For many, tasting wine is usually the most impressive part of the role of sommeliers.
It almost seems like magic how we find all of the intricate details of the the weather, the soil, the oak, the specific aromas. Blind tasting takes some training and it can be impressive, but the key here is that tasting is 100% train-able- for just about anyone. While sommeliers have the advantage of exposure to many wines, learning some basic skills can transform wine from just an alcoholic beverage to something that invokes curiosity and connection. Whether you are brand new or have already been tasting with intent, these tricks can sharpen your palate….
First thing is to learn is the language behind assessing a wine. Every wine has a story; learning the lingo is how we tell it. Generally, we are looking at the color & appearance of the wine, the smell of the aromas and the way the wine feels on the palate. We’ve listed a breakdown of each of these categories- what to look for and how to improve your understanding of it. As a note, It’s best to be consistent and taste in this order. Keep in mind also that these tips are for learning to recognize what you should look for in a glass. Putting those concepts together and associating them with specific grape varietals (i.e. identifying wine in a blind tasting), is much more complex, as also requires understanding which characteristics are typical with various grape varietals.
What am I looking for? The appearance of the wine includes the hue (color/shade of the wine), the intensity of the color (on the spectrum from clear to opaque), the brightness (does it shine or is it dull), any presence of bubbles or sediment and the viscosity (“legs”).
The color is a way to begin the conversation with the wine, but certainly not its whole story, nor the best way to measure a wine’s quality. Try to separate any preconceived ideas about the appearance in regards to quality. Pretty wines are nice to drink but the ugly ones can be real fun! The hue can be an indication of the grape varietal, but a light or dark wine is not necessarily indicative of the weight on the palate (for instance, Nebbiolo is pale in color but full of tannin and acidity on the palate!). A cloudy wine may mean that the wine was simply unfiltered, as often seen in Oregon Pinot Noir. The viscosity or the “legs,” as well as whether the wine stains the glass may suggest a full body/more alcohol.
Notice the color, the intensity, and also the variation from the color in the center/core of the glass to the rim. It may have an opaque purple core with a fuchsia rim, for instance
What am I looking for? The “nose” includes the intensity of the aroma, any development that you may pick up from those aromas (more dusty “secondary” aromas may indicate age on the wine when combined with muted fruit. Secondary aromas may be called a “bouquet”), and any flaws you pick up on the wine.
This is one of the most exciting parts of the wine. It also seems to many the most unattainable, but it can be learned. We know that the olfactory sense can hold some of the clearest memories-like when you smell leather and it brings you back to the baseball mat that you used to play catch, or the scent of “grandmother’s perfume”- a common hallmark of Gewurztraiminer!
Begin to build your scent rolodex by smelling the fruit at the farmer’s market or the flowers at the botanical garden. Make mental categories. Take notice of the condition of the fruit, flower or herb- is it ripe, tart, raisinated, liquored, decayed, fresh, etc. Certain grapes carry certain aromatic hallmarks, which is helpful for blind tasting. Further your conversation with what is in the glass by asking questions- is there fruit aroma? What kind (stone fruit, tree fruit, tropical fruit, etc)? Flowers? Vegetable/herbal aroma? Secondary aromas, such as spice, leather, tobacco, earth, “barnyard”? Most importantly, trust yourself! If you smell it, it is probably there!
What am I looking for? Here we talk about the structure, the texture and the flavor, especially as it compares to the nose. Notice the texture from the beginning, middle and to the end of the wine. The finish of the wine- a huge hallmark of quality- is how long the flavors intermingle on the palate.
We also talk about the structure to describe the wine- acidity, tannin, sweetness, alcohol and finish. Acidity is how it makes your mouth salivate. Some don’t like this, as it can seem tart or sour, but acidity is the backbone of the wine. It cleans your palate between bites of food and gives the wine both freshness and longevity. Tannin, also found in dark chocolate or black tea, is the drying sensation that certain red wines have. Most white wines don’t have this, as it comes from the skin of the grape (which, by the way, is how the red wine gets it’s color). Alcohol gives the wine more body and a heavier, more plush texture. It is found as the burning sensation at the back of your throat. Sweetness refers to the level of actual sugar on the palate, not to be confused with a dry wine that has a high presence of fruit. When these components come together and no one element overpowers another, the wine has balance. The structure of a great wine has complimentary parts. Think of an off-dry Riesling with searing acidity- the acid brightens the sweetness and the sweetness softens the acid. This is a great indication of quality, as is the length of the finish.
Texture is always a sensual subject. Take time to feel the wine in your mouth before you drink it. Words like silk, velvet, chalk and grit are often used to describe the texture. Notice the difference between the beginning, middle and end. Is there one consistent texture, or does it change as you finish the sip? The beginning of the wine may feel one way, but then change half-way through (this is called the mid-palate). The was the wine ends is called the “finish.” There are no rules about how to describe the texture of the wine. Here you can use your instinct a bit. For example, a wine may start very soft, but finish very “angular,”- meaning that it takes a sharp turn with high acidity and/or tannin on the finish. All of the components of structure (acid, alcohol, sugar & tannin) influence the texture. For example, wines that have moderate acidity and tannin may feel very soft and plush on the palate. Wines that receive ample sunshine may be more glycerol, even if the acidity is high. So this wine, for example a Sonoma Pinot Noir, may be very juicy on the mid-palate, even though it finishes a bit more “sharp” because it has high acidity. The concept of texture may seem very complex at first, but trust your gut (or really, your mouth). Take your time and pay attention to how the wine feels on your palate when you drink it. When there is a texture has is interesting and multi-dimensional and the finish is long, we arrive at complexity. This is ultimately what separates good from great wine.
You can begin to improve your understanding of the structure by taking note of the effects that different foods play on your palate. Notice the acidity from a piece of citrus, the tannin from a tea bag that’s been over-steeped, the sweetness from a a piece of fruit candy vs. the ripeness of a raspberry. When you better understand these components, you can better describe your preferences.
Putting all technical aspects aside, the most important question to ask yourself is “Do I like this wine? Why or why not?” A glass of wine, like a person, is a culmination of specific environment, history and influence from the person who made it. Hopefully it was made with intention and care. Practice slowing down and listening to the story of the wine- color, aromatics, texture. When you learn to engage with the wine, is becomes endlessly interesting. It makes drinking wine more intellectual, meditative and enjoyable. In the words of the Dalai Lama, “When you talk, you are only repeating what you already know. But when you listen, you may learn something new.” -AT