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There has always been a certain aura around wine experts who are able to detect a broad range of flavors and aromas in every glass of wine. And reading the label of a typical bottle of wine sold in a retail wine store can sometimes seem like an exotic journey into a world of herbs, spices and aromas not even closely related to grapes. The good news is that is possible to learn to taste and evaluate a glass of wine just like an expert, simply by following a few basic steps.
Your primary goal during a wine tasting is to engage each of your senses. How does a wine look? How does it feel in your mouth? What aromas does it produce? And how does it taste? By answering each of these questions, you will be able to develop detailed and very helpful tasting notes for any wine you encounter.
The first step in tasting wine is simply observing the color of the wine. Doing so will offer up a number of hints about the type of wine you are about to taste. First, look straight down into the wine and observe the depth of color. Red wines are not always “red” – some of them can be richly saturated with color, to the point where they are purple-black in color. And the same is true for “white” wines – some of them can be pale straw in color, while other can be golden in color.
After observing the depth of color, it’s time to hold the glass of wine up to the light. Here, you can begin to observe the full range of color of the wine. Just be careful not to hold the glass of wine directly in front of the light source. Afterwards, carefully tilt the glass of wine so that wine begins to flow along the edges of the glass. This can give an indication of the wine’s age and whether or not the wine will be full-, medium- or light-bodied.
The next step is to observe the aromas of the wine. To do so, it’s advisable to swirl the glass of wine on a flat surface. (In Hollywood movies, you might see people swirling a glass of wine in mid-air, but this is not advisable in real life.) Doing so helps to aerate the wine, letting it breathe by enabling it to come into contact with oxygen in the surrounding area. From the perspective of a wine tasting, swirling the glass helps to “unlock” the full aroma potential of the wine.
Now it’s time to smell the wine. At first, simply “hover” over the glass of wine. Do not insert your nose into the body of the glass. Next, take a few short sniffs with a closed mouth. Optionally, you can also take a few sniffs with your mouth open. Here is where you will begin to encounter the primary and secondary aromas of the wine. Since wines are made from grapes, it’s only natural that the primary aromas will almost always be fruit-like aromas. When you read the label on a bottle of wine, this description of the fruit will often be the first thing you encounter. Fruit aromas will help to identify the growing conditions of the wine and can include stonefruit aromas as well as more exotic tropical fruit aromas (for warmer climates).
The secondary aromas of the wine can be floral (as is typical with cool climate wines like Riesling or Gewurztraminer), herbal, grassy and earthy. Wines known for their herbal and grassy characteristics include Sauvignon Blanc and some Rhone reds. In addition, if the wine has been barrel-aged in oak, it may have secondary aromas of toast, smoke, vanilla, roasted nuts, caramel and even chocolate.
Now it’s time to taste the wine. The preferable method is to sip, not swallow, the wine, and then enable it to rest in your mouth for a short period of time. You have two goals here – one is to detect mouthfeel (or how the wine feels in your mouth), and the other is see just how balanced, harmonious or complex the wine is. A wine with a lot of complexity (such as a sturdy red wine that has been aged and cellared) will seem to change flavor in your mouth even as you taste it. Some have compared this sensation to staring at a painting, in which the painting seems to take on new meaning the more that you look at it.
In addition, during the tasting, you are trying to analyze whether you can detect any flavors not originally detected when you first smelled the wine. Since the sense of smell is arguably the most important sense, some wine experts claim that they can “taste” a wine without actually tasting it. Their nose tells them all they need to know, and actually tasting the wine only reinforces those initial conclusions.
During the actual tasting, you should be able to get a much better sense of how the ageing process has impacted the final flavor of the wine. For example, an oaked Chardonnay is going to taste much different than an unoaked Chardonnay. Some winemakers have even started to age their wines in bourbon barrels and other oak barrels used by distillers, simply to impart more flavor complexity to the wine.
A wine tasting does not end with the “tasting.” Instead, part of the process calls for the person tasting the wine to jot down tasting notes in a journal or simply on a piece of paper. Over time, you will learn the best way to organize these notes, but by focusing on the appearance, aromas and flavors of a wine, you will have a very adaptable structure for just about any wine tasting. Your first wine tasting notes might only include a few brief observations about fruity or floral aromas that you are detecting, but with experience, you will become much more adept at noting herbal, grassy, and earthy aromas that help to separate a good wine from a truly great wine.