A Beginner's Guide To Wine Tasting
Wine tasting is often perceived as an unapproachable, almost daunting, exercise. But, as long as you understand the basic principles behind it, and learn what to look out for… wine tasting can be quite a rewarding activity actually!
Firstly, the most important thing you need to know is that there are 4 basic steps to wine tasting:
1. Look: a visual inspection of the wine under neutral lighting.
2. Smell: identify aromas through orthonasal olfaction (breathing through your nose).
3. Taste: assess both the taste structure and flavours derived from retronasal olfaction (breathing with the back of your nose).
4. Think: develop a complete profile of a wine that can be stored in your long-term memory.
Let us now take a closer look to what each single step means, and what you should do to be a semi-pro (or at least to look like one)!
Step 1: Look
Check out the colour, opacity, and viscosity. Remember that, the more a white wine is golden, the more it is aged and complex; the more a red wine is garnet, the more it is old and deep. While swirling the wine, pay attention to the resistance of the wine in your glass. If you have the same “weight” sensation as if it was water, then this means the wine is very light and fresh (e.g. high in acidity). On the contrary, if the wine is very dense, almost “syrupy”, this means the wine will be very rich, full bodied, and probably also high in alcohol.
Cheeky tip: you do not really need to spend more than 10 seconds on this step. A lot of clues about a wine are buried in its appearance but, unless you are tasting it blindly, most of the answers that those clues provide can be found on the label!
Step 2: Smell
The golden rule of wine tasting: your nose is the key to your palate. Once you learn how to describe and understand a wine through your nose, you will begin to develop the ability to anticipate what a wine should be tasting like.
Indeed, 50% of taste comes from the smell, and a large amount of information can be gained from smelling a wine before you drink it. By swirling the wine before you taste it, you release many aromas of the wine, that normally fall under 3 general categories.
Aromas from the type of grape and the terroir. They are usually focused around fruit, herbal, and floral notes.
These are from the winemaking process. Secondary aromas include (but are not limited to) notes such as fresh baked bread, as well as sour cream and yogurt.
These are aromas from aging in oak or in the bottle. Cloves, vanilla, baking spices, roasted nuts, tobacco, dark leather, caramel and chocolate are just a few of the typical tertiary aroma you can easily find in oak aged wine.
Step 3: Taste
Wine body, tannicity and acidity are perhaps the most crucial aspects to consider when tasting a wine. They affect important aspects of wine tasting like food pairings, and the style of the wine itself.
Think about how the wine feels in your mouth. Is it heavy or light? Is it sharp or creamy? The body is perhaps the most obvious note, but it is extremely helpful to build in your mind the profile of the wine you are tasting.
Now, just focus on texture of the wine. Does it have a lot of grip to it? Does it make your lips stick to your teeth? Tannins are typical of young red wines and they will always have a certain degree of intensity to the palate. Sometimes they may be quite harsh (very young wines, or very tannic grapes), but in other occasions they can also be very fine and velvety, representing a most desirable aid for balanced food matchings.
Acidity is how tart or puckering a wine is. For instance, a wine with high acidity (low on the pH scale) will have acidity similar to citrus fruit; whereas lower acidity wines are closer to the light acidity of milk. It is crucial to assess the overall acidity of a wine, because this is what creates sensations like freshness and lightness, that are especially relevant in white wines and sparkling wines.
Step 4: Think
In the end, what is really important to assess while tasting a wine is its actual balance, and our overall idea of it. The balance between fruit and sugar must be in accordance with acidity and tannin levels. For instance, too much fruit or sugar and the wine will seem too heavy; too much acidity or tannin will leave the wine almost unapproachable.
Each component has to harmonise together, creating a beautiful tasting experience that starts from your nose, and elegantly develops on to your palate. However, we need to remember that wine must be a pleasure, and therefore what is really important to consider is what you personally think about it.
At the end of your tasting, always write down your sensations, your subjective comments and considerations. This will help you to decide what bottle you shall be opening next!
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