Wine tasting advice
Some people think that wine tasting is a dark art reserved to a select few who bamboozle the rest of us with increasingly obscure descriptions of wet dog, sweaty saddles and musty drawers.
Unless you’re doing an exam, there is no right or wrong answer. Tasting is a very personal thing. It’s what it looks, smells and tastes like TO YOU. What someone may smell as tobacco, the next person may smell as chocolate. It’s really a question of whether you like it or not. I remember once tasting a bottle of Ch Petrus valued at £1500 and really did not take to it (in fact it was too young, too cold and had not had a chance to breathe) – so don’t be swayed by price either.
GUIDELINES & TIPS
However, there are a few simple steps to get the most out of a glass of wine, which can be condensed into
- SPIT or SWALLOW
A good look at a glass of wine is revealing. It betrays a number of faults which may be present, and can offer clues about the age of the wine, as well as its provenance and even in some cases, the probable grape variety from which it is made. Viscous ‘tears’ or ‘legs’ which cling to the side of the glass once it has been tilted slightly are useful clues to the wine’s alcoholic strength.
- White winesrange from pale to gold, encompassing pale straw, green-gold (often a sign of acidity, and typical of young riesling), mid-gold or even in the case of some dessert wines, old gold. White wines deepen in colour as they age, so the colour can tell you something about maturity.
- Reds, on the other hand, become lighter with age. The first signs of maturation are visible at the rim of the wine, so always tilt the glass to see how the colour changes. Certain varieties produce more deeply coloured wines than others. Cabernet sauvignon and syrah or shiraz, for example, tend to make deep, dark wines, while pinot noir produces lighter-coloured reds. A really mature red often has a tawny appearance.
- Rosé wines, depending on their grape varieties and method of production, can range from the palest onion-skin or partridge eye to almost blue.
- In sparkling wines, look for the mousse, or column of bubbles rising from the core of the glass. Small, agile bubbles indicate good quality, whereas large, coarse ones, similar to those found in fizzy water, suggest that carbon dioxide has been added, rather than produced by the process of secondary fermentation which creates the best fizz.
- We may call it wine tasting, but the nose takes centre stage, for smell is an infinitely more sensitive and complex sense than taste.While the taste buds efficiently separate sweet from bitter, and sour from salty, the 10 million or so receptor cells which make up the olfactory organ, high in the nasal cavity, are stimulated by sensations which can’t be tasted. In wine terms, these could include pungency, mustiness or rot, as well as the more pleasurable aromas of oak, spice and grape fragrance.
- An initial ‘nosing’ or sniffing of the wine establishes its cleanliness and good health. Corkiness, oxidation or bacterial spoilage see Common Wine Faults will be readily detected at this stage. New oak will be apparent, and some of the more communicative grape varieties will announce themselves.
- Seasoned tasters swirl the wine in the glass for a very good reason. This agitation releases volatile compounds in the wine, which intensifies the ‘nose’, also known as the ‘bouquet’, and enables more information to come through. Primary fruit aromas give way to subtler, more complex notes of spice, flowers and other elements such as cedar (common in cabernet sauvignon, for example) or leather (a regular find in syrah-based wines). Whether animal, vegetable or mineral, all aromas have something to impart, and because the nose is closely linked to the brain, these sensations are automatically stored for future reference
- Although the nose is generally reckoned to do most of the detective work in evaluating a glass of wine, there are some important things that it can’t do. It cannot register sweetness, acidity, bitterness and saltiness.This is the job of the taste buds, which also announce the presence of tannin and alcohol nor can it measure the length of the wine – how long the feel and taste of it remain on the palate after swallowing or spitting – and to evaluate its finish.
- Different parts of the tongue register different tastes.The sides spot sourness, or acidity, while the back detects bitterness. The very central tip is receptive to sweetness and on either side of it are the salt detectors which might be woken up by a zesty Manzanilla, or Fino sherry. The gums and cheeks are alert to tannin, and the back of the throat is adept at spotting the burning sensation of excessive alcohol. All the more reason to work the wine all around the mouth to ensure it comes into contact with all these receptors, enabling them to tell the full story.
- To pinpoint the effects of tanninbefore embarking on wine tasting, let a pot of tea stew for an hour or so. Flush a small portion around your mouth and note the puckeringly dry, bitter sensation it creates. It makes for a pretty unpleasant cuppa, but in wine it can often be a good sign. Tannin comes from grape skins, pips and stalks, as well as from wooden barrels. It is essential to the long-term welfare and ageing potential of red wine.
- Take a small sip, work the wine around your mouth and hold briefly to consider the overall dimensions and balance of the wine. Does any one element stand out? Or do all the components of the wine seem to be singing in harmony?
- Now retaste more thoroughly, ensuring you take in plenty of air, and don’t be afraid to slurp and swoosh audibly if it helps. Try to pinpoint flavours and consider texture, particularly in reds, and the way in which the wine holds up in the mouth.
- Now let your tongue do the talking. If the wine is sweet, is it balanced or cloying? Are there any saline elements? Are they pleasant and refreshing or out of kilter? Is any acidity apparent? If so, is it fresh, pleasantly piquant or plain sharp? Is there any underlying bitterness? Some wines have a natural bitterness you’ll get to know with practice. Valpolicella, for example, has a distinctive sour-cherry character. However, an unpleasantly woody bitterness is generally speaking the sign of a badly-made wine. Is there tannin present? If so, is it in balance, or is it overwhelming the other elements? Is it stronger on the finish? Can you taste alcohol? In a perfectly balanced wine, even one which is high in alcohol, the only clue is a subtle warmth. A burning Armagnac-like spiritiness of the kind considered acceptable in very old port, is, in any other case, a sign of poor equilibrium.
- Finally, after swallowing or spitting, consider how the wine ‘finishes’. Is it short and insipid, clean and crisp and workmanlike or long, complex and multilayered? How long does the aftertaste last? Many budding tasters find it useful to count it out it in seconds, though a stopwatch is perhaps an accessory too far.
And finally – the most important thing – DO YOU LIKE IT?