Very recently I was asked to do a wine tasting at a friend’s birthday party. It was a fun experience and gave me a bit of inspiration to write this post. What I noticed during the party was that unless you are a wine nerd like me, you may not have experienced a wine “tasting” before.
Tasting seems simple, right? Open gullet, pour wine into your mouth-hole, taste yummy wine, and repeat…While technically correct, there is more involved in really tasting a wine. Wine tasting includes a few more of your senses, specifically, sight and smell. So let’s start from the beginning. For me, wine tasting is a four step process: See, Swirl, Sniff, and Sip.
Step 1: See the Wine
Take a look at the color of the wine. Is it an inky purple or a thin ruby? Maybe it’s a golden straw color. Is it clear or cloudy? Here is maybe a more important tip; look at the bottle. Unless you are a professional, most of the information you need is right on the label. It will tell you the type of wine, region it came from, and the alcohol percentage. You can also get a good idea of the alcohol percentage by looking at your glass. If you tip your glass to the side and back up, you’ll see that “wine legs” or “wine tears” will form. I’m not going to get into the geek science involved, but generally, thicker slower legs might either indicate higher alcohol or high sugar content. Long skinny legs generally equates to lower alcohol or low residual sugar. Wine legs are absolutely not an indicator of quality.
Step 2: The Swirl
Why do we swirl? Mostly because it looks cool. Seriously though, there is a really good reason. By swirling the wine you are helping to aerate it while covering the inside of the glass with the aromas of the wine. This makes Step 3, smelling the wine, a lot easier.
Two swirl techniques –open air swirl and the table swirl
The open air swirl is for the brave, seasoned veteran. Holding the glass by the stem, you are doing a slight, circular agitation to the wine. Once you get it moving in the right direction, you can pick up a little speed to aid the process. As I mentioned, this one is for the brave, because generally the spinning motion is toward your body. Side note: I know a guy that swirls his wine so fast you’d think he’s trying to centrifuge the alcohol out. Remember though, we aren’t trying to spin the wine to the moon. We just need enough of a spin to get the glass coated nicely.
If you aren’t feeling that adventurous, or maybe you’ve been “tasting” a little heavy, you can go with the safer table top swirl. Again holding from the stem, you are going to apply a little bit of pressure down to keep the glass in contact with the table, and slide the glass in a small circular motion with your hand. If the surface is a little rough, you can put a napkin under the base of the glass to help it slide.
*Quick note – You don’t want to swirl a sparkling wine. You will swirl the bubbles out.
Step 3: Sniff
I think the smell is almost as important as actually tasting a wine. They are so interconnected that you can’t have one without the other. Really, have you ever tried to eat something when you have a stuffed up nose? Nothing but bland! As you smell a wine, you are looking for a few things. I’m borrowing a concept from Richard Betts, author of “The Essential Scratch and Sniff Guide to Becoming a Wine Expert”. In his book, Betts breaks it down into three parts – Fruit, Wood, and Earth.
The fruit smell is going to be your primary aroma which comes from the grape and is influenced by where it is grown. In red wines, common fruit smells can be split into two groups; red fruits and dark fruits.
- Red fruit examples: red cherry, strawberry, raspberry, etc.
- Dark fruit examples: plum, blueberry, black berry, and currants. I’ll include raisins in here.
In white wines, common fruit aromas include: apples, pears, lemons, peach, nectarine, pineapple, grapefruit, etc.
The earth aromas will be secondary. This is a pretty broad category for me because I include both real earth aromas and green earth.
- Real earth aroma examples: mushroom, minerality, leaves, and dirt.
- Green earth aroma examples: herbs, grasses, flowers, vegetables, and spices.
You’ll find that a wide array of earth smells can present themselves in both red and white wines. I once drank a bottle of red wine (one of the best I’ve ever had) and it had an interesting aroma of green peppers.
Wood aromas really come from the aging process. The three major types of oak used to age wine will give you very different aromas (and flavors).
- French Oak – Toasty, oaky
- American Oak – Sweeter aromas like vanilla and dill
- Hungarian Oak – Rich, nutty
If you are ever interested in digging into the hundreds of possible aromas of wine, do an internet search for the UC Davis Aroma wheel.
Step 4: Sip!!
Finally! We get to the good part which is tasting the wine! Your mouth is pretty complex, and by proxy, so is tasting a wine. Taste isn’t all about flavor. Aside from all the previously mentioned aromas, which can directly translate into tastes, your mouth tells you a lot more about wine. It will help you identify things like sweetness, acidity, tannins, and body.
The tip of your tongue is where all your “sweet” taste buds live. Because of their location, that is the first thing you’ll taste. Generally speaking, you’ll find sweetness in your white wines. One thing a lot of people get confused with when they first start tasting wines is sweet versus fruit. A great way to tell the difference, although it looks pretty silly, is to stick the very tip of your tongue in your wine. If you can’t taste sweet, you have a fruity wine in your hand. I promise this works and I’m not just trying to make you look funny.
Acidity is what makes your mouth water. From a high acidity wine you’ll get a nice pucker, and a tart or tangy taste. I once heard someone describe it like licking a 9-volt battery. White wines in general are higher acidity wines, but you can also get high levels of “zing” from young wines.
If acidity makes your mouth water, tannins are the opposite. Tannins are what gives you that astringent feeling of all the moisture being sucked out of your mouth. Found in red wines, tannins come primarily from the skins, stems, and seeds of the grape. To produce a red wine, the skins, stems, and seeds are left in contact with the juice of the crushed grapes. This gives the wine its color and imparts the tannins in the wine. There are also tannins imparted on the wine from the oak it is aged in, but I’m not sophisticated enough to know the difference. Tannins can give you flavors in your wine like dark chocolate, cinnamon, and clove.
Also called “mouth feel”, the body of wine relates to the alcohol content and viscosity of the wine. As the alcohol content rises, the wine becomes heavier (weight). As the weight increases, it feels fuller in your mouth. Body is all about how the wine feels in your mouth.
The best comparison I’ve heard for this is equating it to milk. A light-bodied wine feels like skim milk in your mouth (watery). A medium-bodied wine steps up to 2% (more substance, but nothing tangible). Finally, a full-bodied wine is like whole milk (heavy and coats your mouth). For my vegan friends, think almond milk, watery almond milk, and really watery almond milk…I got nothing for you, sorry.
I don’t include this final step in my four “S” above, but the last thing you want to do after tasting a wine is form an opinion. Don’t just dismiss a wine, but figure out what you liked or disliked about it. It can help you find something you’ll enjoy more in the future. And it’s okay if something isn’t to your taste. What you like is a very personal thing and the best thing you can do is keep trying wines!
Go find something new. If you don’t know where to start, email me at Wineglasstravel@gmail.com and I’ll give you a recommendation.