How to taste wine
When you picture someone tasting wine, what comes to mind? A wine professional, perhaps, working their way through a line up of wines, noisily slurping and then spitting out each wine?
That’s one way of tasting, for sure, but it is only one way. We all taste things all the time, every day – from our morning cereal and cup of tea to the Friday night take-away curry. Probably what we don’t do, most of the time, is pay attention to what we’re tasting. By being alert to the smells and tastes we experience, we can train ourselves to become better tasters and to appreciate differences that we hadn’t noticed before. We can’t all become experts - but we can all get better. Read on for my step by step guide.
We taste with our eyes – think about how much you look forward to eating something in a restaurant that’s been attractively presented. Looking at a wine will give you the first clues as to what the wine tastes like.
Look at the colour and intensity of the wine in the glass. White wines get deeper in colour as they age, so a white wine that is pale is likely to be younger. Older wines, especially concentrated dessert wines, are usually more golden, even amber in colour.
Red wines, by contrast, become lighter in colour as they mature. The youngest red wines will generally be purplish in colour, moving to ruby, then garnet with age. Venerable old wines continue on to brick-red or mahogany as they mature gracefully.
Smelling a wine is, arguably, the most important part of tasting. Our noses are incredibly sensitive to a wide range of smells and aromas.
Swirl the wine in your glass, then have a couple of good sniffs. Assuming the first impression is pleasant and the wine is not faulty, you can start thinking about what it actually smells of. This is something that some people find easier than others – but practice is really the key to improving.
Most wines will have some kind of fruity smell – citrus and apple are common for white wines; red or black fruit for red. In addition, there is a whole array of other kinds of aroma that you might find – something spicy, like vanilla perhaps, is common in wines that have been oaked. The sauvignon blanc grape is often notable for its gooseberry aromas – which some people might find redolent of cat’s pee instead, or even sweaty onion.
And here’s the point – one person’s cat’s pee is another person’s gooseberry. Tasting is, in the end, personal. If you can smell sweet corn in a wine, then let no man (or woman) say you can’t.
OK, down to business – actually taste the wine. Take a sip, move it around your mouth, then swallow. Spitting is definitely needed if you will be tasting quite a few wines, to keep your critical faculties tuned, if nothing else. However, sometimes, it’s best not to – guests at a dinner party might think it a bit odd – so judge what’s appropriate for the occasion.
There are essentially two elements to think about when tasting – the structure of the wine and its flavours. Structure relates to the elements that give the wine its overall shape – namely dryness (or sweetness), acidity, body or weight, tannin (for red wines only) and length.
Most wines we drink in this country are broadly dry. You can sense sweetness on the tip of your tongue. Acidity is more of a sensation than a taste – it gives the wine freshness and zip and leads to a mouthwatering sensation. As you move the wine around your mouth, think about the sense of weight of the wine – most reds are fuller-bodied than white and have a more mouth-filling sensation. Tannins are the substances in red wines that can be unpleasantly drying, reminiscent of stewed tea. In the right quantities, however, they give the wine some pleasant “grip” and a counterpoint to the fruit. Length – how long the flavour of the wine lasts after you have swallowed it – is a good indicator of quality for a wine.
The flavours of a wine usually relate – and should relate – to the characters that you detected on the nose. Think about the types of fruit or other characters you can sense.
Also think about: does the wine change if you leave it in the glass for a while? Has it got more or less interesting? How intense are the aromas and flavours? Whether this is like other wines you have tasted?
Once you start actively tasting wine, you’ll soon be able to develop your own internal library of wine flavours, opening up a new world of wine to explore.
Here is a pair of current favourites. Have a taste and see if you agree with my version:
Louis Latour Grand Ardèche 2011- around £10.99 from Milford Wine Centre, Tanner’s and Davy’s Wine Merchants
Maison Louis Latour is a name more usually associated with Burgundy, but here they have turned their skilful hands to getting the very best from Chardonnay grown in the more lowly region of the Ardèche. 8-10 months ageing in oak barrels has given this a subtle toasty note on the nose, as well as a nice mealy savouriness on the palate. There is also appealingly fresh and ripe citrus and pear fruit.
Beaumont Bot River Mourvèdre 2009 - £18 from The Wine Society
Mourvèdre is a classic grape of Provence and southern France and widely grown, as Monastrell, in Spain – clearly it’s a warm climate variety, with a reputation for being happiest with a view of the sea. The unattractively-named Bot River is in the region of Walker Bay in South Africa, renowned for its cool climate – but clearly not too cool as this is wonderfully ripe and dense with a pure dark blueberry flavour, and freshening acidity.