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Wine Tasting: A Primer

©Richard Gawel

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Becoming an expert wine taster takes many years of experience, but becoming a competent taster is not that difficult. Half the battle is knowing what to look for in a wine of a particular type or style. It is not surprising that once you are "tuned in" to look for something, it is much easier to perceive, or rule out as not being present. Without these attentional cues, wine tasting is a difficult task. Once you understand the basic sensory properties of the style or type, and how these characteristics are related, then assessment becomes easier. The best way to learn these relationships is to experience them through tutored tastings or wine education classes, and by applying a systematic wine tasting method. The following is a suggested approach. Get into the habit of approaching the mechanics of the sensory assessment of all wines you taste in the same way. This is akin to the golfer who despite the subtle differences in all shots that are played, will follow exactly the same protocol before each shot. Doing so allows complete concentration on the shot, and in our case complete concentration on the wine.


THE WINE TASTING PROCESS

The recommended steps are:

  • Look: Always observe the appearance of the wine. It can tell you a great deal about what is likely to come.

  • Swirl: Assists in releasing volatiles.

  • Sniff: Don't be shy. Sniff hard and confidently.

  • Taste: How much? Whatever feels comfortable. For most people 10 mls is sufficient. Don't just sip the wine.

  • Aerate: Hold the wine in your mouth and suck air through it. Make a noise, it's very therapeutical. Note that like mobile phones, aerating wine tasters are not popular in restaurants.

  • Distribute: Give the wine a chance. Moving the wine in the mouth warms it, so more flavour is presented. Furthermore, different flavours and mouthfeel characters can evolve in the mouth if you allow the wine time.

  • Expectorate: Fancy wine tasting term for spit. Recommended.


WHAT TO LOOK FOR

Truth be known, many people make wine tasting appear much harder than it really is. Wines are described by some using vague terms that the taster him or herself does not fully understand, or even worse, by reference to other wines that very few people may have even tasted (i.e. statements such as "this wine displays characters not unlike a Corton Charlemagne from a good year"). When challenged to describe the wine in plain English, and in such a way that the description may mean something to someone else, they cannot. Why? You can be the judge.

Wine tasting is all about communication, and to be a good taster you need to be a good communicator. So when you have to describe your next wine to someone, endeavour to describe it in such a way that the description will conjure up a mental picture of what the wine is like. Its a worthwhile philosophy. Some have even made a fortune applying it.

When tasting all wines spend some time assessing each of the following. A brief definition of each attribute is given.

  • Appearance

    Hue: Its colour, eg purple, red, tawny

    Depth: How deep the wine appears, i.e. dark, medium or light

    Clarity: The transparency of the wine

  • Aroma

    Includes all aromas, (e.g. fruit, winemaking, maturation) regardless of where they emanate from*.

    Intensity: The amount of lift from the glass. Synonym activity.

    Concentration: Strength of aroma.

    Expression: Distinctiveness of character.

    Complexity: A diversity of harmonious smell sensations.

    Cleanliness: Absence of winemaking faults.

  • Palate

    Intensity: The amount of flavour activity in the mouth.

    Concentration: The strength of flavour.

    Body: The weight displayed in the mouth. An amalgam of viscosity, flavour concentration and (in reds) astringency.

    Astringency: Drying, roughing and puckering sensations derived from tannins.

    Other Texture: Includes alcoholic warmth, creaminess.

    Complexity: Diversity of complementary textures and flavours. Measured by how long a wine holds your interest.

    Balance: A wine is in balance when no one character dominates your psyche.

    Structure: An amalgam of balance and timing of the appearance of sensory characters to produce a wine that is seamless.

    Persistence: The overall time that a wine impacts on the senses after swallowing or spitting.

* The term "bouquet" has been a part of tasting lore for many years, being defined as any aroma that originates from the winemaking process as distinct from the grape. In light of the reality that in many cases it is impossible to conclusively categorise each smell as per this distinction, the term has (rightfully) fallen into disuse.