No one needs a lesson on how to drink wine, that part comes naturally. Today we’re talking how to TASTE wine, and by the end you’ll be tasting like a pro. These are the techniques I use in my wine Diploma course for every wine I taste – and they’re all poured blind (aka from a plain decanter, no label), can you believe it?
Before we get to tasting, I want you to harness your inner Sherlock Holmes, because what we’re embarking on will require you to pay attention to lots of little clues, use your powers of deduction, and make a conclusion (you're also going to need to dispatch any self-consciousness you have around seeming precious).
For this exercise, you’re going to stop thinking of wine as a beverage, and start thinking of it as a mystery you need to solve.
Remember this, it’s your tasting shorthand: SEE – SWIRL – SMELL – SIP – SAVOUR
First, we SEE the wine. Ideally you’ve got a white counter or piece of paper that you can view your glass over. Taking a look at the wine, we’re specifically looking for three things: how deep is the colour, opaque or pale? Is the wine crystal clear and bright, or is it a little murky? What colour is it – for whites does it have a green tint, is it lemon yellow, gold, or does it have a brown tone? For reds, is it vivid purple or ruby red, does it have a hint of garnet (brick red), or even brown?
When I’m looking at whites, I tilt the glass at 45 degrees over the paper, and look at the rim of the wine for hints. For example, Sauvignon Blanc tends to be very pale, almost watery, and sometimes has a bit of green in it. With reds, I do the tilt too, but I also put the glass down, and look straight down to see if I can make out the stem. If I can’t see the stem, I call a wine opaque.
Depth of colour can give you a clue about where the wine was grown and potentially even what grape it could be. Grapes grown in hot climates like Australia or California can have deeper colour. Some varieties like Pinot Noir and Nebbiolo will appear paler and more translucent in the glass. Wines like Zinfandel and Shiraz can have very deep colour, and sometimes they are totally opaque, so I’m mentally perusing what grapes it could be right from the get-go.
A clear, bright wine can indicate a well made wine, whereas a murky wine can indicate a few things: it’s an older wine that has thrown sediment (ie the tannins have precipitated out of the wine and are now visible), the wine was not filtered by the winemaker, or in some cases it could be faulted (ie something is wrong with it – this will come through when we smell and sip). Colour will also give us clues about the potential age of the wine. As wines age, they tend to become paler (reds), deeper in colour (whites), or develop a brown tone (brick colour in reds, tawny colours in whites).
We’re also taking a look at the “legs” or “tears” as they run down the sides of the glass. Thick, heavy, slow-moving tears can indicate a wine that has higher alcohol or could have residual sugar (ie it’s sweet). Whenever I see really thick tears, I think hmmmm, what will this taste like?
Next, we SWIRL. We talked the importance of swirling on Day 1 of #Instawineschool. This step is sometimes overlooked, but it’s really important in order to get the clues we need when we sniff. When we swirl our glass, we’re oxygenating the wine, and creating a wine vortex in the glass. Give your glass 5-10 seconds of swirling, as this sends the volatile aroma compounds into our noses as we SMELL.
Don’t laugh, but when I SMELL a wine for the first time, I swirl then breathe out and inhale deeply with my eyes closed. I try to put out all other thoughts except for what I’m smelling in the wine. If I need to take another smell of the wine, I give myself a couple of breaths before going back to the glass so I don’t wear out my nose.
As I smell, I’m looking for the very first impression I get. It might be blackberries, or vanilla, or spice. This is our first clue as to what the wine is. Then I start running through the scent families to tease out specifics. Do I smell fruit? Yes, is it stone fruit (apricots, peaches, plums), apples (red or green), pears, tropical (pineapple, mango, passionfruit), citrus (lemon, lime grapefruit)? Are there any floral notes (roses, violets elderflower, orange blossom)? Do I smell any hints from winemaking – butter, cream, bread, vanilla, toast? How about scents that tell us about age – earth, spice, leather, mocha, tobacco?
If a wine is all fruit, that is, the scents you’re picking up are wholly types of fruit, then we’re likely dealing with a younger wine. If you can pick up some hints of winemaking, like vanilla or oak, bread notes, then the wine is developing. If all you’re getting is smoke, spice, earthiness, mushrooms and tobacco, with no fruit, then the wine likely has some age on it, and we’ll call it fully developed.
If you’re smelling wet cardboard, you may have a ‘corked’ wine. We hear this term all the time, and no, it doesn’t refer to bits of cork floating in your glass. There’s a compound called TCA (trichloroanisole), that can sometimes be found in cork, and it creates a musty wet cardboard or wet dog odor. It can also dull the aroma and taste of a wine, making it flat. Cork production is much more careful these days (it was found that chlorine was an issue), so cork taint is becoming less common than in the past.
Some grapes have ‘tells’; you smell the glass, and the bouquet is so evocative that you just know what it is. Gewurtztraminer smells like lychees and roses. Riesling can smell of petrol. Pinotage can smell like tar. Cabernet Sauvignon of mint or eucalyptus. Syrah of black pepper. Gruner of grapefruit. Take note of any distinct aromas you get.
If you think I’m spending lots of time on SMELL, you’re absolutely right. This step is where I pick up most of my clues about a wine!
Now, we SIP. Finally we’re tasting some wine. Close your eyes, take a good sip, and don’t be afraid to slosh the wine around your mouth. We need to get the wine to all your tastebud areas (sweet, bitter etc).
If you’re feeling brave, try the SLURP. Taking a sip, purse your lips as if you’re playing the flute, tilt your head forward a tiny bit, and breathe in a steady amount of air. The air will pass through the wine, creating a slurping sound. This trick brings extra aroma compounds to the back of your mouth, where they will be picked up by your nose. Careful not to drip down your shirt!
Again, take note of your very first impression of the wine. Is it super acidic (juicy, vibrant, mouth puckering)? Is it tannic (velvet or toothpaste feeling, gritty, astringent, sandpaper tongue)? Does it feel heavy like cream (full-bodied), full fat milk (medium-bodied) or light like fat-free milk (light-bodied)?
Sensing alcohol is another trick. Take a sip, swallow or spit your wine, then pay attention to how fast your saliva starts running. Sounds strange, but the higher the alcohol, the more your mouth will water.
Then, like we did with SMELL, start running through the flavours you’re getting. They may echo the same things you smelled earlier, or you may pick up something totally new. Run through fruit, spice, flower, other flavour families to try to put a name to what you’re tasting. If you need a tip, read the back of the bottle to see what the maker is suggesting, although it’s best to learn by reading this after you’re done! When you can pick up lots of different flavours, we call the wine complex.
Now, we SAVOUR. This step can get skipped, but the whole point of drinking the wine is to enjoy it right? After you swallow, how long do the pleasant flavours linger? The longer the finish, the more you can be sure this was a well made quality wine. A quick or simple finish, or one with unpleasant aftertaste can indicate a cheaper or commercial grade product.
Now that we’ve SEEN – SWIRLED – SMELLED – SIPPED – SAVOURED, think of all the clues you picked up along the way, the flavours, texture, aromas, and consider them.
Finally, ask yourself the most important question of all: Do I like this wine?
Developing your palate, learning to identify grapes, and picking out flavours is all well and good, but it’s all about finding wine YOU love.