Either way, you’ll get a good sense of its taste.
The tasting note categories are the same as for the nose. Saying that, you might, and hopefully will, taste different things than what you smelled. Once again, complex wines will have multiple notes.
Most wines, especially well-made ones, can taste different over time, including during a sitting, which is always a treat.
Great wines tend to go down smoothly and don’t “attack” you with acidity or their tannins (that dry mouth feel).
Step 5: The Finish
What remains in your mouth, or lingers, if you like, is the finish. As a general rule, the longer the finish, the better. You can count this in seconds, which some people refer to as the caudalies.
Once again, the lingering notes tend to follow the categories we mentioned above.
Step 6: The Empty Glass Test (An Often Forgotten Step)
To get a sense of the particularities or nuances of a wine, smell your now empty glass. There should be notes, which again, may be similar to, or different from, what you smelled/tasted before. There are sometimes unexpected aromas at this stage, so be mindful of this and enjoy the experience.
So, with these six steps in mind, you are ready to taste and appreciate some wine. We hope you’ve found this post engaging and informative, and, again, feel free to leave us a comment.
Although there are many resources on wine tasting, we recommend the following (FYI, no one has paid us to recommend these):
– The wine aroma wheel developed by Ann C. Noble, which gives you the variety of categories
– Red and white wine tasting kits: Wine Awakenings
– The Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET), which provides education and resources for wine appreciation
– Wine Enthusiast: http://www.winemag.com/2015/08/25/how-to-taste-wine/