Wine experts are always talking about hints of this and nuances of that, while the rest of us are drawing blanks. Do these tasters have more acute senses? No, they have just learned how to pay close attention to their senses while tasting. And they have developed a method to evaluate wine, a vocabulary to describe it and a framework with which to categorize it. You, too, can become a better taster and get more out of each glass—both pleasure and knowledge. The path of the connoisseur doesn’t lead to snobbery or pretension. It embodies true appreciation. You train your palate and your brain as you enjoy each sip.
—Gloria Maroti Frazee, director of Wine Spectator School
In order to receive the highly esteemed title of Master Sommelier, candidates undergo rigorous amounts of testing. Part of this exam is the blind taste test, in which, within 25 minutes, six candidates must identify the vintage, grape varietal, country, region, and appellation. These are deduced using a precise tasting method known as “deductive tasting.” Doing the math, that leaves the candidate with four minutes and ten seconds to identify each wine. Unfortunately, this level of skill cannot be conveyed within the parameters of this guide. However, what I will outline for you here are the steps of this “deductive tasting” approach to identifying wines. Whether you are a beginner at wine tasting and identification or a seasoned connoisseur, this information will help you more effectively taste, identify, and appreciate wine further.
The Set Up
While it may seem trivial to those who aren’t familiar with proper wine tasting technique, the set up to assessing a wine is extremely important. One must understand that not everyone has the same olfactory functions and taste sensations, so everyone will experience a wine differently. Additionally, certain people might have higher sensitivity to certain traits of the wine, such as tannins, acidity, or sweetness, while others might relish in these qualities. Finally, one must understand that he or she might abhor a certain type of wine that is in fact a perfectly well-made example of a certain varietal – it all depends on taste in the end.
So, let’s set the stage. Find yourself a comfortable, well-lit place to relax and enjoy your vino. Natural light is paramount to assessing a wine properly, so no fluorescent bulbs or similar sorts of lighting. A piece of white paper in which to view your glass in front of doesn’t hurt, either. Now, find a wineglass. It doesn’t need to be a hand-blown crystal glass, just something sufficient to drink wine from. It needs to be tapered, and it needs to hold at least fourteen ounces. Make sure there aren’t any strong odors such as garlic, perfume, and things of the like. In order to most effectively enjoy a wine, make your area as scent-free as possible.
Keep in mind that there are three main elements in tasting and evaluating wine: appearance, aroma, and taste. With these factors in mind, you are ready to move on to the tasting.
After pouring your wine, hold it up at a slight angle to a natural light source or in front of a white sheet. Notice its color and qualities, as a quick visual inspection of any wine can give you instant clues as to its different qualities. Consider the clarity of the wine; is it clear, cloudy, or somewhere in between? A very clear wine generally signifies that it has probably been filtered. In the United States, most domestic wines have undergone a filtration process. This process renders the wine clear and removes any unwanted microbes and/or leftover yeasts that might cause the wine to undergo refermentation or spoil.
Next, pay attention to the color of the brightness of the wine. Is it crystal clear? Is it cloudy? The scale generally moves in this direction: cloudy, hazy, dull, bright, day bright, star bright, and brilliant. A cloudy wine might indicate that the wine is unfiltered, or even spoiled. A crystal clear white wine can usually be assumed to be less than a year old. Red wine is rarely clear, due to the pigmentation of its color.
Now, note the color of the wine. Generally, a white wine gets darker with age, while a red will lose its deep color the more it ages. Color in wine is a direct function of its aging process, its oxidation mechanism taking place as it sits in the bottle. Each varietal generally has its own distinct characteristic color, depending on the age: a young Sauvignon Blanc will usually be pale straw in color while an older White Burgundy will be a deep gold in coloration.
The final step in assessing the appearance of a wine is paying attention to the “legs,” or “tears,” of the wine. Swirl the glass around a couple of times, and notice the legs of the wine as they slowly slide back down the inside of the wine glass. There are two things to pay attention to in observing the wine’s legs. Thin, quickly moving legs in a wine usually demarcates a light or medium-bodied wine with relatively low alcohol content and sugar. On the other hand, thicker, slower moving legs tend to be signifiers of a more full-bodied, higher alcohol wine.
The aroma, or nose, of the wine is arguably the most important element in tasting a wine. The amount of signifiers in the nose of a wine can tell the taster a myriad of things about it. By many accounts, smell contributes as much as 85% of the sense of taste, which makes a lot of sense when one thinks about how bland things taste with a stuffed up nose.
As far as smelling techniques, there isn’t one correct way. Some people take a series of quick, short smells, while some take long, deep sniffs. Some people do both; it really depends on your preference.
The first thing to do when smelling the nose of a wine is to determine if it is flawed. For example, is the wine corked? A musty, dank smell usually signifies this to be the case. Does the wine smell off, baked, vinegary, or anything that seems unnatural? These are all signifiers that the wine is off.
Next, consider the fruity qualities of the wine, or its “aroma.” These scents are the inherent flavors of the grape from which the wine was made and not necessarily the techniques used to make it. There are different fruit qualities in the scent of a wine that are usually associated with specific grape varietals. For example, upon first putting your proboscis into the glass, you might notice hints of apples, lemons, or apricots in a white wine. In a red, one might smell scents of cranberry, black currant, or fig. These are all examples of primary fruit scents from the various grapes used.
Take a deep sniff of your wine; it may have an “earthy” scent to it, as in dirt or minerals. Wines from Europe tend to have higher degrees of earthy qualities to them. On the contrary, new world wines are not known for being very earthy in scent, driven primarily by their fruity qualities. Smoky qualities may also be present in a wine, implying that it was aged in an oak barrel for a significant amount of time. On the other hand, the lack of a wood flavor in a wine’s bouquet can be used as a clue to its identity.
The aroma of a wine can also be used as a clue to its age. A light, fruity smelling wine will generally be a younger wine while a more complex, spicy smelling wine is generally a sign that the wine has some age to it.
Finally, the alcohol content of the wine can be determined by its aroma. Alcohol makes itself known to the nose by the heat it creates while being sniffed. A wine with low alcohol won’t usually generate any sense of heat in the nose while a wine with high alcohol will.
At this point in a wine tasting, the trained sommelier has, for the most part, deduced what the wine will taste like, its structure as in the level of acidity and alcohol, the finish, and, in the case of red wines, tannins. There should not be any surprises, and any that one might come across will certainly be distasteful. Take a sip, let it pass over all of the portions of your mouth, and even give it a little bubble through your teeth. This way, the wine touches all areas of your palate and enables you to more effectively taste it. There are several different areas for the palate of the wine, which will be covered in this section.
The dryness or sweetness of the wine is one of its most notable qualities, right off the bat after taking a sip. Is the wine bone-dry, simple-dry, or just slightly dry? Or is it super sweet, something that seems almost like a dessert wine? The level and balance of dry and sweet are both important clues to the varietal, style, and origin of a wine. Make sure to also pay attention to the dryness or sweetness of the finish of the wine, not just the primary rush of flavor.
Now pay attention to the body, or mouth feel, of the wine. Wine can be light-bodied all the way to full-bodied. The alcohol content is the reason for this, as generally the more alcohol the more glycerin and the fuller the body in the finished wine. When tasting a wine, the movement of the legs and the level of heat in the nose should have already confirmed what you discover in the body.
The wine will have fruity qualities, earthy qualities, wood qualities, or any combination of the three. Again, in tasting the wine, we will confirm the trio of fruit, earth, and wood that we have already picked up upon in its aroma. Taste the wine again and compare its flavor to those you picked upon in assessing the aroma of the wine. Are they the same? Different? This step in tasting the wine confirms the importance of the aroma.
Now notice the level of tannins in the wine. As a rule, red wines almost always have more tannins than whites. Some reds might not have much, and some will have enough to take the taste buds off your tongue. White wines can also have a lot of tannins, as evidenced in new world Chardonnays. Acidity is also another crucial element to the tasting of a wine. Not enough acid renders a wine tasteless and incapable of aging, while too much acidity renders a wine undrinkable and sour. It’s all in the balance.
Much like before, the alcohol content can be determined through the level of heat conveyed in the taste of the wine. Low-alcohol wines will be absent of heat while a high-alcohol wine will produce a warm sensation in the throat, chest, and mouth. All of this should, once again, already be confirmed by what has been discovered in previous steps.
Now notice the “finish” of the wine. How long does it last? Is it a quick sensation, then it’s gone? Or can you taste the wine in your mouth for minutes after sipping? Generally, the longer the finish of a wine, the higher it’s quality. This is an important rule in wine, and usually holds true to all varietals.
In a proper tasting, the complexity and balance of the wine round out the various palate sensations. Balance is the relationship between all of the previous elements discussed in the taste portion of this guide. Is there something that sticks out too much? Is there something lacking? Make sure to notice these elements. Additionally, the complexity of the wine refers to as the level of flavors and aromas and how they change as your drink the wine. Good wines will pleasantly change over time as you enjoy the glass.
In concluding the wine tasting, make sure you keep a few things in mind: what climate could the wine be from, is it an old world or new world wine, what is the grape varietal, its age, and overall quality level. Is the wine is of a deep color, with strong flavors and high alcohol? It is probably from a warm climate. The opposite holds true to a cooler climate. Keep in mind the elements of the wine that can distinguish it as an old world or new world wine. As stated previously, a good way to determine this is through the earthiness or minerality of the taste and flavor: higher earthiness, the more likely it’s an old world wine. The varietal is harder to determine, and this is where one has to have an opinion or make a guess. Taking everything into account through the entire tasting, use your frame of reference to try and determine the varietal. This takes years to form, and can only come about through practice. In trying to determine the age, is the wine bright, fruity, and vibrant? Or is it spicy, complex, and earthy? These factors help determine the age of a wine.
Finally, what is the overall quality level of the wine? Here is the final, subjective factor of the entire process of the wine, but it is a factor that can be decided upon quickly. Is it a simple, acceptable wine? Or something you would never touch again? Or is it a life-changing, earth-shatteringly delicious wine that you’d consider bathing in? This is where you make the call.