How to Look Like a Professional at a Wine Tasting
Mon, 11 August 2014
So you have a wine tasting looming on your social horizon. And you can picture it now – sparkling glasses on linen-covered tables, with people who seem to know a heck of a lot about what they’re doing. Odd swirling actions, strange sniffing, talk of bouquets, spitting – really, you could well ask what it’s all about!
But fear not, you’re certainly not alone! And by adopting a few basic strategies, not only will you blend in like a professional at your next cellar door tasting with friends, we think that you might also come to savour and appreciate different wines just that little bit more.
Keeping it simple
See…sniff …savour. These three little words are the simplest thumbnail sketch available on how to judge wine. Now, right away some pro wine tasters are pointing out that each of these stages could easily be broken into three or four more sub-stages. And we agree. But because we’re covering the basics here for you, how about we keep it simple? At the end of the day, a wine tasting is basically your chance to assess multiple aspects of ‘see, smell and savour’, in order to form your own opinion on the wine’s overall quality. Don’t let it be a stressful chore, because there are no definite right or wrong answers in wine tasting. For wasn’t 19thcentury artist Gellett Burgess right when he said: “I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like?” The same might be said of wine too. Of course, when it comes to wine tasting, practice also makes perfect! Here’s a breakdown of the three stages.
So, a small amount of your first wine has been decanted into quality glassware, preferably tulip-shaped (it provides a better surface area). Visually taking in your wine can give you valuable initial hints as to potential varietal features and likely age. In general, whites will display their youth with paler hues, moving to denser yellows with age. Conversely, young reds can first appear in rich maroons and dark purples, while brick red and light ochres tend to signify a more advanced vintage. Take in the clarity or opacity, and examine for any problematic inclusions, such as cork or sediment. Give the wine a bit of a swirl to double check for these, plus to watch how it sits in the glass. If there are thick rivulets (known as legs) hanging down the glass, this shows a certain viscosity or thickness. Substantial legs can indicate high alcohol content and/or sweetness.
A thoughtful sniff
Perhaps the part of wine tasting that causes the most eye rolling among amateurs is the time spent by pro wine tasters smelling the beverage. Well, there are actually a few great reasons why aroma testing is crucial. Back to biology class… did you know the human sense of smell is 1,000 times more acute than taste?
And when we think of the mouth and olfactory connection in humans, these two senses often helpfully intermingle and send joint messages to the brain. Suffice to say – the nose is a champion tool in the assessment of any wine.
First, give the glass another gentle swirl to add a little oxygen and to release more aromatic molecules. Take a cursory first sniff and note your initial reaction. Now place your nose gently into the top of the glass and inhale more deeply, sensing how the aroma descends down to your mouth. This should begin to give you a greater appreciation of the aromatic characteristics that will potentially arise from this wine: hints of varietal make-up, vinification methods, structure and regional character can begin to take form. You might also detect aspects of acidity, sweetness and tannins at this olfactory stage. The mouth is now also becoming nicely prepared for the next step – taste.
And so to savour
Slowly take a mouthful and let it flow gradually across your tongue and throughout your mouth. This allows you assess the structure and texture of the wine, as well as to confirm or challenge earlier olfactory clues your nose picked up. In drinking and savouring, you can now let yourself experience the wine’s taste and overall mouth feel, again looking for indications of the wine’s grape variety, place of origin and age.
Older or oaked wines might present a more creamy or dense structure, while younger wines tend to be lighter or crisper. But it’s not just about feel. Your mouth and nose are working in unison to continually understand the wine’s nuanced flavours. Speaking very generally, flavours of fruit, nuts, plants, wood, baked items, minerals and spices could all arise throughout this phase. And these are just a few examples! In all, a careful examination of the balance of acidity, tannins, sweetness, heat and flavour in accord with the particular variety in question will be helpful in any taste assessment.
And then the last part of tasting is to have a think about how the wine finishes up. Is there a pleasant or unpleasant aftertaste? Does the aroma linger into a delicious finale, or do you have metallic barbs assaulting your palate?
So now someone turns to you and asks: “well, how was that – a good wine?” They’re pretty much alluding to your overall tasting experience, not just the technical aspects of it. Have a quick think about what you sensed in the broad see, sniff and savour categories. The cloudy Shiraz with light sediment (see) might be saved by delicious spiced mulberry aromas (sniff), and well-balanced tannins (savour) for example. Or the crisp pastel lemon Chablis (see) might be cleverly followed by faint lemongrass aromatics (sniff), tidied by a deliciously light mouth feel and nectarine notes (savour).
And so on. Your overall gut feel about this wine is important, and should inform your judgement. Use these basic categories to refine the way your express your opinion.
Follow the pros
So how do wine judges work out how to score a particular wine? Well, there are a number of wine scoring systems around the world, using total scores of anywhere between five and 100 marks. Generally, the largest portion of the scoring will go to what we’ve called the savour aspect, with remaining marks spread between the other individual elements. There is also an overall mark.
While it’s useful to be aware of how the professionals do it, don’t get too hung up on trying to be exact. If you give each wine the respect it deserves by providing a little thoughtful attention to each part of the tasting experience, you’ll be surprised at the way your whole approach to wine is enhanced. In so many ways, wine will start to ‘make sense’ more than before.
A tasting can also be great to get inside the head of your winemaker a little. Back to those earlier thoughts on art, research shows that a gallery-goer’s experience is enhanced if they know just a little about the artist’s life, times and techniques. We
think the same just might apply to winemaking. In understanding a little of our art, you might just find that there’s a pretty complex world going on in each bottle. Know some more about what we were thinking when we made the wine, plus where we made it – and your wine just might take on a new dimension.
Remember to be yourself
This is one of the most important things to remember at a tasting. If other tasters notice viscous legs on the glass and you don’t, just say it. If the word around the room is ‘grassy’ for this Chardonnay, but you get something else, then speak up. No two people are the same, and your nose’s perception might well have picked up the wine’s more subtle aromatics and associated terroir.
Finally, why not just have a little fun before that tasting looms? Perhaps run our Taylors Estate Merlot through its paces with a little wine assessment of your own? As always, we’d love to hear from you about this or any other tasting adventures that you might take, so drop us a line any time. Remember, there are no rights or wrongs – it’s about opening up new horizons and finding more to love!