While most people enjoy drinking wine without any thought, the pleasure can be greatly enhanced by learning some of the rules of tasting that professionals use to discern the quality in their glass. While different sommelier associations have different wording or descriptors for their observations and conclusions, they all use three basic steps when evaluating a wine—Visual, Olfactory, and Taste.
The ideal environment for making visual observations is a well-lit, white room, but the effect can be mimicked outside or in a room with reasonable lighting by holding a glass over a white piece of paper (or tablecloth). Professional tasters observe the wine’s clarity, core color, rim color, and intensity of color. If the wine is sparkling, the size of bubble or perlage consistency is also evaluated.
In a blind tasting, this assessment is typically done quickly, yet each of these aspects is a clue to the wine’s identity, age, and quality. Examiners first look for suspended particles which may suggest that the wine was not filtered intentionally as a style choice, or it could be indicative of a flaw.
Next, the color is considered. The multitude of grape varieties create a rainbow of shades, from straw to amber for white wines and purple to orange for reds. White wines tend to darken with age while red wines grow lighter. Winemaking techniques and different climates and soils may also affect the hue in the glass.
The exercise of evaluating appearance can help the novice begin to distinguish differences in varietal wines which may have previously gone unnoticed, such as the contrast between an aged, sheer, garnet-colored Old World Pinot Noir and a more opaque, deep ruby or purple New World Cabernet Sauvignon.
APPROACHING THE NOSE
The olfactory examination, also known as “nosing” the wine, is a more complex process. Professionals avoid using cologne or strongly scented beauty products on days when they are tasting. Strongly flavored food and drink like coffee or onions are also avoided.
Tasters should bring their glass close to their face with their nose slightly inside at the top and inhale deeply, most will typically note the intensity of the aromas first. Swirl the wine to release more of the scent molecules; this should be done between sniffs to confirm the health of the wine and to note its evolution.
Wine aromas are classified as primary, secondary, or tertiary.
Primary aromas come directly from the grapes, and different scents help sommeliers distinguish the variety during blind tastings.
Secondary aromas are created during the alcoholic and malolactic fermentations and during time spent in oak casks. These may include aromas of yeast from fermentation, buttery notes from the malolactic conversion, or toasted and spicy notes from oak barrels. Each will give the taster hints to how the wine was made.
Tertiary aromas develop during aging and give a more evolved and complex bouquet to a wine. Tertiary notes include the whiffs of mushroom found in an older Bourgogne, the honeyed nuance in Viognier, and the hints of petrol in Riesling, as well as dried fruit, complex spices, and other savory elements.
Now that the health of the wine has been confirmed in the previous examinations, the wine can be tasted in the final step. In a professional setting, the wines are presented at the proper serving temperature in a logical sequence such as dry to sweet, white to red, light- to full-bodied. When examining a single glass at home, prepare the mouth with a sip used only to rinse; it can be spit out or swallowed.
Next, take a sip large enough to coat the mouth, leaving enough room to inhale through the teeth. Swish the wine around and allow it to wash over the tongue, gums, and back of mouth before swallowing. Note the taste and tactile sensations throughout.
Perceptions can include heat from higher alcohol, sweet or salty tastes, astringency from red wine tannins, or mouthwatering acidity. Also consider the “mouth feel.” Does it feel water-light or full-bodied and weighty like cream?
Pay attention to the flavors—do they exude bright Bing cherry notes, ripe raspberry, or some indiscernible red fruit that flows down with each sip? Flavors may match the aromas, or they could be surprisingly different. They could include multiple fruits, flowers, herbs, vegetables, earthy scents, spices, and more.
Finally, contemplate the intensity of the recognized flavors and how long the taste persists. Is it a simple porch pounder that requires no further thought to enjoy, or is it a complex and layered beauty that deserves a bit of reflection with each sip?
Professionals use all of this information to formulate answers for a blind tasting test or to determine whether the price and quality work for their wine list. However, the non-professional wine lover at home can use this information to determine their personal preferences and establish their own quality-to-cost ratio for specific wines.
This assessment can help a consumer decide whether the wine gave enough enjoyment to warrant the price, or it can help explain to sommeliers the types of wine they prefer when dining out. It can also help define personal proclivities for future purchases. It is even a fun game to play with other wine loving friends.
Before drinking that next glass of wine, take a moment to thoroughly taste it first. Make sure that no unconsidered biases or habits are keeping something less than loved in your glass. Experience and time can change tastes, therefore use each glass as an opportunity to re-evaluate individual preferences: aromatic or neutral, young and fruity, or aged and nuanced.
There are no wrong answers, and a whole world of wine is out there just waiting to be discovered.