The Six Sassy S’s of Effective Wine-Tasting
Written by Francis_Sanders on October 2, 2012
If wine-tasting parties are a new adventure for you, you may feel a little uncertain about how to taste wine and what to expect. Relax! With a little guidance on the basic steps of wine tasting, even a beginner can learn how to taste wine like a professional.
Job One is to be sure you have a great time! Our Traveling Vineyard Guides will make everything easy to understand and do. But here’s a brief overview just so you won’t feel like a complete newbie during your first wine-tasting opportunity. Here are the easy to remember steps of wine tasting:
- See the clarity & depth of color
- Swirl the wine gently by its base or stem
- Smell the aroma several times
- Sip and swish the wine around
- Swallow or spit the wine out. Notice the aftertaste.
Notice the color and clarity of the wine you hold in your hand. View your glass by holding it against a white background in a well-lighted room. (The rim of a snow-white tablecloth or your white shirt sleeve works like a charm.) Is the wine clear and brilliant—or cloudy and dull?
Next, take in your wine’s depth of color. Is your glass of wine watery and pale—or deep and dark? When you look straight down into the glass, can you see to the bottom? Is the color of your wine the same at the rim of your glass as it is in the middle?
So-called ‘white’ wines vary in color, from crystal clear through light green, all shades of yellow, to deep golden brown. White wines gain color as they age.
Red wines range from red, ruby to purple, garnet and brick. Red wines lose color as they age and begin to turn brown.
The color of your wine is affected most by:
- Its age
- The variety of grape used in making it
- In white wine, whether or not it spent time in oak barrels
By swirling the wine gently in your glass, you’re exposing it to a larger surface area. Swirling your wine increases its contact with air and intensifies its aroma. How: Swirl your wine by holding your glass by its base or stem so you aren’t warming the wine in any way with your hand.
What do you notice immediately when you smell the wine for the first time? This is called its nose, bouquet or aroma. Common aromas include fruits, spices, herbs and flowers. Although different people will smell different things in the same bottle of wine, there are common smells which are specific to certain varieties. How: Be sure to smell the wine several times. Complex wines offer different aromas and scents with each sniff—you don’t want to miss out of any of them! There are literally hundreds of smells you can learn to discern in various wines.
Examples of aromas associated with common white wines:
- Chardonnay: pear, apple, peach, apricot, vanilla, lemon, melon, pineapple and other tropical fruit, honey
- Sauvignon Blanc: grass, herbs, grapefruit, pear, gooseberry, lime, lemon, olive
- Gewurztraminer and Riesling: grapefruit, apricot, lime, mint, melon, peach, lilac, jasmine, cinnamon, cloves
- Viognier: flowers, lemon, honeysuckle and nectarine
Examples of aromas associated with common red wines:
- Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot: blackberry, raspberry, cherry, plum, black currant, chocolate, coffee, tea, tobacco, cedar, bell pepper, mint, smoke, nuts
- Pinot Noir: raspberry, strawberry, cranberry, violet, rose
- Zinfandel and Syrah: black currant, blackberry, pomegranate, plum, lavender, black peppercorn, wet wood, earthiness
- Sangiovese: raspberry, cherry, plum, anise, olive
At times in restaurants or during family gatherings you may encounter a wine with an “off smell”. If you do, simply ask your host to try it him- or herself and seek another option.
“Off smells” in various wines include:
- Sherry: the wine has oxidized from age or improper storage
- Vinegar: the wine contains too much acetic acid
- Cork/Mustiness: a defective or inferior cork has adversely affected the wine
- Sulfur: the wine contains too much sulfur dioxide
The overall “taste” of a wine is a combination of its smell and flavor, so take care not to skip the smelling stage to get to the tasting stage. Various areas of your tongue are designed to taste different things: the tip recognizes sweetness; the inner sides recognize sour; the outer sides taste saltiness; and the back of your tongue identifies bitterness.
Roll the wine across your taste buds. Look for a delicate, discernible balance of the following characteristics:
- Body Fullness or Thinness: A function of alcohol and glycerol
- Acidity: Gives the wine its crisp freshness (without acidity, the wine will taste flat and sour)
- Tannin: This ‘bitter’ taste comes from grape skins and seeds. Tannin is essential to the finish of a fine wine. Tannin is most obvious in red wines: it can taste astringent, hard, dry, or soft
- Sweetness: Comes from fruit flavors and fermented grape sugars in the wine. (If there’s no perceived sweetness, the wine is considered ‘dry’.)
- Fruitiness: Intensity depends on the variety, growing conditions and winemaking techniques
5. Swallow or Spit
After swallowing, notice the aftertaste (‘finish’). The better the wine, the more defined its finish will be. Good finish lingers longer on your palate while reflecting the flavor of the wine or flavors that are all its own.
During this phase, evaluate the overall quality of the wine: Do you like it? Why or why not? What do you notice about the body? How long does the impression/flavor linger? Is it sweet, acidic, tannic, fruit-y? With what foods would you pair this wine?
Of course, if you don’t like the wine, it’s perfectly okay to spit it out, especially during a wine-tasting party! So save the calories and try another variety after ‘cleaning your palate’.
To clean your palate, simply eat a plain cracker and drink some water. You may also want (or feel the need) to rinse your mouth with water before you taste another wine to make sure every bit of the earlier tasting has left your mouth.
Try to not focus to much on how to taste wine properly if it detracts from enjoyment. Every step of wine-tasting should be an experience, not a race to the finish line. Select. Savor. Be Satisfied!