How to Taste Wine

Wine tastings can be stuffy affairs with a lot of oohs and aahs, smacking lips, spitting, nose dipping and a parade of adjectives like angular, austere, barnyard, flabby, unctuous and muscular. Are we really talking about wine here?

Quite a long time ago I recall a wine spectator article with a tasting that compared the preferences of a french oenophile and a california vintner.  They tasted the same wines, some from each of their geographic areas. Naturally, the Frenchman preferred wines in the French style and the california vintner preferred new world style. No surprise there.  But, what was surprising was the various adjectives they use to describe the same wines. They were totally different. One would have thought they were tasting different wines!

The takeaway here is that everyone’s taste is different. The flavors that you are passionate about (eg a jammy, plummy Syrah) may be described as gooseberry and asphalt by someone else.  There is no right or wrong. Your taste buds and preferences are your own. Being told what I should taste in a wine has always annoyed me. Besides, the power of suggestion is immensely impactful when tasting wine.  If I am told that an expert tastes cat’s pee or geraniums I might just nod knowingly and agree even though I have never tasted either.

Let’s strip away the pretense and talk about the simple basics of wine tasting.

See the wine

Pour the wine in a glass. Look at the color and clarity. If it is a young white it might be white, clear, transparent. An older white will tend toward yellow or straw color. A red might be deep red, burgundy, or red with orange at the edges depending on the grape and the age.

Swirl the wine

Swirl it in your glass. Let the aromas arise as the wine opens up and releases its bouquet.

(If you tilt your glass and let the wine go up the side and then straighten it up you will see wine slowly move down the side of the glass. If a wine moves slowly down the side of the glass it is said to have “legs”. Legs means that the wine is full bodied. Full bodied translates too a measure of viscosity. But I digress.)

Sniff the wine

Carefully insert your probiscus into the middle of the opening at the top of the glass. Inhale slowly. What you smell will depend among other things on the type of wine you have chosen. It might be citrusy, oaky, grassy, vanilla-like, plummy, woody, floral or a hundred other descriptors. Smelling is important as many experts estimate that 75-95% of taste is derived from the sense of smell. I can usually identify 1 to 2 aromas when I sniff even though many wine bottle labels will identify 6 or 7 different aromas.  (If a professional taster or vintner says he tastes asphalt or cat’s pee it is best not to question how those aromas might have found their way into the wine.)

Sip the wine

Swirl it around in your mouth. Bathe your tongue and cheeks in this wonderful nectar. Is it sweet, dry, spicy, fruity, acidic, floral or mineral? Is it pleasing or disturbing?

Savor the wine

Hold the wine in your mouth. Savor it. Slowly swallow. Does the favor fall away quickly?  If so, the wine is fairly simple. Do flavors linger, change and remain on the different parts of your tongue.  This would be described as a more complex wine. Complex wines have multiple flavors, evolving flavors, more symphony than solo.  These are usually higher quality wines, with more distinctive and intense flavors with longer finishes. They typically come with a higher price tag as well.  But the solos, duets and trios all have their place in the world of wine along with the symphonies.

Remember, there is no right or wrong. Your taste buds are your own. Be confident and savor what you enjoy.


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