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How to taste wine

Wine tasting at tasting wine, and getting paid for it!  Many people do this for a living and when suitably experienced, anyone can!

In this post, I will tell you how to taste and evaluate a wine which will get you started in your wine tasting years to come.  People have been tasting wine for thousands of years and have been making money from it for over 100 years. So what do they know that you don’t?

Obviously, after many years of tasting wines and sampling many, many different types they build up an experience of the different types and get to know the different nuances, and after a time, become expert, but when it comes to tasting wine and understanding how to evaluate a wine for its qualities and its faults, after reading this page, the only lacking you will have over a professional wine taster, is the experience and the historic knowledge!

Of course, professional tasters have a greater understanding of the history of the wines, the grapes, the appellations the wine came from, as well as the chemistry and producing processes behind these things but knowing those types of interesting information are not going to make you a better taster.

Reading this page, and tasting wine again, and again… and again is how you can turn yourself into a better taster, becoming expert after many tastings. (Many, many tastings).

The first thing to mention, is that if you think, or you actually have Oenophobia, this article is not for you!

Whats Oenophobia?

Oenophobia is is the fear of wines. The origin of the word is Greek, Oeno meaning wine and phobia is also of Greek origin meaning fear. Oenophobia is considered to be a specific phobia. Oenophobia is also sometimes spelt and pronounced as Oinophobia.

The tasting of wines, drinking wines and evaluating wines are all related but require different skills. Tasting wine is more educational to help you understand the wine and let you know if you like that particular type or not. Drinking wine is for pleasure but evaluating wine is for a much deeper purpose and this is the part that requires experience and something that you can’t do on your own.

So, evaluating wine is often done in peer groups letting you know how a wine, or group of wine compares to another in the same group. My personal choice nowadays is to spend more time drinking wine than evaluating it, although every time you drink a wine you subconsciously evaluate it.

I might add here that the best possible way to drink wine, no matter what type, is with family and/or friends!

The first step in understanding how to taste or evaluate wine is to get over the fear of not knowing how to do it or not knowing how to describe it. In fact, contrary to popular belief, there is no right or wrong taste, only preference.

You are always going to like what you like because that’s what you like! As a beginning wine taster, forget about all the wine talk and ‘experts’ vocabulary. The only person that can decide which wine you prefer, is you and whichever wine that may be, no amount of wine speak will change that preference or make it taste any different.  Well, actually, it may make it taste slightly different as you become aware of the subtle nuances from experience!

Too many ‘experts’ try to make wine tasting overly complicated. Yes, wine, as a unique beverage, is complex but understanding wine is easy and comparing wines to each other is even easier still.

Before tasting wines you need to educate yourself at least with the basics of the wines and grapes that you are about to taste but this doesn’t have to be an in depth knowledge (not to start with anyway) but it helps to have a basic understanding of how a wine should look for its grape varietal, its age and its growing season.

As an example, I will focus on Bordeaux wine, which is most often a blend dominated by either Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot. A young Bordeaux wine should be dark, displaying a depth of colour from the rim right to the center of the glass.

The colour can range from purple to dark blue, usually with shiny accents but not always. The deeper and richer colours let the wine taster know that this is a concentrated wine.

I love these wines and for me, depth of flavor is a good thing! Young wines that lack a good strong colour are going to be lighter, less ripe and more acidic. This is natural for wines made from Pinot Noir. But for young wines produced using Bordeaux varieties, a good, rich, deep colour is a must to ensure the wine will be tasting its best.

Depth of colour is a good indication of a wines style. An dark hued Bordeaux is probably going to be quite intense, lower in acid and long whereas young Bordeaux or young Bordeaux styled wines with lighter colours are going to be lighter in flavor with more red fruits than black and probably much brighter in acidity.

Next is the visualisation of the wine. Firstly, you look at the legs or tears on the side of the glass. This is where the wine seems to stick to the glass after swirling the glass. This is not as important as some would have you believe.

The size of the tears or legs and the length of time they remain in the glass give a glimpse into the wines potential alcohol level and also the sweetness, as well as the viscosity of the wine.

Thin legs that dissipate quickly are usually found in lighter, less concentrated wines while thicker legs that remain on the glass indicate a rich, concentrated wine with lots of fruity flavours and sweetness and length.

I should mention that the legs or tears of wine are related to the grape variety and the country the wine was made in. For Bordeaux type wines, you are looking for large tears that stay on the glass. I should also say that legs and tears are not an indicator that you will like the wine!

Swirling, smelling and sniffing

Once you’ve had a good look at a wine it’s now time to taste it. You are looking to sample the smell, the bouquet, the aroma and the perfume of the wine. Here’s where the swirl comes in! You simply swirl, smell and sniff before tasting!

Your sense of smell and the signal it sends to your brain is much stronger than you think and this plays a very important part in understanding how to taste wine. It is thought that as much as 85% of taste is derived from your sense of smell.

Before smelling, you must first swirl the glass… just gently, don’t slosh it all over the place.

As a beginner you can keep the base of the glass on the table and swirl by holding the glass stem which should avoid any accidental splashes! You won’t spill the wine if you keep the glass on the table and gently swirl.

Swirling a glass of wine allows oxygen to enter into the wine which then allows the wine to release its scents into the air while at the same time, coating the glass.

After swirling you can use whatever technique that works best for you, when smelling for the wines’ aromatics however, one little trick is to keep your mouth slightly open when inhaling and exhaling the scents which will help with the process. It allows you to discern more of the aromatic complexities in your wine.

Sniff multiple times!

At the end of the day, there is no right or wrong way to smell (referred to as ‘nosing’ a wine) but the more times you smell it, the more you will get to know the sensation and relate it to the taste that accompanied it.

Some tasters inhale deeply while others take small, short sniffs and others use a combination of both techniques. Simply find the technique that works best for you. Generally speaking, if a wine smells good, (no vinegary smells etc) the wine should taste as it is intended to taste.

Now getting a bit more in depth, the next step is to note how complex the wine smells and what scents that aroma seems to be made up of. This is referred to as its aromatic profile. The key to being a good wine taster is understanding that we all have different levels of olfactory skills.

Some people are more sensitive than others. Some people will taste or small things that others have totally missed. This is more likely down to lack of experience but could also be a personal physical limitation.

Most of the scents found in wines are fairly common to most of us. You’ve just got to try to recall, recognise and associate these sensations.

It’s important to note that wines, and the grapes they are made from, are quite complex. Once any fear of sharing what you think you have smelled or tasted has been overcome, wine will no longer simply smell like red wine or white wine but rather, you’ll find an whole array of scents and flavors that you’ve maybe never some across before. When this happens, you know you are well on your way to becoming a great wine taster!

‘Nosing’, the art of sniffing a wine, can tell you a lot about a wine and its potential character. For example, when tasting wines from Bordeaux varietals, as well as some Rhone wines, the scents of dark fruit like blackberries and plum tell the taster the wine is made from ripe berries, The darker the fruits, the riper the wine and the higher level of sugar and alcohol.

The scents of blueberries are a sign of an even riper wine. Jam flavors or scents in a wine can be a sought after complexity – in the right amount. Too much jammy flavour means a wine could be over ripe and too high in alcohol.

Prune and raisin scents are also more than often caused by over ripe fruit, which results in a wine taste that will be lacking in freshness.

Note: when you encounter a cherry, raspberry or other red berry taste, this is often an indication that the fruit did not achieve its full ripeness. These wines will usually have a ‘brighter’ palate profile and be higher in acidity.

A light, balanced sense of oak is usually expected in young wines and is usually reflected by odors of vanilla, coffee or toast but when those smells become the dominant characteristic it is a potential sign that the wine will be too oaky later in life. Regardless of the colour of a wine the fruit needs to smell clean and fresh.

While earth and other mineral type sensations are a sought after complexity in wine, dirt in the fruit is not. Being a good wine taster means being able to recognise flaws in a wine, especially corked wines. The biggest fault in a wine that all wine tasters need to be able to notice is TCA.

What is TCA?

Trichloroanisole (TCA) is the natural compound that at higher levels can impart ‘musty’ flavors and aromas to wines. Wines that contain TCA at a detectable level are described as either being corked’ or having ‘corkiness’.

Older, mature wines also need to retain a freshness to their aromatic profile but when wines age and mature, they exchange their primary fruit aroma for more complex, secondary aromas.

In red wine, smells of truffle, tobacco and earth are common aromas. White wines tend to develop more scants of flowers, butter and caramel.

Tasting the wine

It’s important to try and realise why you like a particular type of wine. When you know this, it will make future wine tasting more enjoyable as you will be able to focus on the type of wines that you prefer.

There is no right or wrong when it comes to personal taste but to help you figure out why you might prefer a particular type, look up a wine terminology glossary which will help you associate the terminology with the type of taste that you enjoy.

Also, the more you taste, the better you will be able to associate wine structures with tastes, so if you know that a lighter buttery aroma is usually associated with a younger white wine, you will know that you like wines in the Chenin, Sauvignon ranges etc.

Some final Tips

Decanting wines

Young wines are almost always better after being decanted. Decanting in advance (at least 30 to 60 mins before) allows the wine to breathe which will soften in texture and develop more complex aromas in the glass. Decanting coupled with correct temperature will improve your tasting experience of young wines.

Taste wines at the right temperature

And in a decent glass! It does make a difference, both practically and psychologically. For temperatures, red wine likes to be served at slightly cooler temperatures. Around 60 to 65 degrees is about right. When red wines become too warm, they loose their freshness and refreshing quality.

White wines should be served even cooler at around 55 to 60 degrees. White wines become much less enjoyable when they warm up. Even room temperature is too warm for a white wine although they should never be server too cold, as often happens in pubs nowadays!

Wine glasses

Avoid coloured glasses and Chrystal cut glasses… you need to be able to see the wine! Use a glass with a bowl large enough to allow for a decent pour, yet not spill when being swirled. Glasses with stems are better for tasting. I personally prefer thin glass but this has no physical baring on taste!

The glass should be wider at the bottom than it is at the top to allow for ease in swirling, which helps develop in the wines aromatic complexities.

If you hold the wine glass by the stem, it will help to keep the wine from warming up too quickly.

Tasting the wine

Take a reasonable sip of wine into your mouth. It’s important that you put enough wine into your mouth to get the full flavor profile and texture sensations. If you take too small a sip, you’ll miss out on some of the impact the wine has to offer.

Also, inhale some air as you sip. This will also help with the actual tasting as will gently swirling the wine around in your mouth. When tasting several wines, feel free to spit into a bucket if one has been provided. If not, simply swallow and enjoy!

Try to notice all the sensations taking place in your mouth and on your palate. Take note of the weight, the texture, the fruitiness, the earthiness, was the wine silky and smooth or slightly abrasive? Was it concentrated and full bodied?

Full bodied refers to the level of alcohol in the wine which is often felt on the palate due to the amount of glycerin in the wine.

What did the wine taste like initially? This is known as the attack. How was the fruit, was it lively?  ‘Lively’ means fresh on your palate. The freshness comes from acidity. Was the wine sweet, bitter or spicy? Was it tart or sour, which usually means that under ripe fruit was used or simply too much acid.

Balance refers to how all the elements come together with none overshadowing any others. Enjoyable flavors remain in your mouth. The longer they stay in your palate (from the attack to the finish) the better the wine!

Was the wine complex? Complex means that there were multiple flavors and sensations all at once. More is often better when it comes to wine. However, more does not mean too much. An average wine delivers a finish that usually doesn’t last much longer than 5 to 10 seconds. Very good wines last in your mouth for 20 to 30 seconds and it is suggested that the world’s most excellent wine can remain on your palate for up to one full minute.

Finally, remembering the wines that you liked and why you liked them will help you become not only a better wine drinker but also a wine better wine buyer. Keep a note of the wines that you really liked and after a while you will see a trend and this should be followed when looking for new wines. Simply keep to the types that you prefer. You can always move on to different types after you tire of your current trend, which will eventually happen!



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