How to Taste Wine - A Complete Guide

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Wine tastings - learn more about wine

  • There are three main components of wine tasting, visuals, smell and taste.
  • A good glass is essential to the wine tasting process.
  • Whether you're swallowing or spitting the wine, it's a great idea to make notes about how the wine taste, looks and smells.

Why taste Wine?

Primarily wine tasting is about enjoying a range of wines and discovering what you like and dislike. Wine tasting will help you identify flavours and aromas that you are particularly fond of, and thus ordering wine in a restaurant or bar will be easier from there on. A thorough understanding and ability to taste wine takes several years to master, but having a basic understanding will put you in good stead.

Wine tasting can be a social activity. Small and large wine tasting events are often held on a regular basis (weekly, monthly); this can be from an official wine tasting club to a small group of friends meeting at the local pub. Wine merchants and wine shops often hold annual open tastings to identify how well a wine will sell and to receive detailed feedback from customers.

Themed wine tasting events generally showcase a range of wines based on one theme, such as a wine or grape variety. These wines can sometimes be served alongside food which compliments the flavours, for example cheese and canapés to accompany an Italian bottle of wine.

Tutored wine tastings are available for people wanting to know more information about wine; to be taught the origins/history of wine and how to taste wine, within an educational framework. These tutored sessions often include comparable wine tastings, to highlight the differences between similar wines.

The WSET (Wine & Spirit Education Trust) offers numerous wine qualification grades for both professionals or enthusiastic wine amateurs; WSET school courses or online classrooms are available. The WSET school courses are provided all over the country.

How do you taste wine without being an expert?

Wineware have produced a complete guide to wine tasting. This guide is simple to follow and you will learn exactly how to tackle wine tasting. It has been divided into individual, manageable sections, including: wine tasting conditions, what you need if you are hosting a wine tasting evening and the three main components of wine tasting- visuals, smell and taste. This informational guide is intended to make wine tasting easier to understand and not seem so daunting. Wine tasting is meant to be a fun and enjoyable activity.

This guide is suitable for all levels of wine knowledge, from amateurs who want to learn ‘the art of wine tasting’, to wine critics, who simply need a wine tasting recap.

Wine tasting conditions

Whether you are hosting or attending a wine tasting evening, the environment is crucial to the experience. The best conditions for a wine tasting situation are:

  • A quiet room which is free from large crowds and noise. Distractions can have an impact on wine tasting, for example noise may affect your ability to clearly identify particular aromas.
  • A room that does not contain too many distinctive or overpowering smells (odour-free). ‘Neutral air’ is desirable, although nearly impossible to achieve. Strong smells can linger in a room and interfere with the wine tasting.
  • You will need good lighting within your chosen room, so you can record visual observations accurately and correctly.

The wine used for the wine tasting experience must be served at the correct temperature and offered in the appropriate glassware. ‘Conditioning the glass’ is sometimes required- which is rinsing a glass with wine (not water) if it seems musty.

Wine tasting essentials 

If you are attending your first wine tasting you may be unsure what to take with you. The glassware, bottles of wines and spittoon are usually always provided at these events.

Wine Tasting Glasses | Wineware.co.ukA couple of pens and a notebook are useful to take along with you, as then you are able to jot down any notes about the wines you taste. Wine tasting checklists may already be provided at your event, however enquire before attending if you are unsure. Alternatively, you can buy these online and in store from wine shops and wine merchants. A wine checklist can act as a useful prompt to help with your wine observations. Wine key term books and wine dictionaries are also useful for describing wines and are fairly inexpensive purchases. There are also plenty of key wine term resources available online.

Blind wine tasting events will completely cover the bottles of wine and often use black wine glasses which completely stop you being able to tell the colour of the wine prior to nosing and tasting.

Three main components of wine tasting

Visuals, Smell and Taste 

You will often be offered edible refreshments in between tasting different wines, this is to neutralise your palate to ensure accurate tastings. This could typically be a cream cracker or a piece of bread.

Every wine tasting is different and be sure to find out the protocol for tasting the wine. Some wine tasting events have spittoons, where you spit the wine after you have had a chance to note its flavour and characteristics.

Remember no matter how carefully you spit, you will be absorbing the alcohol through your nose, your throat and your sinus. You should spit the wine accurately into the spittoon through pursed lips. You can always practise at home, before the wine tasting, if you are unsure how to do this.

Whereas, other wine tasting sessions will encourage and expect you to swallow a mouthful of wine and record your observations. Your glass will usually be filled about a third of the way to the top. Too much wine in a glass will stop you being able to swirl and smell it properly.

Visuals 

The main reason we study the appearance of wine is to identity any faults, such as; it has been badly stored or the cork seal has completely failed.

The lighting of a room really does have an impact on your wine tasting. The environment is crucial, natural light is preferred and white backdrops (tablecloths, walls, pieces of paper) are ideal.

There are four main ways you can view your glass of wine. It is advisable on each of these to hold your wine glass against the white backdrop. This will enable you to record the colour and intensity as accurately as possible. The four eye-level observations are:

Wine tasting - look at the wine straight on Wine tasting - side angle view

1. Straight angle view – looking at the glass straight on. You can leave it on your table and face it directly. Note down your first impression of the colour. You may find you alter this description after all four eye-level observations have been completed.

2. Side angle view – the side angle view will allow you to see how clear your wine is. You can make a detailed note of the transparency of your glass of wine.

Wine tasting - tilted view Wine tasting - swirl wine and record froth

3. Tilted view – tilt your glass of wine by about 45 degrees and hold it against your white backdrop. Your backdrop will help give you a better idea about the depth of the colour and the transparency.

4. Swirl – swirling your glass of wine allows the wine to mix completely and settle; ready for your final eye-level observation, you can even record how much froth your wine has (if applicable).

Hold your glass of wine in these four positions and record all of your observations. Remember to consider these basic questions throughout. What colour is the wine? For most red wines, orange, amber and brown colours are an indicator of age whereas purple is an indication of youth. For white wines green often indicates youth, whereas orange and brown indicate age. Rosé wines will appear purply-pink for youth and orange and brown indicates age. However, it is important to note some wines will change colour more rapidly than others.

Is the glass of wine clear and bright, or is it dark and murky? Try and record the intensity of the colour and opacity as well as the shade of colour. As a general rule of thumb, red wines will get lighter with age and white wines will get darker. However this is not applicable to all wines and some wine varieties can be totally misleading. Try and use scales when noting down colour, from clear to medium to intense to dull. These will help to precisely describe the wine you taste.

Smell (also known as ‘nosing the wine’) 

Smelling the wine also known as nosing the wine

Our sense of smell is often more powerful than our sense of taste. It is especially important that you have neutral air when wine tasting, to ensure you are focused solely on the aroma of the wine in your glass.

In order to get a good impression of your glass of wine it is advised that you swirl your glass for around 10-12 seconds, or five good and quick rotations. Rotating your glass of wine simply breaks the wine’s surface and releases its natural aromas and helps to vaporize some of the wine's alcohol.

The most common fault that can be discovered by your sense of smell is cork taint. This can range from stripping a wine of its fresh, fruit smell to adding a damp or musty repulsive smell to the wine.

To fully appreciate all of the aromas, you have to stick your nose down into your glass (literally) and inhale deeply. The smell should be strong enough for you to immediately reel off some familiar smells, for example, fruity, spicy. Remove your nose from the glass for a few seconds and then return again. This time try to separate distinctive smells; if it was fruity before can you smell individual fruits such as blackberries, strawberries or bitter lemons? Naming specific smells produces a more accurate assessment of a wine, rather than using words such as ‘feminine’ or ‘clumsy’.

As a general rule of thumb younger wines tend to smell more of fruit, while on the other hand older wines smell more spicy or savoury. This is only a generality and does not apply to all wines.

The WSET® Systematic Approach to Tasting Wine (Level 2) list written by the Wine Spirit & Education Trust is a useful resource for identifying aroma and flavour characteristics at your wine tasting.

Taste 

How to taste wine

Recording the taste is an extremely important aspect of wine tasting. Unlike your nose, your mouth is able to recognise texture.

Depending on your wine tasting event, some people prefer to spit the wine into a spittoon after several seconds, whereas others tend to swallow the mouthful of wine. It is best to clarify at the beginning of your event what the conduct for tasting the wine is; some spit and some don’t. Most professionals will spit, especially if it is a very long tasting. Typically, nearly all social wine tastings drink.

There are also many wine checklist sheets that help you to record the taste of a wine. Wineware has a downloadable ‘Wine Tasting Notes’ (click here for PDF). It may also be useful to have a list of basic wine terms handy throughout your wine tasting. Wineware has a downloadable ‘Basic Wine Tasting Terms’ (click here for PDF).

How do I taste wine properly?

This is where the face-pulling fun comes in! To taste wine properly you take a small amount in your mouth and swish it around for a few seconds. Here is the interesting part. After swirling the wine, try sucking a little air through your lips, preferably for a few seconds. (Don’t wear anything too nice, in case you end up dribbling). This allows air to get into the wine to release its flavours.

If you are swallowing the wine try and think about how the wine tastes when it hits different parts of your tongue. There are five main areas of sensitivity on the tongue, including: bitter taste, sour taste (acids), salt, sweetness and finally tannin, tannin is mainly detected on the gums. A wine’s taste will linger on your tongue after you have swallowed, so try to record how long this “aftertaste” lasts.

The taste may often be described similarly to your ‘smell’ observation. However, remember your taste palate is able to identify the texture and body of a wine.

Texture of wine Texture of a wine

When you first taste the wine you are able to taste the texture, this includes: the acid (natural preservatives found in wine), the tannin (natural antioxidant), alcohol content and the body.

The acid

Acidity is most strongly detected by the sides of your tongue and it is what causes the mouth to water. Acid is what makes a wine taste so refreshing and vibrant. Acidity is extremely important for sweet wines as if it is too low, a wine can taste oversweet.

The tannin

Tannin is present in grape skins and is a bitter flavour, most strongly detected by the back of your tongue. The astringency from the tannin is what causes the dry feeling in your mouth. The astringent sensation is felt most strongly on your gums. Ripe tannin contributes to the viscosity of a wine.

Alcohol content 

The alcohol content of a wine is basically the quantity of ethyl alcohol in a wine. You will be able to taste the content; typically wine with low alcohol content will taste sweeter.

The body 

The body describes the weight of the wine, for instance is it light or heavy, soft or firm, sweet or dry?

Flavour profile of your wine

This is where you can jot down the exact tastes. You may have previously described the wine as fruity but now you can note the sweet plum and berry taste on your tongue. Try and describe the exact flavour of the wine, instead of generalities that were perhaps recorded previously by your ‘smell’ observation. Is it honey or butter, herbs or earthiness you can taste?

Length (aftertaste of your wine)

It is important to record how long the flavour lasts after the wine is swallowed, known as the ‘finish’. This can often relate to the body of the wine. The main descriptions of the body of a wine are:

  • Light-bodied – like water consistency
  • Medium-bodied – a similar weight to milk
  • Full- bodied- rich consistency like cream

Basic wine questions to answer on taste

  • Did you enjoy the wine? If not, try to articulate exactly what you didn’t like, for instance the particular flavour or the dry taste on the side of your tongue.
  • What food (meal or snacks) can you imagine this wine accompanying? If you have found a nice wine try to think what food would match/accompany this drink.
  • Would you buy this wine?
  • Would you recommend this wine to a friend or family member?

If you enjoyed the wine and rated it highly (in visual, smell and taste) make sure you write down clearly the wine’s name, producer and the year it was produced (vintage). If you have a wine app, scan the bottle of wine.

Will you try or host your own wine tasting?

Wineware hope we have encouraged you to give wine tasting a go! Wine tasting is a fantastic opportunity to improve your wine knowledge and whether it is a social activity, or a qualification you are undertaking, remember to have fun. When it comes down to it wine tasting is an individual experience, as you are finding out what tickles and tantalises your taste buds. Remember, we all have individual tastes and preferences. Have fun trying new varieties of wine and try to be open-minded, this way you will discover a whole new world of wines (literally).

If you require any further advice or guidance on wine tasting, please do not hesitate to contact Wineware.

 
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