How to taste wine like a pro
Being a young wine student, I’ve found myself in the fascinating world of wine and had to learn how to taste wine in a way that allowed me to be aware all the different flavours and textures that may be present.
You’ve probably seen wine professionals suck, slurp and spit their way through a wine tasting but is that really how you’re supposed to do it? You can learn how to taste wine in a simple way which will not only make you sound like you know what you’re talking about but also will help widen your wine knowledge.
So how do I go about it?
Before a wine tasting, it is important to prepare yourself so you can get a clear impression that isn’t affected by any external factors. This includes using a wine glass that’s clear and clean. No dirty glasses here, people!
Make sure you have a big enough spittoon if you are going to be doing a lot of tasting, or at least somewhere to pour out the wine out as you move on to the next glass. The last thing you want is an overflowing wine glass filled with saliva to accidentally spill . . . I’ll stop there because I think you get the point. Although spitting out the wine may seem like a waste, it allows you to assess what it’s like without getting drunk.
You also need to make sure the room is well lit as well as odour-free (you shouldn’t wear perfume or cologne either). And if you smoke make sure you take a cigarette break well before the start of the session.
Having some plain crackers on the side is also a good option because they can help cleanse your palate between wines. And you’ll need water to keep you hydrated.
Make sure the wine is at the correct temperature too because this will also affect the taste, so chill any white wine or rosé.
How the wine looks:
Now to the wine. The first thing you do when you pour get a glass of wine is look at it. After pouring your glass of wine, tilting the glass at an angle will help you appreciate the wine’s true colour. (It helps to hold the glass against a white or light background or a piece of white paper.
By looking right into the wine glass, you can see how intense the colour is, is it pale, deep or somewhere in the middle? Older reds sometimes fade towards the edge of the glass
But how do you describe that colour that you see? Well white wines can range from a pale straw colour all the way to deep gold and even amber. For reds, it can go from a light cherry colour to almost purple. And rosé? From pale whisper pink to salmon to orange! Great, isn’t it?
How the wine smells:
Now to the ‘nose’ which is how wine pros refer to the smell of a wine. Sniffing a wine can tell you so much about what’s going on in the glass, from the wine’s age to the different techniques that could have been used during the making. (No, I don’t expect you to get that - yet!). And if you can’t smell - because you have a cold for example - you can’t really taste anything either.
Stick your nose into the glass and inhale all those lovely aromas. To get a more complete picture, swirl the glass and then place you palm over the glass for around 4-6 seconds, slowly lift you hand up, sniff again and notice the difference.
What are you getting? At first, you might just think ‘wine’, but that’s okay. Try and link the smells to things you’re more familiar with. Is it fresh strawberries, green apples or deeper aromas like vanilla and chocolate that might hint that the wine has been aged in oak? And how intense are these aromas; light so that you’re ust getting a whiff of them or so intense they’re really hitting you in the face?
What if there are any unpleasant smells?
If the wine smells like soggy cardboard or wet dog, or comes across as stale or musty, there is a chance that the wine may be corked which means it’s faulty not that it has little bits of cork floating in it. Obviously that isn’t likely to happen in a wine that’s sealed with a screwcap but even they can smell a bit funky at times. Give it a moment or two then swirl it again.
(Pro Tip: If you aren’t really smelling anything anymore and are finding it a bit hard, smell your wrist to bring everything back to normal and go in for another sniff)
How the wine tastes:
The fun part has come… tasting the wine. Swirl a small sip around your mouth and ping it around your taste buds for a few seconds (you can spit the wine into your spittoon or swallow).
How does it feel in your mouth? Is it light and refreshing like water or rich and almost viscous? That’s the body of the wine. Does it strike you as sweet? If not, the wine is ‘dry’, if there’s a touch of sweetness or ‘residual sugar’, it may be labelled as ‘off-dry’ or ‘medium-dry’ or, if it’s sweeter still, ‘medium-sweet’. Or if it’s really sweet you’re talking about a dessert wine.
Can you taste the acidity in this wine, i.e. is it sharp? Does it make your mouth water? Does it have any tannins (that’s mainly reds, although white wines like oaked chardonnay can also contain tannin), if so, how obvious are they? A tannic wine leaves a rough, drying sensation in your mouth like drinking a strong cup of black tea.
Is the wine so high in alcohol (more than 14%) you can almost feel the burn in your mouth or on the lower side (under 12%)? All of these factors can give you an idea of the quality of the wine; in a good wine all these things should be in balance. But we won’t stop there…
Flavours! What do you taste? Is it intense? You can take another sip if you need a reminder, I’ll wait.
Just like when we were smelling the wine, are there any flavours that are familiar? If it’s a white wine, are you getting green fruits like green apple, pear, gooseberry? Or can you taste citrus; lemon and limes? Maybe even tropical fruits like mango, and pineapple. What about honey, toast and even petrol? For red wine, are you getting dried fruits like raisins and prunes, fresh berries like cranberry and raspberry or cooked fruits like blackberry and dark plum? Some spices, smoke, or leather even? There’s a whole range of descriptions you can use - just jot down or anything that comes to mind.
Lastly, how long does the flavour last in your mouth after you’ve swallowed or spat it out? This is called the finish and can go from ‘short’ (the flavours disappear quickly) to ‘long’ (the taste lingers which is good unless the wine is bad).
Can the same glass of wine taste different?
As the wine warms up in the glass, the flavours of the wine evolve so take another sip. Can you notice the difference.?
Now play a little trick on yourself. Taste the wine then take a bite of a sharp, juicy apple and see how it changes the taste of the wine. Or nibble a bit of cheese. How does the wine taste now?
So now you can come to a conclusion about this wine; was it well-balanced? Were the aromas and flavours complex or was it a simple wine? Is it the sort of wine that needs to be aged or did it seem to you just the right time to drink it? These are all things to take into account when arriving at your conclusion. And, most important of all did you like the wine!
Now you know how to taste wine like a pro! And don’t forget… practice, practice, practice! This will help you identify different flavours and aromas as well as broaden your wine knowledge by tasting different wines AND it’s lots of fun!
Just to give you a bit of a steer here are some flavours to look out for in:
- Sauvignon Blanc – lemon and grapefruit, passionfruit, gooseberry and sometimes green bean or asparagus
- Chardonnay can range from green apple and lemon to peach, mango and vanilla
- Riesling – green apple, lime, white blossom and sometimes a slight oiliness, even petrol
- Pinot Noir –, raspberry, strawberry, red and black cherry, plum
- Malbec – plum, blackberry, sometimes a slightly smokey note
- Champagne – ranges from crisp citrus to honey, nuts and toast, depending on age
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