A Wine Course in Four Pages
The business of wine tasting is a curious thing. It’s very different from wine drinking. When I taste a wine wearing my critic’s cap, I pull apart the pleasure experience. I hold each aspect of the wine up against the cold yardstick of imaginary perfection. How’s the colour, fruit, alcohol, and acidity? What about the tannins, balance, complexity, and length? Is it typical? Mature? There’s no quiet conversation, eye-batting flirtation, suggestive comments, or even jazz. Instead, I’m alone at home or with other wine critics in a lab or professional tasting, spittoon in hand. Yes, I spit; inebriation wreaks havoc on tasting notes.
The whole process is rather clinical.
One could argue tasting this way is too removed from the real drinking experience, which may be true. But there’s serious value in technical tasting. It determines exactly why a wine does or doesn’t taste good and therefore why you probably will or won’t like it. Said another way, you might not know why you love or hate a wine but a wine critic probably would. The technical tasting process yields that insight on a bottle-by-bottle basis. Personally, I get a weird pleasure from the whole exercise — and if the banter that ricochets through trade tastings is any indication, other critics share this quirk.
If you affectionately call yourself a “mineral slut” because you like stony whites, or discuss tannins at the dinner table to the dismay of others, keep reading. I’m going to tell you everything you ever wanted to know about technical tasting but were afraid to ask.
In sommelier school, one of the first things you learn is how to taste wine. At the Wine and Spirit Education Trust, where I studied in London, the method is called “the systematic approach to tasting.” Please, don’t trot this process out at your next dinner party. It will peg you as a cork dork faster than your guests can say “screw cap.” Here we go.
Pour a couple of ounces of wine in a glass — an ISO tasting glass is the industry standard, but any stemware will do so long as the rim is smaller than the bowl to capture the aromas. Now, look at the wine in bright light against a white surface.
A good quality wine should be clear and bright. If it’s dull or cloudy, it’s either flawed or unfiltered. Unfiltered isn’t necessarily a bad thing; some winemakers don’t filter to maintain extra flavour. But unfiltered wines are more prone to contamination. So just take note of the clarity.
Now look at the colour intensity. The depth suggests the wine’s grape variety — Pinot Gris is deep compared to Sauvignon Blanc. Malbec is opaque while Pinot Noir is pale. Also, oak and bottle age can both impart deeper colour to white wine while red wines tend to get paler as they mature.
Next, look at the colour. White wines range from water white to golden; rosés go from pale pink to orange; and reds move from purple to tawny-coloured. Brownishness can indicate oxidation, so be on the lookout for that.
rim to core
Taking colour one step further, look at the difference between the wine in the middle of the glass, called the core, and that of the rim. The rim will always be paler but the shade is important because there is no better way to determine a red wine’s maturity than by the shade of its rim — at maturity, most red wines are ruby to brick coloured.
other visual clues
Other visual clues to look for when tasting a wine are legs, tartrate crystals and sediment. Legs or “tears” are the lines that form as wine glides down the inside of the glass after a swirl. The more pronounced the legs, the higher the alcohol and/or sugar levels in the wine — cuing you to be on the look out for those elements on the palate. Tartrate crystals may be present, which are not harmful and don’t imply a fault — the wine simply wasn’t cold stabilized in the winery. Sediment means bottle age, so watch for other indicators of maturity.
Now, swirl the wine to give rise to the aromatics. Stick your nose in the glass and inhale.
Does the wine smell clean? Unpleasant aromas such as rotting vegetal matter, bandages, or wet cardboard indicate contamination or unclean winemaking practices. Take note. The wine should smell fresh.
Next, think about how weak or pronounced the aroma is. This offers clues to the wine’s grape variety, style and typicity. Certain varieties such as Pinot Grigio have a subtle fragrance, while others such as Sauvignon Blanc are quite aromatic.
After noticing the intensity of the scent, decide whether the wine is youthful or aged. Youthful wines show primary fruit aromas appropriate to their grape variety. Merlot smells like cherries, Cabernet Sauvignon like blackcurrant, Chardonnay like citrus, and so forth. If the wine shows so-called secondary and tertiary aromas such as honey, cigars, roast meat or coffee, it indicates age. If this is the case, take note because you’ll want to make sure the wine is still balanced and drinking well, which will become evident on the palate.
Now, list the aromas you notice. Typicity is important here. Wines should show their hallmark aromas. Barolo smells of tar and roses, Riesling like limes, Chablis like wet stones, and so forth. Complexity on the nose suggests quality.
By now, you’ll have clues as to the wine’s style, maturity, age and quality. It’s time to confirm your suspicions on the palate. So take a sip, swish it around in your mouth, and take in a little bit of air. Spit it out, then sip again to assess it.
First, is the wine dry, off-dry, medium-sweet, sweet or luscious? Focus on the tip of the tongue, where sweetness is noticed most.
Acidity is the technical term for tartness. All wines should be sour enough to balance the extract and alcohol while adhering to a level appropriate to its style. Champagne should taste more acidic than an Australian Viognier, for instance. Acidity is felt at the sides of the tongue and makes you salivate. And if the wine is sweet, the acid needs to be relatively high to balance the sugar so each sip finishes cleanly. It’s worth bearing in mind that sugar hides acidity.
Tannins are felt as a drying sensation around the gums — like the sensation of strong black tea. They’re rarely found in whites and rosés because of the minimal skin contact. So when tasting a red, ask yourself: are the tannins firm or soft, ripe or stalky? Are they appropriate for the style of wine? Beaujolais and Pinot Noir should show less tannin than a Cabernet Sauvignon, for instance. And if the tannins are firm, are they balanced with the body, fruit and alcohol?
Now consider the body, or the wine’s weight in the mouth. Does it feel light or full-bodied? Body is closely associated with alcohol levels. A wine under 12 per cent alcohol is light-bodied. One with 12 to 13 per cent alcohol is medium-bodied. And a wine exceeding 13 per cent alcohol is full-bodied. That said, sweet wines are always fuller-bodied despite often having relatively low alcohol.
Next: is the wine concentrated or dilute? This is where things get interesting. If the fruit is intensely concentrated and clean, and the tannins firm, the wine may be age-worthy. If the tannins are unattractively firm but the fruit isn’t overly concentrated, you’re dealing with a wine that won’t keep and therefore is simply not that well made. This is a critical point in assessing the difference between a wine that is great quality but simply immature, and one that is similarly inaccessible but won’t improve. Concentration is also an earmark of good wine.
What flavours do you taste in the wine? Nuances that appeared on the nose should emerge on the palate. And like concentration, complexity is another hallmark of quality. But the flavours should be clean and inoffensive. Think of fruits, flowers, mineral elements, herbs, spices, meat, tobacco and so on. Funnily enough, a few flavours that seem offensive at first blush are actually considered exciting and entirely appropriate for certain varieties. Old red Burgundy smells and tastes of manure, affectionately called “barnyard,” aged Riesling is reminiscent of kerosene, and so on.
Then focus on the alcohol level. If the wine feels hot in the throat, the alcohol is too high for the fruit. Now you can determine if the wine is balanced. Are the fruit, alcohol, acidity, tannins and body in balance? No single part should stand out unattractively.
How long does the wine’s fruit extract linger in the mouth after the swallow? Length is the third hallmark of quality after concentration and complexity. Long resonant length is desirable in wine, bridging the gap from sip to sip.
Now you’re in a position to judge if the wine is poor, acceptable or good. You can even estimate an appropriate market value.
Maturity is when the wine drinks best. It’s different from “age” because wines reach maturity at different rates — Vinho Verde for is ready upon release while others, such as Côte-Rôtie, need four decades in bottle to reach maturity.
As wine ages, the fruit falls out and the tannins soften, while the acidity and alcohol remain the same. So, with all the information gleaned from the tasting process, make a judgement call about the wine’s maturity. Is it immature, ready to drink or too young? With experience, you can start to estimate how long it would take for a wine to reach maturity.
This piece comes with a warning: revealing your technical wine tasting skills at your next dinner party may ruin your social life.