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How to taste like a professional

It is easy to drink. Tasting is a different matter. The process of wine tasting is a methodical (yet also subjective) practice. Unfortunately, some people make the process look ridiculous:
"I'm getting aromas of gooseberry leaf and bashful quail eggs, with hints of the pomegranate wood" is not a description that many of us find useful.

Forget these idiots! Tasting wine properly means that you will start to experience flavours, smells and sensations that previously went unnoticed. Only when you start tasting wine will you really begin to understand it: helping you to know which wines you will like (even before you open the bottle) and enabling you to matching wine to food.

So, go on, try tasting your wine by using our 5 easy steps.

 

Setting the scene

1) Setting the scene

In order to follow the next 4 steps, you will require a few things (apart from the obvious: wine and a glass):

  1. Light: preferably daylight. Otherwise, a good, strong bulb (fluorescent strips are the next best thing).
  2. Temperature: get the wine to the correct temperature (click here for our serving guide).
  3. A clean mouth: if you eat strong foods before tasting (or brush your teeth), you won't be able to taste what the wine is really like. Drinking water or eating some bread before tasting often helps.

 

Then, pour yourself a glass (not too much) and give it a swirl in the glass (this kind of wakes the wine up - don't feel silly about doing this).

 

appearance

2) Appearance

The first thing to ask is: "Is the wine clear?". Cloudiness is often (but not always) a sign of the wine having problems. Has the bottle been shaken before it was poured. Leave it a while and see if it settles.

Next, take a look at the colour of the wine by holding the glass at a 45º angle. You will find that the outside rim of the wine is often different colour from the centre (core). Red wines get paler as they age, and the first sign of it will be at the rim: purple suggests that a wine is young, while brown probably means it is older. Young white winesstart of with a greenish tinge (and a wide, watery rim) and become a deep yellow-gold colour when aged. However, different wines start off as different colours, and ageing a white wine in oak adds a golden colour, so this is not an exact science.

Other things that you might notice are:

  • 'legs' or 'tears' running down the side of the glass: this normally suggests either high alcohol (or a sweet wine).
  • small bubbles (in still wine): sometimes CO2 is left in wines to retain their freshness (or it may be a fault with the wine).
  • bubbles (in sparkling wine): small/fine bubbles normally mean a better class of wine.
  • crystals in white wines: caused by cold weather sometimes, these will not affect your wine.

 

aroma

3) Aroma / Nose

The nose is an incredible sense. While you may think that the mouth is the main sensory tool in tasting wine, it is the nose that has thousands more receptors.

But, before you plunge your nose deep into the glass, give it a quick sniff. They estimate that 1 in 20 bottles of wine are bad and often the smell is very powerful. If it smells like a damp rag, nail varnish or vinegar, don't drink it! Put the cork back in and take it back to where you bought it (they should replace it or give you a full refund without question).

Hopefully, your wine will have nice smells that you can detect (note that some wines only develop strong aromas as they age). What can you smell? To begin with, it is difficult to put your finger on the smell, but persevere. Try to pay attention to smells that you come across in the real world - then you'll soon be able to recognise smells in your wines.

I was once challenged to close my eyes, smell a variety of everyday fruits and try to identify them. You'd be surprised at how difficult it is to identify things without your ears and mouth to help you. You think you know what a blackberry smells like? You try it!

The main thing to keep in mind is that smells are personal and subjective. What you smell in a wine might be completely different from what someone else smells.

 

palate

4) Taste / Palate

Although the nose is incredible, there are certain things that it cannot pick up: for example, you cannot smell sweetness. These are the main factors that you should consider once you take a taste of the wine:

  • Sweetness: often the first thing that you pick up because it's the sense at the tip of your tongue.
  • Acidity: the sides of the tongue (towards the back) will pick up acidity. High acidity makes your mouth water.
  • Tannin: the gums and teeth pick up tannins. Tannin is found in most red wines and is a kind of drying effect (like you get from a cup of strong black tea). If a wine tastes bitter, it is usually because the winemaker has taken too much tannin from the grapes (you usually only get this in cheaper red wines).
  • Body: the wine's "body" refers to the impression of weight that the wine gives.
  • Alcohol: high alcohol gives a warming sensation at the back of the throat.
  • Flavours: the flavours of the wine should reflect the aromas that you smelled in part 3.
  • Bubbles: long-lasting, gentle bubbles in a sparkling wine show a wine of quality and age; short-lived, aggressive bubbles show an inferior wine.
  • Finish: the "finish" of a wine refers to how long the flavours stay in your mouth after you swallow the wine.



conclusion

 

5) Conclusion

This is an evaluation of the wine as a whole.

  1. Do all the elements work well together or does one component stand out more than others? A wine is deemed "balanced" when all the elements are equally present.
  2. Is there a good intensity of aromas and flavours, or can you hardly pick them out?
  3. Does the wine have a good 'length' (i.e. do the flavours stay in your mouth for a time after you swallow the wine)?
  4. Is it enjoyable to drink?


There are other questions that you will ask once you have been tasting for a while: such as how expressive is the wine of the grape/region, how complex are the aromas/flavours, and where is the wine in its evolution (i.e. is it still young, ready to drink or past its best). But don't worry about these for now.