If you google about how to taste wine, you’ll find a lot of blogs, and books, which are really helpful in case you start exploring more wines. It helps to know some basics, before you dive into tasting wine. Here I tried to really break it down to the basics.
The art of wine tasting
Again and again we find ourselves in situations where we have to decide which wine to order for dinner, or which wine in the supermarket is worth the money. Well, I can’t guarantee that we’ll never make a mistake again, but we can learn what factors matter in finding a wine to YOUR taste. The first thing is to drink wine more consciously. To do that, we can learn how to taste wine, and this gives us the instrument to learn more about our own taste of wine, which will help us to decide which wine is the one we want to drink.
The first sense we can use when tasting wine is the sense of sight. Colour gives us already a first hint about a wine, offering you some initial clues about the style, age and taste of it. Because not each variety has the same colour. We can visually recognize colour and intensity of colour, clarity, tearing and viscosity (and perlage).
First we check the Clarity of a wine. Over the time the wine gets more sediments building up. These particles sink on the bottom. So only with time to settle, or by filtration (which is mostly the case) you get a clear wine.
With colour it’s the same, it is not always easy to tell if a wine is strong or not, only by its colour. We tend to say, that the darker the wine, the denser the taste. But there are some exceptions, like Nebbiolo (which is an Italian grape variety which produces heavy wines, but is really light in colour). But one can say that young wines are typically vividly, brightly coloured with fresh red and purple colours dominating. As they see more oxygen (aging) the colour shifts more in the orange/brick red spectrum, tending towards brown with excessive oxygen exposure. Higher viscosity tells you, that the wine has a higher alcohol level.
- Coloure: depending on the variety the coloure changes, and can give a clue about it.
- White wines start out lighter in colour and become more gold or brown when they age.
- Red wines are darker when they are young. Sometimes they loose coloure as they get older.
- Higher viscosity = high alcohol or high sugar content.
The sense of smell (Bouquet)
The smells are often differentiated into fruity, floral, vegetal and spicy, animal and roasted notes. But where do they come from and why do they vary so much? When we smell a wine we distinguish between different sets of aromas. The aromas found in the grape variety, climate and in the terroir are called the primary aromas. But with the alcoholic and malolactic fermentation the flavoures change; by chemical reactions hundreds of flavour compounds are created. They vary according to maceration time, fermentation temperature, yeast – so with the winemaking process. What we smell are aromatic compounds which are identical to others we already know, for example cherry (and due to that smelling a certain wine we might be reminded of cherry pie). We call them secondary aromas.
But with time (aging) of a wine more flavours are produced (due to oxidation and reduction of the wine, maturation) : we will find aromas more spices, oak, tabacco etc. – the so called tertiary aromas.
Usually we have a ‘base set’ of aromas that most people agree upon in a certain wine (e.g. Cabernet Sauvignon smells often to Black Currant, Black Cherry, Baking Spices, Graphite), but each of us can still smell different components. Look at our noses! They all have different shapes, and our brain memory of aromas is also personal! So if someone is smelling pepper, and the other person smells the black cherry – it can be both right.
In summery we can say:
- Primary aromas, such as fruit and floral smells, come from the grape variety and location itself.
- Secondary aromas are broadly derived from the winemaking process. Yeast and oak can develop aromas like vanillin, butter, biscuits, ..
- Tertiary aromas develop as wine ages, like almonds, jam, truffle, chocolate, mushrooms, earthy aromas,..
The taste and smell of a wine are linked. When we have the wine on our palate, we can also smell it at the same time. That is why we speak of aromas before.
The taste itself, however, is perceived by our tongue. Our tongue has different regions where we taste bitter, salty, acid and sweet. When we taste a wine it’s all about the balance of these tastes. What influences out taste mainly in wine are alcohol content, tannin levels, acidity, and residual sugar. These four pieces do not display a specific flavor per se, they merch together to offer impressions in intensity and complexity, soft or firm, light or heavy, crisp or creamy, sweet or dry, but not necessarily true flavors like fruit or spice.
So when we talk about taste we talk about the structure of a wine, the balance of the wine, the persistence. The alcohol content gives us a feeling of warmth and heaviness of a wine. It also contributes to smoothness and roundness, dampens acidity and astringency. Sugar content gives smoothness and roundness, cover up bitterness, counteract the harshness of acids. Acidity gives freshness and vividity, reinforce tannin hardness and bitter notes. Tannins can give bitter notes, strengthen acidity, cause astringency.
The aftertaste is appropriately labeled as the final phase. The wine’s finish is how long the flavor impression lasts after it is swallowed and is also considered an important valuation point of wine tastings.
If a wine is balanced depends on the content of:
- residual sugar
Sum up of flavoures
- Essential White Wine Aromas: Lemon, Grapefruit, Pineapple, Muscat, Pear, Honey, Hawthorn, Boxwood, Butter, Toast, Roasted Hazelnuts
- Essential Red Wine Aromas: Raspberry, Strawberry, Blackcurrent, Cherry, Prune, Violet, Bell Pepper, Truffle, Liquorice, Vanilla, Pepper, Smokey Notes
Of course there are many, many more. The list is just a selection of common aromas.