How You Can Learn About Wine (and Life) By Tasting Purposefully

If you don’t work in the wine industry, and you don’t have the time to deeply study about wine, the best way to learn is through tasting.

Lots and lots of tasting.

Not just tasting your favourite wines, but making the effort to taste as many of the world’s most classic styles as you can possibly find.

What makes a style of wine “classic”? In simple terms, it needs to be:

  1. (relatively) recognisable and identifiable as distinct from other styles, and
  2. commercially available in most places around the world.

The first point is about consistency, being able to associate a wine style with the place it comes from, what you may have heard other wine people refer to as “terroir“. Because if you discover a wine that you like, you want to be able to go back to that place and be assured that you can have the same experience; if it tastes different, it’s inconsistent, and you’ll have less confidence going back to that region and their wines.

The second point is about access. Your grandfather might make the best wine in the world in their backyard, but if it’s not available anywhere else in the world, then it’s not commercially relevant, and no one will understand if you taste another wine and compare it to your grandfather’s garage wine.

Rather than aimlessly wandering the aisles of your local wine shop and wondering if something is classic or not, I highly recommend looking at the resources made publicly available by the Wine and Spirits Education Trust (WSET) and the Court of Master Sommeliers (CMS) [USA Chapter here].

Tasting vs Analysing

Knowing which wines to taste is just the beginning. The next step, and arguably more important, is learning exactly how to taste these wines.

This is where we move from the merely subjective stage of “this wine pleases me” to the more objective level of “this is why it pleases (or displeases) me”.

It’s a skill that’s more easily learned in a controlled classroom setting with a competent tutor to guide you, and peers with whom you can share opinions.

If you aren’t able to participate in such a setting yet, it is still useful to have a look at the WSET Systematic Approach to Tasting and the CMS Deductive Tasting Exam Format.

What you will quickly notice is how they share a similar logical breakdown of how you would approach a glass of wine:

  • Appearance/Sight
  • Nose
  • Palate
  • Conclusions

Before anything else, you look at the wine in the glass. Different grape varieties will have different characteristics (much like apples; imagine Granny Smith, Fiji, Royal Gala, etc…) and this will certainly translate into it’s appearance in the glass

And then you smell the wine. It could be light, or it could be intense. It could be very fruit forward… but what kinds of fruit? Or it could be very floral, earthy, savoury… Take your time to really grasp what you are sensing.

When you finally taste the wine, you will likely get the same flavours as you did on the nose. However, now there is also a structural component to pay attention to:

  • Sugar
  • Acid
  • Tannin (red wines only)
  • Alcohol
  • Body
  • Complexity
  • Balance
  • Finish

Sugar obviously refers to the wine’s level of sweetness. You will find that around 90% of all the classic wines you taste will have no noticeable sweetness, and are referred to as “dry”.

Acid is not merely the taste of sourness. It’s a critical component of wine that gives it it’s sense of vibrancy and freshness. It can be recognised by an increase in saliva production in your mouth after tasting, because your body is reacting naturally to balance the pH in your mouth. The absence of acid can also be recognised if you feel that the flavours of the wine in any way cloying, sticking to your mouth unpleasantly.

Tannin in red wines contribute colour and texture. High tannin can make you feel like your tongue is drying, having the moisture sucked out of it. Imagine having a taste of black tea that has been steeped too long.

Alcohol contributes texture, warmth and aromatic lift to the wine. The classic wines will range from 8% ABV to 15.5% ABV. White wines typically have a lower alcohol level than red wines. White wines with lower alcohol can almost seem watery, whereas red wines with higher alcohol will be very warming, even slightly burning on the back of the palate.

Body is a more texturally focused element. Using the same example as above, lighter white wines can feel like they disappear after swallowing, whereas even a sip of a fuller red wine can feel like it fills your entire mouth.

Complexity can be thought of as a numbers game. Are you merely tasting fruit, or can you get herbs, spices, flowers, earthiness and savoury elements? The more you can taste, the more complex the wine is.

Balance is where you take all of the above structural elements together to make an evaluation. Does anything stick out? Is the wine too sweet? Is the acidity too sharp? Are the tannins too blocky? Is the alcohol too high or low? If the wine is otherwise harmonious, then it is a balanced wine.

Finish refers to how long the flavours of the wine linger on your palate. If you like a wine, you would want the flavours to last a long time. If it seems to disappear the moment you taste it, then it has a short finish. If you can still smell and taste the wine long after swallowing it, then it has a long finish.

A Lifelong Skill

If you are able to learn to taste wines analytically, and you are able to taste your way through all the classic wine styles of the world, you will be ahead of 90% of the world population.

If you are able to find and dedicate the time to studying the theory behind wine (history, geography, climate, winemaking, international issues, etc…) you will really be in the top 5%. At that stage, you might as well get a job in the wine industry.

Personally, what I’ve found is that the ability to take a step back and pay attention to details has had a much broader influence in my life.

I cannot walk through a neighbourhood without sensing the scent of herbs and flowers in the wind, the rain on the pavement, the gasoline from traffic.

I am a more comfortable home cook, playfully tossing ingredients together without a recipe, just the feeling in my hands and the smell from the frying pan.

I am more attentive to people’s faces, picking up the slightest suggestions of happiness, sadness, annoyance, tiredness, deceit.

It wasn’t until I studied wine that I realised how intimate our sense of taste and smell are to us. How many of us are taught to pay attention to them in school? Not many, I would guess.

This has slowly changed. With television and social media, people are more aware of what goes into their food, where it comes from and how it’s made. With greater knowledge, there has been greater demand for quality, and greater enjoyment.

Wine is exactly the same. When you know what goes into your wine, where it comes from and how it’s made, your enjoyment is similarly enhanced.

Good wine, good food, with good company. What more is there to a happy life?


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