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Wine basics

Wine Tasting





Wine Tasting Tips

The Basics
Start with a clear wine glass. The rim of the glass should bend inwards to help funnel aromas to the nose, and allow you to swirl without spilling on your $50 tie. Never hold the glass by its bowl, only by its stem.

Now pour a little wine into your glass. An inch or less is best. If you are tasting several wines, begin with the lightest (sparkling wines, roses, then light whites followed by full-bodied whites) and progress to the heaviest (light reds to more full-bodied reds followed by dessert wines). This will help keep your taste buds more sensitive so you can better appreciate each wine in the series. A sip of water between wines can also help preserve your palate.

First notice the color of the wine. It often helps to hold the glass up to light or hold it against a white background, like a white napkin. The color can give you a clue as to the age of the wine. White wines generally gain color as they age. Red wines lose color. That is, young red wines are more red or burgundy while older wines tend to show a hint of tawny brown around the rim. Regardless of age, the colors of wine are just fun to see, ranging from pale yellow-green to ruby red to brick red-brown.

Swirl the wine a couple of times by moving the glass in a circular motion. Swirling is done to aerate the wine and release vapors, evaporating from the sides of the glass, for you to smell.

Then put your nose right over the rim of the wine glass and breathe in. Take note of the wine's aromas and bouquet. Then sip, letting the wine spread across the tongue from front to back and side to side before swallowing. If you are tasting a number of wines -- in a winery tasting room, for example -- your host will usually provide a large container for you to spit out the wine instead of swallowing. It is not rude or gross. Everyone in the wine trade is accustomed to the swirl-sniff-sip-slosh-and-spit routine. No one wants an intoxicated taster or --worse -- an intoxicated driver.

The bottom line is that a good wine should always give pleasure. It should smell good, taste even better, and be smooth and satisfying by itself and/or with whatever you're eating. Simple as that!

Wine Tasting Journals

Taking notes is a good idea. This will help you remember your likes and dislikes over time. It can also be helpful in learning how to describe the sensations you're feeling. A wine journal can be used to track how a wine is developing, for example, if you buy a case of a particular wine and open a bottle periodically every six months or every year. Finally, you can share your tasting notes with others, as many of our WineBoard members do.

Wine Tasting Notes and Wine Evaluation

Wine tasting notes are usually made to help you evaluate a wine to see whether you like it or to evaluate how a wine is progressing in aging. But what kind of notes do you want to make? What are you looking for when tasting a wine? Here are a few pointers, although there are no hard and fast rules.

1) Nose, bouquet, aroma, or fragrance:

These are all terms that describe how the wine smells to you. Does it remind you of a flower scent? Then it can be called "floral". It may be "grassy" like a freshly mown lawn. Or it may come across as fruity, like a cherry or strawberry or melon might smell. Imagine yourself in nature and see if the scent is something growing around you, like eucalyptus. Or imagine yourself in the produce section of your local supermarket. Does the wine make you feel like you're standing near a bushel of pears or oranges? Or does it take you somewhere else in the grocery store, i.e. reminding you of nuts, chocolate, coffee or butterscotch? Or it may just smell like grapes! Write down whatever associations, if any, you sense. If it helps to write down "Smells like vinyl car seats on a hot day" then write that down. The basic idea is to help you remember the scent.

Some varieties of wine grapes are known for their aromatic aromas. Viognier, for example, usually has a very floral scent reminiscent of exotic flowers like gardenia, freesia, or jasmine often with a hint of ripe peaches or apricots. Chardonnay, on the other hand, is often described as appley, nutty, toasty, and sometimes pear-like or even pineappley depending on where it is grown. In general, winegrapes have a tendency to pick up the flavors of the soil and whatever is in the surrounding environment as they grow in the vineyard (terrior). So you may encounter the scent of roses, jasmine, violets or eucalyptus -- and it will not be your imagination.

Anything that tastes moldy or like a chemical is an off-odor. These are BAD odors that usually mean the wine has undergone some undesirable chemical or microbiological change. Forget that wine! Dump it.

Sometimes you will find that a wine doesn't have a nose or bouquet at all. It can still be a good, very drinkable wine -- albeit most award-winning wines have both a nice bouquet and great taste.

What's the difference between aroma and bouquet? Aroma is present in the grapes and in the wine from the time it is first made. Bouquet is an additional, pleasant characteristic that develops only in the bottle, many months or years after bottling.

2) Tasting the Wine

Tasting for Sweetness - The first thing you will probably notice is the relative sweetness or dryness of the wine. This is determined by the amount of natural sugar in the wine. Is it pleasant or overbearingly sweet, i.e. cloying? High alcohol content also makes wine taste sweet.

Tasting for Acidity - Another sensation you will notice almost immediately is the tartness or acidity of the wine. Just think of the difference between grapefuit juice and water. Acid may sound harsh but it is very important in making wine taste crisp and fresh. If there is too much acid, the wine will taste bitter and unpleasently sharp. If there is not enough acid, the wine will taste flabby and flat, like day-old beer in a glass.

Tasting for Tannin - If you are drinking red wine, you may also notice the tannins in the wine. Tannin is a chemical that comes from the stalks, pips and skins of red grapes. It tastes astringent and "mouth-drying", and makes your mouth "pucker". There are many kinds of tannin. Some tannins taste bitter. You're probably familiar with tannin if you drink strong black tea. Tannins are most noticeable in young red wines. Over time, as wines age, tannins "soften" and give the wine a certain full-bodied weightiness that is very enjoyable. (Tannin is also found in the bark of trees, where the taste protects the trees against insect infestations.)

Tasting for Alcohol - Alcohol, of course, is found in all wine. A moderate amount of alcohol in wine adds "sweetness" to the taste. If the alcohol is too high and out of balance with the tannin and fruit, and so on, then the wine will feel hot in your mouth --like a dash of Tabasco-- and difficult to drink.

Tasting for Fruit and Varietal Characteristics - The more tasting you do, the more acquainted you will become with the characteristic flavors of the major varietal grapes. With experience, it becomes easier to discern the flavors of the various varietal grapes -- Riesling, Chardonnay, Sauvignong Blanc, Merlot, Zinfandel, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon.

The question is how prominent the fruit flavors are in the wine. Young wines are often "fruity". Fruit flavors are usually considered a positive component in the quality of the wine. If you can't smell some kind of fruit in the wine (cherry, raspberry, peach, melon, mango, pineapple or whatever), then it is not a fruity wine.

Fruit is often confused with sweetness but they are not even related. Sweetness in wine is determined by the amount of residual sugar left in the wine after fermentation. Dry wines with very low levels of residual sugar and no discernable sweetness can taste very fruity. Sweet wines can taste fruity or not. That is, 'fruit' may be present or absent but it has nothing to do with the sweetness of the wine.

Tasting for Body - Body is a tasting term referring to viscosity, thickness, consistency, or texture. A wine with "body" often has higher alcohol or sugar content than other wines. Tannin, also, is a major component of what we call "body" in wine.

A good way to comprehend the feeling of "body" or "weight" in wine is to think of milk. Recall the difference in "mouthfeel" between skim milk, whole milk, and heavy cream. Wines are usually classified as "light-, medium-, or full-bodied".

Tasting for Aftertaste - This is the sensation that lingers in your mouth just after swallowing a sip of wine. Aftertaste is important in wine tasting because it can reveal an extra attribute or a fault. Sometimes certain flavors become noticeable in the aftertaste, i.e. chocolate "in the finish". A long, pleasant aftertaste, where all the components of the wine are in balance is a sign of quality. On the other hand, an aftertaste is undesirable in sparkling wines and champagne which, ideally, should be crisp and clean with no lingering aftertaste at all.

Overall Assessment - When the aftertaste is gone, ask yourself what your general impression is of the wine. Do you like it? Do all the components seem to be in balance? If you think the wine (especially young red wine) is too astringent, consider that it might improve and mellow or "open up" with age. Or is the wine ready to drink now? What kinds of food might go nicely with this wine? If you want to assign it a score of your own choosing, go ahead.

Wine and Food Tasting Tip:

Here is a tasting tip from a long time friend and wine connoisseur. Set out a variety of foods to try with your wine(s), i.e. salami, cheese, seafood, cake, chocolate, pickles, etc. First, take a sip of the wine and taste as above. Then take another sip along with a bite of food and chew. You'll find that some foods go with the wine and some don't. Ideally, the wine and food together should form a 'sauce' that is delightful and better tasting than either the wine or the food alone. This is the mark of a successful pairing.

Confused? Wine tasting is harder to describe than it is to do. We suggest just tasting as many different wines as possible. Taste, experience, remember, and above all, enjoy!


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