If you do a quick search online you’ll probably find a lot of articles on how to “properly” taste wine. While some of these may be written in the context of deductive tasting (blind-tasting a wine to deduce it’s identity), in most cases they are only teaching you how to maximise flavour perception.
This only the first step. It’s not enough merely to swirl, sip, chew and gargle a wine to get the most flavour out of it. You need a logical framework against which you can judge the experience. Doing the former and forgetting the latter brings to mind a certain quotation:
You see, but you do not observe – Sherlock Holmes
To begin with, you should check out the Rational Wine Note, as any structured tasting will follow it’s basic structure. This is also based on the WSET Systematic Approach to Tasting (SAT), which is freely available on their website, along with a helpful list of flavour descriptors.
The structure is logically sequenced. When you are presented with a wine, what do you do? You look at it. When you pick up a wine and close the distance to your mouth, the aromas hit you. Then you take a sip and experience the palate. Finally, after considering all of the above, you make your conclusions.
Clarity – Most wines are clarified prior to being bottled, so this doesn’t seem like an obvious consideration until you do come across a hazy wine.
A hazy wine does not necessarily mean that it is faulty – some winemakers choose to forgo the clarification process, believing that the particulates themselves contribute to the wine’s flavour, texture and overall experience.
Intensity – Look the rim and the core of the wine glass. Closer to the rim, the wine will appear pale, but at the core the colour will be deep. This is due to the difference in depth of the wine.
By observing the transition between the core and the rim, you can comment on the intensity of the wine. If the pale rim extends some way to the core, it can be describe as pale – if it appears as a wire-thing ring enclosing a dark core, then it is intense.
Another way to judge intensity is to see how easily you can read text on a white page through the core. If you can read it easily, then the wine is pale, and vice versa.
Colour – It has been observed that most wines have a predictable order of development. Red wines get their colour from the tannin component. Over time this tannin clumps up into larger particles that become heavier and produce sediment.
The ageing process can also involve oxidation, slowly browning the wine. As a result an aged red wine will appear paler and less vibrant than a similar, younger counterpart. White wines do not have the tannin component, but will be similarly susceptible to oxidative ageing.
Break down the colour of the wine in simple terms, no need to be poetic like “red like dried rose petals”. Use the simple guide in the Rational Wine Note.
Condition – The aroma profile is usually the first opportunity we have to judge whether a wine is faulty or not. If nothing seems amiss then go ahead and judge the wine as “Clean”
Intensity – This is judged by how strong the perception of aromas are relative to the distance you hold the wine to your nose. If the aromas seem to waft from the glass easily, that’s intense. If you have to stick your nose right inside the glass, it can be considered as light.
Development – You observe the character of the aromas and judge how far along in the ageing process the wine is. The more oxidative aromas there are, the further along it is in the development path. Pay attention to how the wine is balanced between fruity aromas compared to savoury ones.
This is the part with the most considerations, however if you try to approach them as logical components rather than a list to learn by rote you will have an easier time.
Sweetness – The perception of sweetness, indicating how much residual sugar remains in the wine. 90% of wines you taste will be dry, but you may be thrown off if there is a lot of fruit character. With practice you will be able to compartmentalise these two elements separately.
Acid – Do not judge acid by looking for “sourness”, because other flavour profiles can disguise this and deceive you. Instead, pay attention to the saliva production in your mouth. “Hang” your tongue to get a better sense. The more saliva, the higher the acidity.
Tannin – Considered for red wines only, although there are cases where white wines will have some texture due to various winemaking techniques employed. Tannin is the drying sensation in your mouth. Initially tannin may be difficult to reconcile with acidity – one induces saliva production, while the other causes a dry-mouth sensation. It is entirely possible to have a high-acid, high tannin wine, and with practice you will be able to observe these seemingly conflicting elements with confidence.
Alcohol – Instead of just reading the alcohol level printed on the label, you can judge the perception of alcohol by the sensation of heat on the back palate, above your throat after you swallow the wine. Sometimes the sweetness level can give you a clue as to the alcohol level of the wine – bacteria consume sugar to produce alcohol, so if one is high the other would likely be low.
Body – This is not just a singular observation, but a whole-package consideration – does the wine seem to have weight and depth of character? Keeping the above conditions in mind, it is also important to be congruent with your conclusions, as it would seem out-of-place to mark a wine as “high-tannin” and “light-bodied” at the same time without compelling reasons.
Flavour intensity – Are the flavours easily perceived in your mouth, or do you have to do a lot of chewing and slurping to get the most out of it?
Finish – Are the flavours clear in your palate, or do they seem to disappear immediately, compelling you to quickly take another sip?
Quality – The key to fairly judging a wine’s quality is to not let your subjective prejudices sway your rational judgement. It can be difficult to judge quality objectively, as everyone has their own tastes and preferences. However you can bear in mind a wine’s general profile and judge it by how closely it aligns. You can judge a Chardonnay to be a “well-made example” even if you don’t like Chardonnay in general.
A true wine enthusiast should be generous soul – he understands the history, the manpower, the struggle against nature and the whims of the market behind the wine that makes it possible for him to enjoy this small luxury. In the absence of valid reasons, any wine tasted should at least be acceptable.
Another novel approach is to start by assuming every wine you come across is “Outstanding”. Over the course of an in-depth tasting, look for specific points that might persuade you to bring down your initial rating a notch.
Readiness/Cellaring Potential – In general you will rarely come across wines that are too young or too old, so your main consideration is this – can a wine be cellared for an extended period without it’s attractive aroma and flavour profiles deteriorating? The elements to pay attention to are tannin (red wines only) and acidity. If either of these are relatively high, then it would be safe to say there is potential for cellaring.
Identity – When not in a blind tasting, take note of the country, region and varietal of the wine, rather than the brand name or label. If you happened to very much enjoy it, these will give you a clue as to where you should explore next.
Price – see Price Tasting for general breakdown,
Don’t try to commit this list of points to memory in one sitting. Let it be a guide and reference point for your future tastings. Slowly but surely you will find yourself paying closer attention to the wine, picking out small details that you would have gone unnoticed in the past.
Share your observations with friends as well, and don’t be afraid to disagree or be disagreed with. For a long time wine has been viewed simply as a subjective activity, but with practice you can approach it as an objective and thought-provoking experience.
PS – For a detailed report on your personal tastes and preferences, get a Personal Wine Consultation today!
Read more: Rational Wine Experiment – The Vertical Tasting