BY ALISON VELLA from Coffee, Wine and Cheese
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You’re out to a fine restaurant on a Saturday night and you want to choose your wine. It’s right about now that you wish you knew the proper wine tasting steps like a world class sommelier. The waiter brings over the wine list and you think to yourself ‘what should I order this time?!’. Maybe order the same bottle as last time because it’s a safe bet? But no, you want to be daring and you order a different one. The waiter tells you that you’ve made the right choice. I mean why wouldn’t they? It’s on their menu!
They approach you with the bottle at hand, they show you the label and proceed to open the bottle of wine. A nod will follow with some wine pouring. Tasting wine shouldn’t be this hard right? Approval awaits. At this point, you feel as though the entire night depends on whether or not this bottle of wine is actually the right choice!
Your friends look over and wait for your expert wine tasting skills, but what next? ‘Do I really know how to identify a good wine? Is it corked or is it just not to my liking? Did I make the right choice for the meal to follow? Did I really just order a Barolo for a chicken salad?!’. These are the questions many people have when it comes to tasting wine and the steps required to identifying a quality bottle over another. If this is you, fret not – this article has you covered!
The Wine Tasting Steps to Follow
Below are the key wine tasting steps to follow when ordering wine at a restaurant, bar or even at your local cellar. Knowing what to look out for will also help determine whether the wine is soiled and needs to be returned. And who knows, the knowledge you will gain might even pique your interest in possibly attending wine tasting events at a vineyard near you!
Attending wine tasting events with like-minded peers who share the same interest will definitely give you further exposure and knowledge in the field of wine. You will learn how to write down your tasting notes to keep for future reference, and also learn what tickles your taste buds. For the time being though, let us start with this article and the wine tasting tips you need to know about!
The three key factors you need to consider when tasting wine are sight, scent and taste.
Sight – How Does the Wine Look?
Tasting wine is not only about the taste. It involves other senses and the very first you will use is your sight. A lot can be said about the story of the grapes in your wine glass just looking at the color in front of you.
The colour is the most obvious characteristic to note at first. The three colours that instantly come to mind are white, rose and red, however these three then delve into further tones which are indicators of the grape variety and age.
A chardonnay, for example, will be more gold in colour than say, a Sauvignon Blanc, both of which are white wines. Aside from it being a different grape variety, this could also be from the fact that chardonnays traditionally tend to be aged in oak as opposed to stainless steel. The reason for this is that wines aged in oak are in contact with oxygen, allowing oxidation to occur, whereas stainless steel does not allow any in.
The colour is seen to be a good representation of what you are expected to taste, as oak-aged wines tend to be more full bodied and complex when compared to their light and crisp stainless steel opposition. This does not remove quality from either technique, however it will help you determine whether or not the wine you have chosen is what you are expecting by looking at your wine glass (up until now at least).
Older whites tend to go darker and red wines tend to go more pale and tawny in colour. So if you’ve ordered a 10+ year old white chardonnay and it comes out a very pale colour you know that someone is ripping off the restaurant by changing the labels around!
The same applies for a red wine and let’s face it, the expression “ageing like fine wine” very much applies here. Full bodied complex red grape varieties such as Nebbiolo and Sangiovese are what you want to be drinking aged. You don’t want to be tasting wines like a young Barolo or Chianti Classico as they need time and their tannins will be too grippy at this stage. You want more refined tannins that flow elegantly on your palate. Your taste buds will be grateful.
The chart below was taken from Winefolly and it shows the entire range of wine colours. This is a good guide of what colour to expect. Having said this, the colour varies due to other factors such as age, technique and even country so make reference to the chart with an open mind.
When tilting the glass, the colour of the wine at the rim displays a particular shade. This is hue. Hue tends to be present in red wines more so than in whites due to the darker nature of the shade. There are three main hues to look out for.
- Red – indicates a young full bodied red such as Cabernet Sauvignon.
- Purple/Blue – indicates softer tannins and certain grape varieties such as Malbec or Pinot Noir.
- Tawny – indicates aged wine. These wines would be more elegant.
Wines with high viscosity are a good marker of high alcohol content and possibly high residual sugar. To find out if the wine is high in alcohol swirl the glass around and look for the “legs”. This occurrence, also referred to as Gibbs-Marangoni effect, look like tears forming downward on the glass from where the wine touched.
Scent – What am I Smelling?
Scent for me is one of the hardest as it can be very subjective. Think about it, if you haven’t been exposed to certain scents in your life how can you detect it in your wine? Many sommeliers make it a point to expose themselves to all kinds of smells, particularly herbs and fruits as they tend to be the predominant scents in wine.
Luckily for us, we are not sommeliers and do not need to go through such lengths to determine whether a wine is good or bad! When tasting wine at a restaurant the most important thing to look out for is whether or not the wine is spoiled.
The most known wine spoilage many people know of is when a wine is corked (and no, it is not when a piece of the cork falls into the wine!). This occurs when chlorine comes in contact with the cork and as a result spoils the wine. The scent is very particular, and it is the most easily identifiable. It can be explained as a musty, damp, “wet dog” scent.
Another scent to look out for is a rotten one. Similarly to rotten eggs or rotten cabbage, a wine with this profile shows high levels of sulphur, which occurs due to lack of oxygen exposure during the wine making process. Unlike when it’s corked, reduction (the term used to describe this) can be sorted by decanting the wine. That being said, this does not guarantee the smell will go away and let’s face it, when you are at a restaurant paying big bucks for an exquisite bottle, the last thing you want is to play around with a decanter.
In this case, the best scenario is to send it back, however this tip might apply if you are relaxed at home and don’t want to throw out that lovely Bordeaux blend that’s been sitting in your cellar waiting to be opened!
Other scents to look out for are strong vinegar, sweaty leather, old apples and nail polish remover. These scents all link to other types of wine faults. At this point, it is not important to know which one (unless you are hugely into wine and would like to learn on a more professional note), but it is important to understand that wine should not have these smells and it should be returned to be replaced. Don’t let the restaurateurs fool you into thinking that is how the wine should smell!
So, we’ve talked about what the wine should not smell like, however we did not delve into what the wine should smell like! Wine scents can be divided into three types which are the primary aroma (mainly contributing to fruits and herbs), secondary aromas (earth, smoke, mushrooms and more) and tertiary aromas which indicates the ageing process (leather, oak, vanilla and more).
The list is very extensive but to give you two examples of popular wines, the following are the smell profiles of a Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon:
Chardonnay – Lemon, honeydew melon, vanilla, caramel, spices, lime peel and more.
Cabernet Sauvignon – black cherry, black currant, graphite, cedar, baking spices and more.
The vintage, place of origin and ageing technique will affect which scents you will be able to pick up.
Taste – What am I Tasting?
Right, so we’ve come to the tasting part which, let’s face it, is the most important part of the wine tasting experience! You’ve had a go at trying to identify the colour (but maybe the lights were too dim at the restaurant) and maybe you have a blocked nose so you couldn’t really make out the smell – these things happen and it’s fine! But tasting wine and knowing whether it’s a win will let you know whether you’ve let your friends down or not!
Start by taking a small sip in your mouth and swirl it around, similar to what you would do when you are brushing your teeth. I know it sounds off and might feel strange, but the air in your mouth unlocks the wines taste and brings it to life. After all the chewing and moving about, swallow the wine and exhale through your nose. Now can you start your analysis.
Sweetness – Is the wine sweet or dry? Many people confuse this a lot and associate this with headaches (the sweetness level is not what gives you headaches and neither is sulphur – it is the lack of water you drink during your wine tasting!). If the wine is very dry you can note that your tongue and mouth reduce in moisture and if it is very sweet it can give you a sticky taste. The sweetness level is also amplified by other wine tastes such as tannins and acidity.
Acidity – have you ever bitten into a lime and found that your mouth instantly begins salivating? That is acidity. If the wine is very acidic, your mouth will salivate with every sip. This aspect is largely contributed to white wines and sparkling wines. A good example of a white wine displaying such attributes would be the popular Sauvignon Blanc. Red wines tend to be less acidic however still show such properties to a lesser extend.
Alcohol – as already discussed in the first step, you we can recognise whether the wine is high in alcohol through the legs formed on the glass. Now that you are tasting the wine, you can confirm your initial judgement by how warm the sensation is in your throat.
Body – simply put, this is how full of flavour the wine is. Some wines are very light in body whilst others are fuller.
Complexity & Layers – this could go hand in hand with how full or light bodied a wine is. Complex wines have various flavors that proceed to develop in your mouth. Rightly so, this would be more obvious in full bodied wines which has many layers to it.
Tannins – these are a natural compound that creates a bitter, astringent taste in the wine. This really gets your taste buds going. There are various levels of tannins depending on the grape variety and the age of the wine. To understand more what tannins are and what to look out for click here
Finish & Length – finish refers to what taste the wine leaves in your mouth and the length is how long after to remain tasting it.
Once you’ve gone through these steps you could identify the quality of the wine. Although many sommeliers are against the scoring system used by renowned sommeliers such as Robert Parker, the scoring system uses these steps to identify and mark wine. Therefore, if a wine has body, acidity and flavour however does not have finish and length, the score could easily decrease.
This is why when purchasing a wine that has been scored, the score should be taken lightly. Wine is also very subjective to a person and many people might prefer light bodied reds than full bodied reds. Some people might not like red at all. Try and understand what you like and analysing a wine through these wine tasting steps will help you do so. The identification of what you are tasting and what to look out for will be key to successfully choosing wine.
Below are tasting notes of four popular grape varieties: note that the taste is just a sample of the typical grape varieties and in reality each grape variety has about 30 different taste profiles depending on the age, location, production and harvest.
|Chardonnay||Vanilla, Pineapple, Caramel, Butter, Yellow Apple, Mango, Pear, Lime Peel||Low to Medium||Dry||Medium to Full||Medium to High||Low|
|Sauvignon Blanc||Lemon, Lime, Pear, Minerals, White Peach, Honeydew Melon, Smoke||Very High||Dry||Light||Medium||Low|
|Merlot||Cherry, Red Currant, Black Cherry, Plum, Blackberry, Toffee, Chocolate, Earth, Anise||Medium||Dry||Medium to Full||Medium||Medium|
|Nebbiolo (famous for Barolo)||Leather, Cherry, Clay, Anise, Dark Chocolate, Liquorice, Strawberry, Wood Smoke, Black Tea||Very High||Very Dry||Full||High||Very High|
Experiment with a few grape varieties such as chardonnay, identify what a good chardonnay should taste like and practice identifying at home with the above three principles. This will also give you something to talk about! We hope this article has been helpful and that you can now taste wine like a pro! Let us know in the comments!
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