Wine. Many like to drink it, but few truly understand much about it.
Gleaning the most out of the wine experience first begins by increasing your knowledge and gratification of wine. To do this, you must drink it with sensory focus, describes Karen MacNeil, author of the critically acclaimed Wine Bible. “To gain expertise and – even more significantly – to heighten the pleasure and impact of what you drink, you must learn to be a deliberate taster.”
So, how do you do this? For starters, your sense of smell works hand in hand with how (and what) you taste. Per MacNeil, when tasting wines, experts go through six stages to determine its personality:
- Assessing the aroma
- Gauging the body weight
- Feeling the texture
- Focusing on the finish
- Confirming the color
Now, it’s time to pour a glass and follow along.
Assessing the Aroma
Not to get too technical, but it’s important to understand that humans possess two sensory locations to analyze smells. The first is obviously through the nose, but we also possess the ability to absorb smells through the back of the mouth. When the wine enters, warms and swirls with the saliva, compounds of the wine are released and travel up through the cavity of your nose. MacNeil writes: “In the end, if you do not smell a wine, or simply take a brief cursory whiff, very little information goes to the brain and, not surprisingly, you have trouble deciding what the wine tastes like.”
This brings us to the most critical part of this section: how do you smell your wine correctly? First, you’ll want to swirl your wine to aerate it, which will bring out the aromas. To swirl, rest the glass on the table, hold it by the stem, and move it quickly as if drawing small circles. Then sniff it by inserting your nose into the glass (not above it), getting as near to the wine as possible. Then take short, quick sniffs – not one long one. This will create tiny air currents to lift the aroma up to the nerve receptors. Try to name the aroma. Because there are so many aromas you could smell, it’s sometimes difficult to recall everything. Therefore, it’s helpful to begin by suggesting ideas to yourself of what to expect prior to sniffing.
Human senses make for an interesting study. Did you know, humans can only detect four types of tastes? These include sweet, sour, bitter, and salt. However, the average person can detect up to 2,000 different smells. That’s why smelling wine is one of the most important parts of the tasting experience.
Gauging the Body
After assessing the aroma, take a sip and gauge the body. This refers to whether its weight is light, medium, or full. You can determine this by how it sits on your palate. To better understand the differences between bodies, MacNeil compares them to milk types. She relates a light-bodied wine to the weight of skim, a medium-bodied wine to whole milk, and full-bodied wine to half-and-half.
The weight is a chain effect, determined by the amount of alcohol in it. A fuller body typically means it has a higher concentration of alcohol. This is because there was more sugar in the fermentation tank for the yeast to eat and convert, which leads one to believe the grapes used must have been ripe. This most likely infers the wine is from a region where it is consistently warm and sunny.
Feeling the Texture
Next, observe the texture (sometimes referred to as ‘mouthfeel’). This is the impression it leaves in your mouth. Is it soft, smooth, coarse, syrupy, crisp, etc.? After determining the body of the wine, roll the sip around your mouth to get a better feel for it.
There are many factors that make up the texture of the wine, including:
An important component of the wine aging process, all wines will feature a certain level of acidity. Typically, white wines will feature a higher level than reds, with winemakers striving to balance the level of acid to fruit. Often when tasting, the acidity can be noted on the sides of the tongue, cheek, and back of the throat.
A natural preservative that helps wines age when bottled. Tannins come from the skin, stem, and pip of the grape, as well as wooden barrels in which many wines are aged. Generally speaking, red wines have a higher level of tannin than whites because the grape skins are left in to ferment (which is how red wine gets its deep color). Often, younger wines can taste more bitter than aged ones. This is often because the tannin is harsher and has yet to mature.
This is determined by how much sugar was in the fermentation tank, which is also contributed to how ripe the grapes were. The riper the grape, usually the higher the alcohol and fuller the body. This also varies by wine type.
The ripeness of the grape determines the tannin of the wine, which, in addition to the texture, also impacts the structure, body, bitterness, dryness, and color of the wine. A ripe grape is one that has reached full maturity, and this translates to a wine that tastes and feels rounder and not as harsh.
The best place to detect the sweetness of a wine is on the tip of the tongue. If there’s any sweetness to the wine, you’ll note it immediately.
Don’t let the myth that all wines are meant to age fool you. All wines change with age, but that doesn’t mean they get better. According to Kevin Zraly, author of Windows of the World: Complete Wine Course, more than 90 percent of all wines produced around the globe are intended to be consumed within one year, and less than one percent are meant to be aged more than five.
Confirming the Color
Despite appearances and common assumptions, color isn’t connected to the flavor or aroma of wines. Therefore, it should be the last thing to focus on when it comes to tasting (though, the type of wine glass you choose impacts the presentation by showing off the richness of a wine’s color, as well enhances the sipping process, both of which are deeply rooted in the overall wine experience).
The color of the wine comes from the pigments of the grape skin, and the deepness of the color is often related to how long the grape skins were left in during the winemaking process. Depending on the variety of grape, the hue will be different. Pinot noirs, for example, offer a hue like a brick red, whereas zinfandels are often close to purple.
Did you know that rosés are made from red grapes? They get their blush color because the grape skins are removed earlier in the process than traditional red wines.
Though color should be the last thing you note as you wrap up the tasting process, it’s still important because it rounds out the wine’s identity and offers clues to its age. White wines tend to get darker as they get older. Inversely, red wines get lighter. MacNeil offers a sage warning:
“Beware the common mistake of thinking that the intensity of a wine’s color is related to the intensity of its flavor. Despite how counterintuitive this seems, deeply red wines (like cabernet sauvignon) are not necessarily more flavorful than pale red wines (like pinot noir).”
Wine experts have different methods for confirming the color. MacNeil recommends holding the glass at a 45° angle and looking down and across the wine to properly observe the hue. Zraly offers a variation of this method, suggesting first to hold it up against a white background, like a tablecloth or napkin, to best detect the color profile, proceeding to hold it at an angle to get a sense of the hue.
Time to Taste
Zraly offers up an exercise he tries with his students when tasting new wines. Remember, before taking that first sip, swirl to open up the flavors, and get a sense of the aroma. Then take a sip.
- If there is any sweetness in the wine, you should notice it within the first 15 seconds. If there is no sweetness, the acidity should stand out in this time frame.
- Within 15-30 seconds, the fruitiness of the wine should become apparent. It is also during this range that you should be able to identify if it’s a full, medium, or light-bodied wine.
- Within 30-45 seconds, you should have a good indication of whether or not you like the wine. This is the time frame where the acidity and fruit components should balance.
- At 45-60 seconds, you should start getting an indication of the finish. How long do the components, flavor, and balance continue in the mouth after it’s been swallowed?
Check out our articles on Types of Wine and Regions, and Pouring, Serving, and Storing Wine for more information related to the wine experience, and to learn the proper temperatures in which to drink and store different types of wine.