First Things First
Usually when we drink wine with food or at an occasion, it is done casually and without much concentration, much like driving a familiar route in a car we’ve owned for years. Evaluating a wine at a wine tasting is more like test driving a car- you are exploring characteristics to see whether you like them or not. By comparison, everyone has preferences in cars—certain qualities they are looking for—so the practical minivan may be ideal for a mom of multiple children, but not desired by the speed-loving bachelorette. So, too, with wine–we all have personal preferences and we taste wine to discover what is most enjoyable to us.
Wine professionals and everyday consumers will use the same process to evaluate wine but with different goals. When a Master of Wine candidate is studying for his or her exam they are doing “blind” tasting, and are trying to hone in on the varietal, location of origin, and even vintage. Blind tasting can also be useful to the everyday consumer, so your opinion of a wine is not colored by a bias for the varietal or location. It allows you to consider the wine without looking for specific characteristics described in tasting notes.
Finally, while there may be “experienced” and “novice”, there is no “right” or “wrong” in wine. The bottom line is, for you as a consumer what makes a wine “good” is that you enjoy drinking it. You can use knowledge gained from wine tasting for a 2-fold purpose: to know what kinds of wine you enjoy and to make better decisions when choosing wine off a retail shelf or from a restaurant wine list.
Using Your Senses
Evaluating wine uses all of our senses: sight, smell, taste, touch and sound (ok, I’m kidding about the sound, but I swear a really excellent wine sings!).
Sight: The appearance of a wine is often an overlooked quality but it can give us many clues about the wine’s characteristics. Ideally, a wine’s color is observed by tilting the glass over a white surface. The color of the center and the color of the wine’s edge can tell us how thick or thin the skin of the grape was or how much the wine has aged. For example, Pinot Noir is a thin-skinned grape and has a lighter color whereas Cabernet Sauvignon is a thick-skinned grape and is more opaque in the glass. Another example: a young white wine will usually be lighter in color and possibly have some green flecks in it while an aged white wine will take on a deeper golden color. In reds, wines that age a long time in oak, such as a Gran Reserva from Spain, can take on an orange-ish hue on the rim.
As a side note, you can’t always observe the color of a wine on a retail shelf but the color of the bottle glass can at least give you this clue: wines in clear glass are designed to be enjoyed young (within a year or two) while wines in dark colored glass can generally age longer.
Another thing your eyes can evaluate are the “legs” or “tears” of a wine (the drops returning after swirling the wine in the glass). Basically, the slower the legs form and fall, the higher the alcohol and probably sugar content of the wine. The alcohol content directly affects the wine’s body (see below for more details) and can also tell us about the region the wine comes from—warm climates usually produce higher alcohol wines than cool climates.
Smell: Another reason to swirl the glass is to maximize the wine’s air contact and therefore intensify the wine’s aromas. Again, there is no “correct” or “incorrect” assessments of the aromas in a wine. One person may smell lemons while another person smells grapefruit- and if you are a novice, you may have a hard time distinguishing smells altogether. When practicing smelling wines, it can be useful to have two wines side-by-side to compare. To start off, choose two different varietals from the same region such as a Pinot Noir and Zinfandel from California. As you gain experience, try the same varietal from different regions like a Pinot Noir from California vs. a Pinot Noir from Oregon. Through this experimentation, you are also getting to know the various characteristics imparted by the climate, soil, and so on (known as terroir collectively in “wine-speak”) as well as which regions produce wines you enjoy.
The strength of the aromas are another way to describe wine. A wine is very aromatic if you can smell it while holding the glass to your chest, but not aromatic if you have to stick your nose in the glass to smell it. Chardonnays are not known as aromatic wines, but Rieslings tend to be very aromatic!
As the olfactory bulb is part of the brain’s limbic system, it is tightly associated with memory and emotion. The aromas of a wine can remind us of summer evenings on the porch, or Mom’s best comfort-food. These “free-association” memories or feelings further enhance the enjoyment of wine.
Taste: Most “flavor” is actually perceived by the nose, so honing your ability to detect aromas is more important than trying to deduce flavors. Sweetness, sourness, bitterness, saltiness, and umami are the only flavors processed by the tongue rather than the olfactory bulb. However, we can access the olfactory bulb in the back of the throat, which is why you might observe someone slurp air while they have wine in their mouth (called “gurgling”); like swirling before smelling, this brings the flavors/smells to the back of the throat toward the olfactory bulb. The perceived flavors of a wine are personal and don’t necessarily speak to a wine’s quality. One exception might be that multiple, coherent flavors create a complex wine, which is an indicator of quality.
When we use our sense of taste to evaluate wines, we are mostly assessing a wine’s balance. Balance is intuitively sensed by anyone tasting wine, but can be a little difficult to gauge without practice. A wine’s balance is a combination of flavor, alcohol, sugar, and perhaps most importantly, acid. A wine with too little acid may seem flabby, even watery. A wine with too much acid may make your mouth pucker as if you ate a lemon. Cool-climate wines tend to have more acid than warm-climate wines. The acidity of a wine is a key component when pairing wine with food. A creamy dish, like pasta alfredo, benefits from a high-acid wine to cleanse the palate and balance richness of the sauce.
The finish of a wine is also an important quality. A good acidity level will carry a wine’s finish and may even introduce new flavors after a wine has been tasted. The longer these flavors last, the better the quality of the wine. A good wine should have a finish lasting 10-30 seconds.
Touch: The two main tactile experiences of wines are in the wine’s body and tannin level. The body is described as light, medium, or full. Think of the differences between skim milk, 2%, or whole milk respectively. A wine’s body is directly related to its alcohol content—the higher the alcohol, the more full the wine—so you can use a wine’s label, which will always list alcohol percent, to get an idea of the fullness of a wine.
Tannin levels determine the feeling, or tactile sensation left on the tongue. A tannic wine can leave the mouth feeling dry and in some extreme cases, even make your tongue feel rough. Tannins come from the skin and seed contact during the alcoholic fermentation process, therefore tannins are perceived in reds much more than whites. A very tannic wine can be unpleasant to drink on its own but they make wonderful companions to red meat, hence the classic pairing of steak with Cabernet Sauvignon. Tannins can be “softened” by aging either in barrels or in the bottle. We often use the word “dry” to describe tannin levels in reds but if we are speaking of a white wine, it is more likely a descriptor of sugar levels. A “dry” Riesling has less residual sugar than its sweeter counterparts.
The Bottom Line
Even the most seasoned wine professional was a novice at some point. No one is born with an innate ability to assess wine and even those with “talent” need to practice, practice, practice. The best way to practice tasting wine is…well, to taste wine. Try as many wines as you can as often as you can – coming to the weekend wine tastings at Locke Store is a great place to start learning, continue your education, and hone your wine-tasting skills!
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