The Basics: How To Taste Wine

15 04 2011

Everybody knows how to taste wine on some level, and most people kicking back with a glass after work or with dinner are probably perfectly happy relaxing with their vino without contaminating the experience with any kind of analytical process.  Totally fair and understandable.  But if you’re interested in taking the next step with your appreciation of wine, it really starts with being able to pick out individual components of a wine, knowing the main characteristics of a particular grape or region, and being able to tell different wines apart.  To do any of this, tasting your wine isn’t enough; you need to TASTE your wine.  Here’s a simplified way how to do it.

  1. Slanting your glass is key. If you can do it with no hands like this guy, even better.

    Slant & See:  I’ve written a fair bit already on what the colour of a wine can tell you about it:  its age (reds start purpler and age to a brick/orange colour; whites start greener/paler and age to a deep golden colour), its grape (some varietals like Pinot Noir are naturally lighter-coloured than other varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon), its body (in most cases, fuller-bodied whites like California Chardonnays are deeper and darker in colour than lighter-bodied whites like German Rieslings) and its pigmentation (thicker-skinned grapes make wines with more dissolved pigment compounds, making the wine more opaque, while thinner-skinned grapes make wines with fewer of these compounds, making the wine more transparent).  Most wines are also clear, but if you ever see a wine that looks cloudy, it likely either means that (1) it was made without the use of fining or filtration agents which remove solid particles from wine, or (2) there’s something wrong with it.  In order to look at a wine properly so that it can tell you all of this information, you can’t just stare at a full glass head-on:  particularly with reds, most wines look very similar when sitting on a table in a full glass.  To get a clear sense of the colour of a wine, you have to slant your glass 45 degrees or so over top of a white surface so that you can look at (and through) the thin layer of wine at the edge of the tilted glass.  That’s when everything comes into focus.  Looking through a slanted glass held over your dark kitchen table will still hide all the colour info you’re looking for; the white background helps with contrast and ensures that the surroundings don’t contaminate the view of the wine.  This tilting requirement is another reason why a bigger wine glass is better.  

  2. Shadow Man ably demonstrates proper smelling technique.

    Swirl & Sniff:  In my post about wine glasses, I talked about why swirling your glass before you sniff actually matters:  it volatizes and vaporizes the aroma compounds in the wine and causes these scent molecules to travel up out of the glass and into your waiting nose.  Our nose is our best tool available for differentiating flavours and detecting nuance and subtlety in a wine’s flavour profile, so the more aroma you can release out of the wine before you sniff it, the better your read on the wine will be.  If you, like me, haven’t mastered the art of the unsupported swirl, it is much easier to start with your glass on a table or counter and to keep the base of the glass on solid ground while you move the rest of the glass around in a circular motion.  After your swirling is done, it’s not enough to hold the glass near the vicinity of your face to take a sniff — you want your nose buried as deep inside the glass as possible without getting dunked in the wine.  The tapered rim of the glass funnels the wine aromas up to its edge, but once they pass the edge of the glass they disperse everywhere, which is not conducive to getting a concentrated sniff.  If your nostrils aren’t actually inside the edge of your glass, you’re depriving them of a complete wine experience.  Although I’m not sure this is true, I have also read that the best way to smell wine is to take a number of short, quick sniffs rather than one long, drawn out inhalation, the premise being that most of our smelling happens near the start of each breath in (which is why dogs searching for something by scent take the rapid-sniff approach).  Try it both ways and see what works best.

  3. Let's just say there are a few different flavours in a glass of wine.

    Sip, Swish & Swallow:  Now the fun part.  If you drink your wine like a normal sane person drinks their normal sane drinks, you’re going to miss out on a LOT of what the wine has to offer.  Sipping and swallowing won’t cut it:  to maximize your tasting experience, you have to (tactfully) swish and swirl the wine around like it’s Scope so that it paints the whole inside of your mouth.  There are two reasons for this.  First, different parts of the tongue detect different flavour components found in the wine (acidity on the sides of the tongue, sweetness on the front, bitterness on the back, etc.), so to get a true sense of the wine it has to cover all of these spots.  Second, just as swirling wine in the glass releases aroma compounds, so too does swishing it in the mouth.  When you swish, these volitized flavour molecules travel up into your sinus cavity via the back of your throat (your retronasal passage, if you want to get all medical about it); you can actually smell the wine through this olfactory back door while you’re tasting it.  If you want to enhance these aromas even more, (carefully) suck in a bit of air through your mouth while you’re swishing — this accelerates the retronasal journey of these compounds and gives you jolts of multi-sensory flavour while you taste.  It’s impossible to do this politely, but it’s worth offending a few unknowledgeable philistines people for the overall taste payoff.

This process sounds labour-intensive, but once you do it a few times it becomes quick and painless.  Try it for a bit with every wine you crack – red or white, cheap or expensive – and if nothing else, it will quickly expand your appreciation for the staggering variety of sights, smells and flavours and world of wine offers up for our drinking pleasure.  Now I’m thirsty.



3 responses

16 04 2011
Medifast Coupon

Shadow man is doing a good job. He doesn’t get a drink though?
Good post today, good information.


28 04 2011

After i read your post, i think it’s great. Most definitely high-quality info here. Articles like this make this website worth


28 04 2011

Thanks a lot, much appreciated!!


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