How to taste wine!
Philosophy of tasting wine:
Let’s have fun with this! I acknowledge that the audience reading this will have a diverse experience with wine, from beginner to expert sommelier, and so I will make no presumptions regarding background and yet I hope to provide some text that will enrich all of us.
We all know that wine is magic stuff, but how do we engage it? Quotes abound regarding its mood-enhancing and mind-liberating qualities, the proverbial liquid philosophy. So as you taste a wine, let it take you by the hand and lead you to the pleasant Elysian pastures of more colorful life experience and camaraderie. Does the tail wag the dog? The very procedure, or ceremony of wine tasting encourages the wine drinker to become expansive. But no great need for procedure either…
So let’s not take ourselves too seriously. Sure, wine tasting can be the formal, fusty, trussed-up affair of serious business. But it can also be the flippant, hair-down, unbuttoned, torn-jeans hipster wine-sharing. Let your mood guide you, young Jedi. Let the tone of the affair define what wine you drink, the glassware you choose, the background music, the food accompaniment. Use wine as the paint for your social canvas. These more nebulous things will absolutely influence the wine experience.
In tasting wine, there is a combination of scientific formula and use of artistic sense. There is both feel and observation. There is subjective and objective. Fortunately we have the most wonderful tools of the human body to guide us, which will allow us to give simple appraisals and lengthy treatises on any humble glass, as the mood guides us. We use our visual, olfactory, tactile, gustatory and cognitive senses all wrapped into one. My intention is to help frame your thoughts to help put some order and structure into the wine sampling and appreciating process. Given a procedural template, even the most blunt-tongued, closed-minded wine taster can bring forth a wine commentary. Yes, I know, that sounds dull. But valid and valuable. Any commentary still reflects a tasting experience and as such that is valuable. So let us not be shy but engage in the shared joy of wine.
“Gimme Five Steps…”
Do these things. These five steps (or more!) will give you max data to allow you to appreciate wine to the fullest:
“See” the wine
Inspecting a wine should be a bit like stalking prey. Pacing back and forth, and getting a look at her visual qualities and merits will help set the stage for the other tasting maneuvers. Get a gauge of the depth of color, the density of the wine, its cling to the glass, its gloaming background. Hold the glass angled so you can look through its volume, and its periphery, and observe how it clings and trails from the glass itself. Hold it against a white background, but also hold it up against the sky, or elevated so light can play with the wine and help show it off. This may be against protocol for some, but these maneuvers can bring out the sparkling beauty of a wine, and add to the drama and gravitas of the wine moment.
The studious will have already looked at the bottle. Of course, bottle shape will generally give the grape away, but don’t we like a nudge in the right direction!?! The heft of the bottle, the quality of the foil, the artwork, paper-quality and subject matter of the label will influence the wine-taster. Of course the purist will blind themselves to these outside influences, but I say “humbug”! Drinking wine is an experience from the moment you hold that soon-to-be-sipped bottle, the moment your guests arrive, the foil-cutting, the cork-drawing, the ceremonial pouring, the whole shebang…
This preamble is all part of wine-sight. Set the stage with your eyes.
“Swirl” the wine
The swirl is part of the “see” visual, but really serves to agitate the wine and let it release its aromas. The purpose of uncorking and letting a wine “breathe” is part of this, but the latter is to let the unwanted funk emanate from the wine. The musty, brewing residues and barrel detritus and all the biting smells that can create gnarliness in the aroma of a wine need to go. Once the wine has breathed, then the swirl can release the wine’s perfume. With the swirl, you get a different look at the wine as the bowl or tulip of your wine goblet traps that perfume, ready for the sniff.
“Sniff” the wine
The gentle sniff puffs the aroma of the wine to the olfactory nerves high in your nose. A more throaty pull through the nose brings it back to the deeper nasopharynx and palate zones. Use all your sensors to gain different data points for the wine encounter. Good quality wines tend to have quality “noses”, and the nose mirrors and enhances the tasting process. The finest of the aromatics in a wine all come down to the nose, which fine-tunes taste. Spend a lot of time being nosey about your wine.
Some wine scents to smell for:
Fruit Can help identify grape and growing conditions.
Earthy Earth, mineral, rocky. Can reflect the “terroir”.
Of special importance, the “sniff” can help identify wine flaws that may be so subtle that the blunter taste buds can miss them. The classic ruined bottle is the “corked” bottle, whereby deteriorated cork infuses a musty attic or wet newspaper smell. Disgusting. A corked wine is probably not even good for cooking with. It’s like beauty, you will know it when you see it, or sniff it even.
Sulfur dioxide has a particular biting pungency that comes from some of the necessary preservatives, but will waft away with the breathing process. Think of burnt matches or marmite whiffs.
A vinegar sniff reflects volatile acidity. It can reflect wine that has gone off, or oxidized too, but some subtle vegetable vinegar can be part of a wine’s character.
A nail polish smell, that of Ethyl acetate, smells like your grandmother’s boudoir. No thanks.
A fungal contaminant from Brettanomyces can contribute some interesting character, akin to a sweaty saddle, but can give a earthy, leathery component. Too much obliterates fruit, and so can never be a great thing.
“Sip” the wine
Ah at last! The moment we have been waiting for. All the gathered sensory intel has created an impression, and now it’s time to complete the picture, putting paint to canvas: background, subject and now detail.
Simple taste is a little blunt, I’m sorry to say. It’s only when combined with the olfactory, nose-related aromas or scents that taste then becomes flavor. Some textbooks have stated that taste is 80% olfactory. Craziness, but true. People who have lost their sense of smell describe eating, broadly, like chewing cardboard.
Taste from the taste buds in the tongue, mouth, palate and nasopharynx are the hard-wired component for tasting sensory perception. Combined with other sensory information, taste becomes part texture and mouth-feel, but is best categorized as the blunt basic tastes as follows:
Balance in a wine is derived from sipping it. Balance comes from proportion in the palatal senses. But understanding where the different taste buds are congregated helps appreciate that sipping a wine will not do it justice. Those snorting garumphs and gurgles that some wine tasters employ and are so happy to publicly display, are considered kosher for wine tasting. The more reserved of us can still roll the wine from tongue tip to sides, and bubble it to the deeper regions of your mouth and throat, giving all the taste buds a chance to participate.
“Savor” the wine
Savor, yes, let it suffuse and sink in. Cogitate. Be mindful. Let your mind wrap its tentacles around the wine and feel it. You have already engaged the wine with multiple sensory testers, but now let your mind’s internal processor get to work. It’s OK to blurt out what first comes to mind, because, a bit like a computer search, there will be a hierarchy of tastes and flavors, and they will likely trickle out of your thoughts. Additionally, the wine itself is evolving in your glass, so there will be nuances that will need to percolate through your mind before they come out as tastes and flavors etc.
Now consider the tug of war between sweet and sour, bitter and spiciness. The organic vegetable or savory of umami has a surprisingly big impact. They all make a difference. As a taster, knowing the building blocks of flavor helps you dissect out the different tastes, creating the “flavor profile”. For example, when tasting, go down the list of sweet, sour, bitter, salt and umami and see if you can pin a taste to each of those categories to help break down the whole flavor profile.
The tricky issue of complexity comes next. Simply put, simple flavors generally denote simple wine. No problem here. A simple delicious flavor can be a serious crowd pleaser, appealing to easily recognized tastes and comfort flavors. The really complex wines will light up your mouth and dance on you palate. They evolve as you drink them. The more you look, the more you see (or in this case, taste). Lingering, evolving tastes often indicate good complexity. Let the dance continue, let it finish before fetching another partner… Those wines that earn the accolade “complete” finish well, no taste lacking, with a tasting experience that has a beginning, middle and end, satisfying all the qualitative questions you beg of a wine.
“Speak” about the wine
Let’s share our collective ideas as we taste the wine. This is part of the human experience! As our ideas form about a wine, link taste with olfactory and with visual experiences past, present and future. This will help the wine taster pluck out recognized tastes, flavors, aromas, characteristics etc. And share those recognitions. Sometimes one flavor will trigger another taster to recognize the same, but can create a knock on effect or cascade of recognized flavors, one building on another. The power of suggestion can really influence wine tasting, of course, but it can help trigger the recognition process, and so positively influence the whole wine experience.