Wine tasting is a fundamental aspect of wine appreciation and is de rigueur for “newbie” and expert alike. Wine tastings can be offered by retailers to promote wines, by friends to promote friendship, by distributors to show their wares to members of the trade, and by wineries to show off their current vintage. But, in all cases, the person putting on the tasting is looking for an answer. In a friendly environment the question is “did you like it?” In a business environment it is “did you like it enough to buy it?”
Tastings can be “blind” or open. Sommeliers (wine professionals trained in the service of wine and spirits), wine retailers, wine educators, and wine enthusiasts often challenge each other to determine the age, origin, and grape varietal in a bottle of wine that is served to them blind (that is, the label is covered or the wine is poured elsewhere and the glass delivered to the taster). By tasting blind, the individual is not influenced by any pre-conceived notions regarding the particular grape varietal or the relative cost of the particular wine. This technique uses a series of deductive evaluations regarding the color, clarity, aromas, flavors, acidity, alcohol, and tannin levels in a wine. Each wine is evaluated in a similar fashion each time and, given the proper training, and sufficient repetition, patterns begin to emerge that provide clues to the taster as to the potential identity of the wine.
The two biggest things that foil a beginning taster are a lack of vocabulary and a lack of repetition. As to the vocabulary, it is not necessary to arrive at the same flavor and aroma combinations/descriptions as any of the persons tasting with you (although it does help in conveying your findings), but it is important to look for the trends in your tastings and remember when certain flavors or aromas are linked to specific grape varietals or wines from a particular country or specific wine region. Remembering trends will come with tasting many wines over time.
At the end of the day there is really only one criterion that matters – do you like the wine or not. Following are some of the steps that you should follow to get the most out of your wine tasting.
Take a pen and notepad to the tasting to write down your impressions. The difference between a tasting and a drinking is that, in the former, you pay attention to what you are drinking and there is no better way to pay attention than to write down your observations. Further, any notes you take become the basis for a reference able set of tasting notes. In most cases the host will provide writing material but do not leave this very important aspect to chance.
Once in the tasting locate yourself as close as possible to light sources (preferably natural light). Access to light will aid in the visual evaluation of the wine.
Hopefully the host will provide appropriate glassware for the event. Glassware should be appropriate for the kinds of wine being tasted (red versus white, sparkling versus still, dessert dry), should allow the wine to be clearly visible through the glass, and should allow for vigorous swirling without causing the contents to end up on your clothing.
Hopefully the environment will also include water pitchers, water glasses, spit buckets, and crackers (or any such palate cleansers), all on a white tablecloth. The spit buckets are there to assure that you do not have to drink every drop of a wine that you do not like (or even of the ones that you do like). The tablecloth, or some sort of white background, is essential to allow evaluation of wine color.
Once the wine is in your glass, the first thing that you should do is to examine it visually. This visual examination serves to detect any visible problems with the wine (bubbles in a still wine, cork fragments, cloudiness), it may give some indication of variety, and provide some sense as to the relative age of the wine. A dark purple, opaque wine could indicate a variety such as Petite Sirah, Malbec, or Syrah, while a light ruby color could indicate a wine made from Grenache or Pinot Noir. Additionally, a golden colored wine could be a Chardonnay, while a pale, straw-colored wine with a hint of green could be a Riesling. As wines age, the compounds responsible for the colors change. Red wines generally become lighter over time, and often take on a brick red or orange tinge, while white wines generally become darker. Understanding the rates at which these changes occur can yield significant information to the taster as to the age of the wine.
Once you have made your visual judgments, and noted them on your writing pad, you should bring the glass up to your nose to capture the aromas associated with the wine. Do this prior to swirling the wine because you want to capture any volatiles that are coming off the wine unaided. Once you have noted these observations you should proceed to swirl the wine which allows the esters to interact with the air and present as aromas that are detectable on the nose.
Aromas can aid in identifying the grape variety as well as the origin of a wine. Fruit aromas such as cherry, strawberry, cassis (black currant), raspberry, and blackberry are common descriptors for red wines, while apple, pear, peach, pineapple, and guava are common descriptors for white wines. Non-fruit aromas can be in the form of floral scents, spices, minerality (e.g., the smell of wet stones or freshly turned earth) and the like. Scents such as vanilla or coconut (or lack thereof) can provide clues as to whether the wines were aged in barrels and, perhaps, the origin of the barrels (certain wine regions are known for using only French oak barrels, or only American oak barrels, and this knowledge can further fine-tune the taster’s assessment of the wine).
The next step in the process is tasting the wine in order to determine its associated flavors. The flavors in a wine often, but not always, mimic the aromas. The ripeness of the flavors can assist in narrowing the area of origin. Under-ripe flavors such as green apple or sour cherry can be presumed to be associated with regions subject to cooler temperatures, whereas ripe flavors in a wine may indicate a warmer climate.
Tasting the wine will also allow you to assess the levels of acid, alcohol, and tannins. White wines and lighter red varietals tend to have higher acid levels, as do grapes grown in cooler climate areas. If the wines are vinified dry (all of the sugar is converted to alcohol) and wines made from grapes grown in warmer regions (where higher sugar levels are possible) tend to have higher alcohol levels.
The wine should be swished around in the mouth to ensure that all of the taste buds (which recognize sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and umami) on the tongue are engaged in the process. Because identification of flavors is a combination of both tasting and smelling, the taster should draw in air through the mouth, allow it to pass over the wine, and then expel that air out through the nostrils. This allows the aromas associated with the wine to be directed to the olfactory receptors located in the back of the nasal cavity for transportation to the brain’s olfactory bulb where they are processed.
All of these details are brought together in determining the balance of the wine – are the fruit, acid, tannin, and alcohol present in a harmonious fashion, or does the wine taste somewhat disjointed because one or more of the components are either too high or too low. The harmony and the presence of each of these components can also lead an individual to guess as to the relative quality of the wine, and to its age ability.
*With contributions from @Hlyterroir