Food and wine have long been the great equalizers of civilization; we sit down, we share a meal and a drink, and we solve the problems of the world. For those interested in learning about the art of wine-tasting and developing their palate for fine wine, the first step is to learn how to properly taste and evaluate wine. A wine’s scent, mouthfeel, color, and taste are all integral aspects of the tasting process, and each different variety offers its own unique profile and characteristics. There are also a few simple tools used in wine-tasting to ensure that each aspect of a wine’s profile is properly showcased.
Color is one of the most obvious differences when appraising a glass of wine. Typically ranging from a very pale yellow to a rich red or even deep purple, the color is indicative of the wine’s most basic classification; is it a red wine, a white wine, or a rosé? Beyond this black-and-white (or red-and-white, if you will) classification, each wine within those categories has its own hue and opacity that distinguishes it from the rest. The hue, a more granular assessment of a wine’s color, is fairly subjective. To define a hue, the analyst simply describes what they see. For example, gold is a common hue descriptor of select white wines, as is amber. Rosé wines, the gray area of the wine world, are in between red and white wines, and some may be described as orange-ish or salmon in color. Reds also have their own color palette and can range anywhere from ruby to nearly black in color.
Clarity and the viscosity of a wine can also be evaluated by sight. Many wines are fairly clear; however, there are, as with color, some differences. One variety of wine may be crystal clear, whereas another might be slightly cloudy. Wine, like beer, may be left unfiltered to preserve all of the distinct notes and flavors, in which case the wine may be cloudy due to any sediment remaining in the bottle. Select wines may be strained through cheesecloth or decanted to avoid pouring said sediment into one’s glass. It’s worth noting that while some varieties of wine may have a slight haze, wine should not be severely cloudy, as it may be considered a flaw by seasoned aficionados.
Viscosity is shown by the stripes of wine that are left slowly rolling down the sides of a glass when the wine is swirled, or a wine’s “legs,” as it is commonly referred to. The more viscous the wine, the more pronounced the “legs.” The presents of these indicate two characteristics: sugar concentration and alcohol content. Both alcohol and sugar are more viscous than water, so the higher the viscosity, the higher the sugar concentration and/or alcohol content in the glass of wine. The concentration of compounds dissolved into the wine also increases the viscosity thereof. On the whole, darker, heavily extracted red wines exhibit more pronounced legs than lighter white wines.
Once you’ve assessed the color of a wine, it’s time to move on to the nose, or bouquet: the wine’s aroma. This may be the aspect most novice tasters most commonly associate with wine-tasting: the swirling of the glass and the long, full inhales of a fellow taster with their own nose deep inside their glass. While one might not want to look like a fool sniffing their wine, it really is an important part of the tasting process. Since our sense of taste is so intricately linked to our sense of smell, this process can open up a whole new door of tasting that elevates one’s appreciation for the subtleties of a wine.
Is the swirling of the glass really necessary? Yes; this action helps to introduce oxygen into the glass, volatilizing refined particles within the wine and allowing them to react and grow its complexity. It’s suggested that to properly receive the nose of a wine, one should swirl the wine and then immediately lift the glass to the nose and inhale deeply. Don’t be afraid of how you might look; this is about the full appreciation of a beautiful glass of wine.
Upon inhaling, one will immediately pick up on a couple of different things, including the intensity of the wine’s aroma. Often characterized as weak, moderate, aromatic, or powerful, the intensity describes the presence and power of an aroma. A wine’s nose may be very prevalent, or it might be a bit slow or shy, in which case one might slowly swirl the glass a few more times to help release the wine’s full bouquet.
When the aroma does announce itself, the taster will likely be able to identify a few basic notes, or scents. Seldom will one hear a fellow taster describe a wine as “grapey”; rather, the development of a wine imparts many different characteristics that are unlike the varietals used in its production. Young wines do tend to stay on the lighter, fruitier side, maybe exhibiting a sense of red fruits, like strawberries or raspberries, with subtle notes of something deeper or richer, like spices or earthiness. Wines that have been properly aged may exhibit scents not commonly associated with fruits and might be described as having a truffle or coffee quality to them. The most important thing to remember is that there isn’t a single right or wrong answer when describing a wine’s aroma; its bouquet is unique to the palate of the taster. Equally important is the fact that just because you detect a specific note when assessing the aroma of a wine doesn’t mean that the wine will taste the same.
Taste and Mouthfeel
Some tasters consider the actual taste and mouthfeel of a wine second to the assessment of the bouquet. It is at this stage that the taster does what we’ve been waiting for and puts the wine in their mouth. But wait: The wine mustn’t be swallowed at first. After taking a medium-sized sip of the wine, one will feel the wine inside their mouth. These sensations are closely associated with the wine being either dry or sweet. Tannins, naturally occurring polyphenol chemicals, within the wine create a dry feeling within the mouth. The more developed the tannins in the wine, the drier the feeling. Alternatively, the less pronounced the tannins, the sweeter the wine; this reference to sweetness doesn’t actually indicate a presence of sugar. The body or weight of the wine is also assessed at this phase; does it feel heavy and weigh on the palate? This is indicative of the wine’s body, ranging from very light to heavy or full-bodied. Acidity, a tartness in the wine, also adds another dimension to the wine’s structure and can be assessed in its ability to hold together the other flavors.
Tools of the Trade
The tools of wine-tasting can be very simple: wine, a glass, a mouth, and a nose. But there are a few additional items that can make the experience much more enjoyable. The proper glassware, including a decanter, can help to properly showcase and aerate the wine when tasting. White wines are typically served in glasses with a smaller bowl than reds. To properly assess color, it’s important that the glassware is completely clear; it doesn’t necessarily need to be crystal, but the glass must be clean and transparent. The background or surface on which you’re tasting should be colorless. A white piece of paper on a tabletop will suffice and allow for the color of the wine to show clearly and without the compromise of surrounding colors. As you begin experiencing different types of wine, a notebook for tasting notes may prove handy and help you to sort the wealth of information you accumulate.
- The Odor of Colors: A scientific paper looks at whether or not wine experts and novices can tell the difference between white, red, and rosé wines without seeing them..
- What Does Color Tell Us? A simple list shows what we can learn from the color of a wine.
- Shop for your Wine in Style: There is now real awareness of using reusable grocery bags to bring awareness to recycling and using products that can be used repeatedly.
- Wine-Tasting Tips: These wine-tasting tips from Le Cordon Bleu may prove helpful for beginners.
- Four Basic Steps of Wine Tasting: A four-step guide discusses basic wine tasting and appreciation.
- How to Taste Wine: A detailed guide from Wine Enthusiast magazine delves into the art of wine-tasting.
- The Five S’s of Wine Tasting: Learn how to see, swirl, and sip with the best with the five S’s of wine-tasting.
- Safe Wine Travel with Paper bags: Paper has classic appeal and crisp lines, and kraft paper holds up under a variety of conditions, even moisture to a certain extent.
- Tasting Tips for Beginners: The Pennsylvania Winery Association provides this list of steps and tips to help beginners enjoy their tasting experience.
- Wine-Tasting Etiquette: Learn more about the proper etiquette of tasting at a winery or vineyard.
- Glass vs Plastic Wine Drinking Options: Does your favorite wine taste better from glass, crystal or plastic? You decide.
- Wine-Tasting Etiquette from an Expert: Fodor’s provides these etiquette tips for tasters as to proper behavior when wine-tasting in a public setting.
- Does All Wine Taste the Same? A New Yorker article looks at the challenges of tasting and judging wines.
- Wine Evaluation and Assessment: This group of family wineries provides further information to help you to properly evaluate wine.
- Cleaning leather wine bags properly: These tips will help anyone keep their leather wine bag clean, soft, supple and stain-free.
- Assessing Wine Quality: Learn how to appreciate wine quality and troubleshoot flaws when tasting.
- Varietal Characteristics: Different grape varietals can impart different qualities on the wines in which they are used.
- Characteristics of Red Wines: Knowing and understanding the general characteristics of red wine will help you to refine your palate and hone your tasting talents.
- Seven Major Types of White Wine: Starting with these basic whites will provide a good foundation for more advanced tastings.
- Understanding Rosé Wine: Is rosé underrated or over-hyped? Develop your palate and decide for yourself.
- Rosé Wine Descriptors: Learn more from this certified specialist of wine with some of his tasting notes and assessments.
- The Wine Tasting Toolbox: Read an introduction to and detailed guide on tasting wine.
- CellarTracker: This is an excellent site for someone who loves wine and is interested in trying new varieties from all over the world.
- How to Keep Your Wine Cool: Insulated wine bags are a quick and easy way to carry your wines at events.
- Tasting Notes Database: This site provides tasting notes that beginners may be able to learn from.