Talking about the art of wine tasting is a turn-off for those who open a bottle purely for a drink. However, there is no doubt that a little knowledge can increase the enjoyment considerably. So I propose to explain the basics of wine tasting.
The S’s of wine tasting are serve, see, swirl, sniff, sip, then swish and slurp, swallow or spit, and finally savor. Each action relates to the next. What you see initially should then be supported by what you smell and taste.
Don’t be put off by the fact that it is wine because you automatically follow the same process with food without having to take a course to learn how. For instance, compare how we and your pet dog eat. The dog wolfs down his food as though it could disappear any moment. We look at the food, notice the presentation, taking time to gather a forkful, chew the food slowly, contemplate it before swallowing and then pause before taking the next mouthful. All I am suggesting is that you taste wine like you eat food, with a fraction more time and thought. Taste the wine rather than glug it down like a glass of water.
Firstly, you have to serve the wine. Pour it into a wineglass that has a stem and a decent-sized bowl that tapers in slightly at the top. Fill it no more than one-third full. Serve the wine at the correct temperature. Simple whites, rosés, sparkling and sweet wines should be very cold; quality white wines should be cold to chilled; light reds should be chilled; and quality reds can range from lightly chilled to room temperature.
See the wine in the glass. Look at the color. Young reds will be purple at the edge, while older reds will be brick red. Young whites will be pale straw colored, and richer or sweeter wines will be yellower. Both reds and whites will show a browning with age. You want the wine to be bright, clear and not bubbly if it is not a sparkling wine. The color of the wine is like looking at a face. It is a first glimpse, a guide into what lies within. Further examination will confirm or deny the first impressions, but it is a first opportunity to try to understand the wine before you delve further.
You then swirl the glass while holding the stem. If you don’t want a spillage, rotate the glass gently with the base of the glass on the table. This will allow the wine to mix with air, which will successfully bring out the aroma, like raindrops on a rose. It is this aroma that is one of the most satisfying things for the wine taster. However, it takes this mini aeration to bring the wine to life.
Put your nose into the wine glass and give a short, sharp sniff. A couple of seconds is enough to give the message: I like it or don’t like it. If the wine smells nice, it is a good start. If not, the initial view may be confirmed by a disappointing taste. If you want to become an expert, you may start trying to identify aromas. Is the wine fruity or flowery, herbal or spicy, earthy or animal-like?
A descriptive wine vocabulary, which sounds pretentious when used out of context, becomes necessary when you want to compare two similar wines or to remember them. Then you may want to identify if the fruitiness is of raspberries, strawberries and cherries or black currant, blackberries and plums. A flowery wine may smell of violets or orange blossom, and a spicy wine may remind you of black pepper, allspice or cinnamon. A herbal character may remind you of bell pepper or freshly cut grass.
This is a highly personal and subjective exercise. What you smell and the memory associations that it gives you are yours alone. So if you are not familiar with blueberries, it is okay. Use your own descriptive terms.
All this, and you have not tasted anything yet!
SIP, SWISH AND SLURP
Now take a sip of wine, and then swish it around your mouth to cover all the surfaces (tongue, cheeks, etc.). If you want to be more professional, then slurp it with a little air. All this is to better understand the profile of the wine in question.
The taste buds on your tongue will distinguish sweetness, saltiness, bitterness and acidity. Sweetness is most felt at the tip of the tongue, acidity along the sides of the tongue, and bitterness at the back. Acidity is essential to balance. Think of the differences of drinking sparkling water compared with still mineral water to understand the feel of refreshing acidity.
Wines without any sweetness are referred to as “dry.” With a little residual sugar, they are classified as “semi-dry” … and so on until “sweet.”
Don’t be confused by the word “taste.” Most of the taste comes from the back of the nose. So taste are smell are inextricably linked. That is why when you have a cold and your nose is blocked, you feel as though you can’t taste anything.
Mouth feel is important. A wine that is full of flavor may be described as having “mouth-filling flavor.” The amount of alcohol is one of the parameters that determine the body of a wine. A full-bodied wine may be rich and heavy; while a light-bodied wine may be delicate and elegant. To understand body, think of cranberry juice as light-bodied, orange juice as medium-bodied and tomato juice as full-bodied.
Tannin is another feel. It is prevalent in young red wines that need aging. Think of a cup of tea that has steeped too long with the tea bag left in. That drying taste is tannin. It comes from grape skins and pips and is an important factor in the balance and aging ability of fine red wines.
The best wine is invariably a balanced one. Balance is when the fruit, acidity, tannins and oak all marry together without any one aspect being too dominant.
SWALLOW OR SPIT
Swallowing the wine will prolong the flavor, even though there are no taste buds in your throat, so you won’t taste anything new in the process. The professionals will choose to spit the wine into a nearby receptacle, sometimes known as a spittoon. Anything will do. The objective is to taste a number of wines without becoming drunk, so if you are planning to taste and compare a few wines, spitting is essential.
Finally, savor the taste and flavor in your mouth. If it lasts a long time, the wine is said to have a good length. A wine with a long and balanced finish will be considered a better wine than one that disappears with the act of swallowing, like water.
Meantime, the wine in your glass is constantly changing as it interacts with air and as the temperature changes. When you have undergone this procedure, leave your glass for a bit while you do other things or taste other wines. Then go back and try it again. The magic of wine is that it will, more often than not, taste different the next time.
While learning to taste wine, you have employed four of your senses: sight, smell, feel and taste. The fifth sense is hearing. This you use when you touch glasses with your companion with a clink and say “Lehaim!”
Adam Montefiore works for Carmel Winery and regularly writes about wine in both Israeli and international publications.