How To Taste Wine.
You can argue that no one needs to be told how to taste wine. And you’d be right. Right, that is, if all you want is liquid refreshment.
But if you drink wine because you particularly enjoy it…and like the extra dimension it adds to food…then you’ll appreciate that wine isn’t like other alcoholic drinks. It’s more complex, with a broad range of flavors that can improve with age.
So how do you get the most out of every mouthful, or glass, or bottle? It means tasting, not just drinking. No, not adopting the facial tics, sucking noises and over-the-top vocabulary of wine snobs (“It’s so precocious, yet somehow shy…”).
There’s a happy medium between pouring it down without a second thought…and, well, thinking about what you’re tasting.
So if you appreciate wine, or want to learn to, here we go…
Let’s Look At The Wine.
Looking at wine before you taste it can tell you a lot or a little, but it’s worth the brief effort. A wine in good condition should be appetizingly clear, not hazy or cloudy.
In whites, you sometimes see colorless crystals at the bottom of the glass, or tiny bubbles just below the surface of the wine. Not to worry. The crystals are harmless sediment that show that the wine has not been over treated.
The bubbles, equally harmless and usually found in young wines, are carbon dioxide. The color of wines reveals less information in whites versus reds. The cooler the climate the grapes are grown in, the paler the wine, the higher the acid, and the slower the color will darken.
Conversely, the warmer the climate (like the Northern Neck), the more yellow the wine, the lower the acid and the quicker the wine will age.
As reds age, the deep purplish red of youth gradually gives way to ruby, to garnet, and finally to past-its-prime tawny. And the more mature the wine, the greater the gradation of color from the center, the darkest part, to the rim, the palest. You’ll find this by simply tilting the glass and looking in. In fact, in a very old wine the rim can be almost colorless.
As for swirling wine in a glass and looking for “legs” or “tears” on the inside of the glass, well, it doesn’t actually tell you very much. If it runs down slowly, it may have a bit higher alcohol and/or sweetness. Or, frankly, you could have a dirty glass.
Let’s Smell The Wine.
Grapes share many of the same chemical compounds with all kinds of fruits, berries, vegetables and spices. So wines really can have aromas of almond, vanilla, raspberry, pepper, citrus and banana, for example. Whatever you do when puzzling over a wine, have faith in what your senses are telling you.
It doesn’t come easily to some of us, but a little practice (not a bad thing…it is wine) and a few tips can have you identifying aromas with the best of them. The idea is not to chatter on about this or that aroma, but to learn what you like, and why, and what else you might like.
Let’s break all wine down into three primary aromas…two are found particularly in young wines, one in older wines. The first, primary aromas come from the grapes themselves: fruity, floral, mineral or vegetal. These are pretty easy to pick up and are characteristics of the variety.
The secondary aromas are those derived from the wine-making processes. Smells of butter, or cream, for example, are found particularly in white wines that have undergone a malolactic fermentation. This process softens acidity and gives, to white wines especially, a buttery taste.
Another secondary aroma involves smells of vanilla, wood shavings and toast. These are from the use of new oak in the course of fermentation or aging.
The third group of aromas is more complex and harder to pin down, but for real wine lovers they are the most interesting because they evolve as a high-quality wine matures in its bottle.
In white wines, the most obvious bottle-age smells include honey, toast (even in unoaked wines such as champagne), grilled nuts and gasoline (yes, especially German riesling). In red wines, often leathery, gamey or dried fruit aromas evolve as the wine matures. At this point, professional wine tasters speak of the wine’s “bouquet”.
Finally, Let’s Taste The Wine.
Take a good sip and maneuver the wine around your mouth. Open your mouth slightly and draw in a little air. This aerates the wine and sends the appropriate signals to your brain, as in “wow” and “whoa!” The length and aftertaste, or finish, of the wine are key indications of the quality of the wine. The longer and more pleasant, the finer the wine.
Acidity, which is higher in cooler growing climates, gives wines freshness and crispness, especially white wines. But the wines will taste tart if the acid is not balanced by fruit and alcohol. Balance is key.
Acid is important for red wines, too, but far more important, especially in reds intended to be kept, is tannin, the mouth-coating substance also present in brewed tea. Nowadays, wines worldwide are being made from riper grapes with riper tannins, which make them fruitier and more approachable at a younger age.
Another potential source of imbalance is the taste of oak. Although you’ll pick up oak aromas when you smell wine, you become more aware of it when you taste.
When carefully used, the right kind of oak – new or nearly new barrels, French, and the finest American – gives complexity of flavor and a richer texture to both red and white wines. But oak has its own seductive vanilla and toast flavors and can, in the hands of an inexperienced winemaker, easily overpower the wine. Finally, swallow.
If the sensation fades within a few seconds, you are tasting a simple, everyday wine. But if it lingers in the mouth or the imagination, or both, for something approaching 30 seconds you probably have something special in your glass.