Tasting wine is neither an art nor a skill. It is a reflex.
Like anything else we put in our mouths, a combination of our senses of smell and taste send a signal to our brains, which then makes a subjective decision on whether we “like” the wine we are tasting or not.
That’s because in order to appreciate wine, you have to love wine. You need to know, or at least want to know, the difference between a cabernet sauvignon and a merlot and other varietals. And you need to want to know why one wine is good while another is not.
Appreciating wine is an act that requires you to use four of your five senses: Sight, taste, touch and smell.
It all begins with a bottle of wine and a glass.
While there are different wine glass shapes for different types of wine — white wine glasses are taller and thinner and red wine glasses are squatter and more globular — it really doesn’t make that much difference at first how the glass is shaped, as long as it is clean and dry.
Open your bottle of wine. Hopefully, your bottle of wine has a cork rather than a screwtop because uncorking a bottle of wine is a ritual that can be satisfying in itself. While wines with screw tops definitely tend to stay fresh longer, I find opening them to be a little disappointing because I miss the romance of the act of uncorking a bottle with a corkscrew.
If you have time, let the bottle “breathe” for a few minutes before tasting it by letting it sit undistrubed. This allows the air in the room to start reacting with the wine in the bottle — which usually has been bottled up for a long time — and has an absolute impact on the way the wine tastes.
Next, pour a little bit of wine into the glass, about an ounce. Now, look at the wine, preferably against a plain white background. What you are looking for is the wine’s clarity — that it has no haze or murkiness — and whether the wine is bright or dull. Really good wines tend to have a distinctive brilliantness to them.
You also are looking for the depth of color: Is the wine pale or dark? Generally, the deeper the color, the better the wine.
The next step is to swirl the wine around in the glass, then hold it up to the light again. Some of the wine will cling to the sides of the glass and form transparent “tears”, which are also called the wine’s “legs”. This is caused by the alcohol in the wine. The more alcohol a wine has, the thicker its legs.
The next step is to smell the wine. Our sense of smell is controlled by the olfactory gland, which is located at the top of our nose. In order to best judge a wine’s smell, it’s necessary to really stick your nose all the way into the glass so that the vapors can reach your olfactory gland.
What you are trying to smell is the wine’s aroma, the fresh, fruity smells that come from the grape. Generally, younger, more immature wines will have a simple, fruit-bomb smell that overpowers you, preventing you from smelling anything else. But older, more sophisticated wines will have an aroma that has more complexity.
You also are trying to smell the wine’s “bouquet.” This is the combination of flavors that have developed in the wine while it was being aged — either in oak barrels or in the bottle itself. These tend to be more subtle, but as you become accustomed to appreciating wines, you will be able to identify them more easily.
Swirl and smell the wine a couple of times. Use different types of sniffs: Long and deep inhalations, short sniffs, mouth open and mouth closed, eyes open and eyes closed. Pay attention to the types of smells you notice: floral aromas, spiciness, fruitiness, vegetal, animal smells, woody, smoky, chemical odors, mineral smells and others. Every wine will have a slightly different combination of these.
Next time, we will examine tasting and touching wines, and how to keep track of the wines you taste.