Have you ever been puzzled by a wine note that lists tobacco, petrol or balsam wood as a flavour? Confused by descriptions like ‘buttery’, ‘oaky’ or ‘vanilla-flecked’? Well, we writers do love to get carried away with a wine note, but there honestly is something behind all the seemingly-bizarre terms you’ll see in wine descriptions. We’ve put together a simple guide to wine tasting to help you make sense of the amazing aromas and tastes you’ll come across when drinking a good wine. The best bit is that you don’t have to be a sommelier or MW to take enjoying your wine seriously – and it certainly doesn’t have to mean that getting the most of whatever’s in your glass can’t be fun.
Your easy guide to wine tasting:
Step 1: look
Step 1: Pour a glass and take a good look
For obvious reasons, it’s always best to look at a wine against a white background in good lighting. Look at the wine from above and think about the colour, brightness and clarity – is your white wine a light, lemony colour or does it veer towards a honeyed colour? White wines are obviously never actually white: they range from very pale greeny-yellow to gold and deepen in colour with age. Reds could range from the lightest cherry-pink to deep, inky purple and become lighter with age.
Rosés come in a dazzling array of colours, from the palest Provençal pink to big, brash cherry-coloured beauties. As a rule of thumb, the paler a rosé, the more delicate it’s likely to taste; the more vibrant the colour the more robust and food-friendly the taste (this is wine so obviously there are loads of exceptions, but you get the idea).
For sparkling wine look at the bubbles as well as the colour: small agile ones indicate quality; large, coarse ones suggest that corners may have been cut in the winemaking process.
Step 2: smell
Step 2: Sniff, Swirl, Inhale
One of the great joys of wine is its smell (you also see words such as ‘nose’, ‘aroma’ or ‘bouquet’ but they all mean the same thing). Smell is an infinitely more sensitive and complex sense than taste and this crucial part of the joy of wine is often overlooked.
You’ve probably seen wine drinkers swirling their glass. The reason they do this is to release the volatile compounds (where the real excitement lies) in the wine.
Put your nose as far in the glass as you dare and take a good long sniff. Wine is made from fruit so is usually ‘fruity’. It’s fun trying to identify the type of fruit flavours you’re experiencing. Are they tart citrusy fruits such as lemon or lime, or more tropical pineapple or mango? This may reveal whether the wine comes from a warm or cool climate. What else can you pick up? Spice? Try to identify which, eg clove, pepper or nutmeg. Depending on the kind of spice you pick up may indicate which kind of oak barrel has been used for ageing the wine.
Prized for its subtler flavours, such as cedar and spice, that are less obviously 'oaky'. Wines aged in French oak are more likely to elicit adjectives such as 'elegant' and 'refined.
More intensely flavoured, giving sweeter and more vanilla-like qualities to the wine. Wines aged in American oak are more likely to be described as 'opulent' or 'hedonistic' (or, indeed, 'oaky'!).
You might also get spicy aromas from wines where no oak ageing has taken place. For example gewürztraminer is famed for its baking-spice bouquet, but this is because the grape is just naturally very fragrant – gewürz literally means ‘spice’. You’re just as likely to find spicy black or white-pepper notes in unoaked reds.
How intense is the smell?
Some wines you can smell from the other side of the room, some you really have to concentrate to discern anything. Generally ‘better’ wines will have a more pronounced bouquet and will have more complex elements – it’s harder work to identify the elements but rewarding to try.
Step 3: taste
Step 3: Have a Taste
Your taste buds can do things that your nose can’t. They can register sweetness, acidity, bitterness and saltiness and can detect the presence of tannin and alcohol. They also register the length of the wine – how long the taste remains or evolves on the palate after swallowing or spitting.
Let’s take these in turn. The sides of the tongue register sourness or acidity while the back detects bitterness. The central tip picks up sweetness and either side of it are the salt detectors. The gums and cheeks are alert to tannin and the back of the throat picks up the burning sensation of excessive alcohol. That sounds like a lot to take in, so just concentrate on one sensation at a time.
Take a small sip and work it around your mouth ensuring you cover all the millions of taste receptors in your mouth. Try to pinpoint flavours and consider texture, particularly in reds.
Now let your tongue do the talking. If the wine is sweet, is it balanced or cloying? If there is an element of salinity – is it refreshing or out of kilter? Acidity gives a wine freshness but too much isn’t very enjoyable, so is it fresh and crisp or plain sharp? Is there bitterness? This can be a good thing – certain Valpolicellas have a wonderful sour-cherry character that’s part of their allure, but a woody bitterness can be unpleasant.
Tannin is an essential element of especially red wine. Cold stewed tea is the best way of trying the puckeringly dry, bitter sensation tannin has in the mouth. It makes for a deeply unpleasant cuppa but is an important element in wine. But it needs to be in balance, ie not overwhelming all the other elements in the mix.
Finally, how does the wine finish? Does the flavour evolve and linger in the mouth after swallowing? Is it short and insipid or long, complex and multi-layered? A really good wine will often keep giving you waves of different flavour elements for a while after you’ve swallowed, while lesser-quality wines are often described as having a ‘short’ finish – flavours that finish more abruptly in your mouth.
How to plan your own tasting
If you’re organising a wine tasting for fun, it’s a good idea to get a breadth of different styles to compare. We’d suggest comparing a fresh, youthful white against a more mature oak-aged one for example. And trying out different grapes is interesting too – you’ll get a very different flavour profile from an Aussie riesling from that of a white Burgundy (made from chardonnay).
For reds try a fresh, fragrant style such as young pinot noir, Beaujolais or valpolicella to contrast against an aged Rioja or boldly fruity new world shiraz. Make a note of the differences in body, tannins, aromas and flavour profiles – which styles do you prefer?