By: Ryan Greene
You don’t need to be a wine expert to understand how to taste and analyze wine. Wine tasting should be fun and not intimidating. By learning the basics of wine tasting, you can confidently determine the quality of wines. Let’s review the tasting process by going through steps using our senses. Using and interpreting your senses is fundamental if one is to understand the wine they taste.
Look at the glass and notice color of the wine. Different grape varietals tend to have different shades. For example, Pinot Noir (or Burgundy) tends to have a medium-red color, while a Zinfandel will have a much deeper red. To get the best view of the color, tilt your glass at a 45 degree angle away from you. This should be done over a white surface, such as a napkin, so you can see the color clearly.
The color of the wine is also used to help establish the age and maturity of the wine. For red wines, the deeper the color (even as dark as black or purple), the younger the wine. As red wines mature, the color lightens, transitioning from a deep to a lighter red, and eventually to orange and brown. The opposite effect occurs with white wines; they begin lighter such as a pale yellow, and then darken with age (turning to gold and eventually brown). Many complex and high quality wines also have different shades of color that vary from the center of the glass to the edges.
Next, swirl the wine around the glass and notice how slowly the wine runs down the side of the glass. These are known as “legs” and this indicates the viscosity of the wine. Thicker and slower legs can indicate a higher alcohol level, or a higher level of sugar in the wine.
A major part of the tasting experience involves merely smelling the wine. The best way to release all of the aromas from wine is to swirl the wine in the glass. This allows some oxygen into the wine, which will help its aromas escape from the glass. After swirling for a few seconds, tilt the glass at a 45-degree angle to your
nostrils to maximize the wine’s impact. If you aren’t sure what you are smelling, keep in mind that there are four main types of aromas found in wine: fruit/floral (blackberry, violets), earthy/mineral (leather, wet rocks), wood/spice (cigar box, nutmeg), and chemical/biological (medicinal, barnyard). A complex nose has several layers of aromas, and this develops and changes every time you smell the wine.
It is interesting to know that 80% of what you taste actually comes from your sense of smell (and therefore, only 20% from the taste buds). To maximize the tasting experience, keep in in your mouth for at least a few seconds before swallowing it.
While tasting the wine, try to determine body, acidity, tannins, and sweetness (‘BATS’). The body, or fullness, of a wine can be understood by considering the difference between heavy cream and skim milk. Fuller bodied wines tend to have higher sweetness and/or alcohol. You can sense acidity to how much the wine makes your mouth water, also causing a tingling sensation. While too much acidity can make a wine appear tart or sour, acidity actually helps a wine appear fresh. It also helps to balance the sweetness in the wine. Tannins come from grape skins, stems, seeds, and oak barrels used to age the wine (especially new barrels). Tannins contribute wine astringency and bitterness. Have you ever taken a sip of a red wine and rapidly experienced a dried-out feeling in your mouth? Tannins are the culprit. Tannins are actually beneficial, since they help wines age. And finally, sweetness in wine is due to residual sugar found in many wines. This is easier to sense, typically in the front part of the tongue. One thing to note: ‘dry’ wines actually have nothing to do with their drying tendency (i.e. tannins); rather, wines that are not sweet are called dry, even if they do not cause a drying sensation.
Lastly, after your swallow the wine, think about the lingering aftertaste. How long does it last? A good bottle of wine should have a finish of at least 20 seconds. Excellent bottles of wine may linger for longer than one minute after swallowing, known as a long finish.
Factors/Tips to determine quality in wines
- Range of colors that vary from the center to the rim of the glass.
- Complexity of aromas that change and develop with time
- Balance between acidity, tannin, alcohol, and fruit.
- Presence of tannins and acidity useful for aging wine
- Layers of flavors tasted
- Long finish (at least 20 seconds)
By following these simple steps and utilizing your senses, you can develop your palate and really learn more about the quality of wines. The most important thing to remember is to enjoy whatever wine you are drinking!