Drinking. Everyone knows how to do it. But things get a little more interesting when it comes to drinking wine. After all, there are better ways to quench your thirst and faster ways to get drunk.
Wine is not so much about drinking as tasting. That’s because unlike most other beverages, where the main aim is perfect consistency, there are so many factors that go into growing and making wine that even the same label will rarely taste the same from one vintage to the next.
That’s the beauty of it.
Not only does each grape variety have its own character (and there are THOUSANDS of grape varieties), but where it is grown, how it is grown, how it is turned into wine, how well the wine is stored afterwards, and for how long – all of these things impact on its character, and on its quality.
The more you taste wine, the more you appreciate the different character traits of various varieties and blends as well as the nuances that come with different styles and approaches to winemaking.
Of course some people think tasting wine is pretentious. Wine lovers know they are merely enjoying one of life’s great sensory pleasures. Not sure where the etiquette ends and the enjoyment begins? Click here.
Here’s what can you gauge from a wine’s appearance, why you should get excited about its smell, and how to describe the taste (which doesn’t just refer to flavour but to texture and aftertaste too). And once you’ve had the full experience, preferably before you drink too much of it, you might want to give the wine a rating.
Or you can just drink it.
SET THE SCENE
You don’t have to be in a clinical lab setting (that is NOT what enjoying wine is all about) but make sure that the lighting is adequate and that there are no strong smells. Check that the wine is at the right temperature and that you have a decent glass, then pour in about a quarter to a third of a glass.
To see wine properly, you need to view it against a white background (a white tablecloth, sheet of paper or even the wall!).
Tilt the glass at 45° and view the colour of the wine, its gradation, and clarity.
- White wines range from pale straw or lemon in colour (with tinges of green in very young whites) through to yellow gold (suggesting bottle age in a dry wine or a sweet style such as Noble Late Harvest) and on to yellow brown and old gold (in wines which are very old).
- Red wines range from purple (in their youth) through ruby to brick-red, tawny, garnet and brown (suggesting a fairly advanced age). Browning in a young wine is a problem (i.e. the wine is ‘oxidised’).
- Gradation refers to the rim of the wine (near the sides of the glass) relative to its core (the deepest part). A young white wine normally has a wide watery rim that narrows with age. A young red wine normally has a pale narrow rim that widens with age.
What else can you see?
- Swirl the glass gently and observe the ‘legs’ – how the wine runs down the inside of your glass. Generally speaking, the thicker the rivulets and the slower they run down, the higher the alcohol and/or sugar content, or the fuller the body.
- Any haziness or cloudiness in wine is usually due to the presence of micro-organisms – a fault. Any fizziness might indicate the presence of the little added to CO2 to retain freshness, but if the wine doesn’t smell fresh or clean, then it probably suggests unwanted secondary fermentation caused by a fault.
Sniffing or ‘nosing’ wine is the single most revealing part of tasting – it accounts for about 75% of our perceptions! That’s why we can’t taste anything when we have a cold and a blocked nose.
Sadly smell is one of our least utilised senses, with some people ignoring it altogether (they’re the ones who think wine tasting is a waste of time). Wine teaches you how to smell again, and smell gives your whole life a new dimension!
So, first swirl the wine to accentuate the aroma and bouquet. Then take a deep sniff.
What can you smell?
- Good smells: flowers, fruit, vegetation, earthiness, herbs, spices, types of woods or metals, confectionary… Anything is possible, and you’ll be amazed how much you can pick up – particularly in better, more complex wines. Notes including spice, toast, butter, vanilla, coconut, smoke, cedar etc indicate that the wine was probably fermented and/or matured in oak barrels.
- Bad smells: ‘off’ odours indicating a faulty wine include mustiness, mouldiness, damp cardboard or fetid mushrooms (associated with cork taint), and Elastoplast or even ‘dirty hamster cage’ (the unappetisingly earthy aromas of an undesirable yeast called brettanomyces, with dirty smells generally suggesting lack of cellar hygiene or bad barrels). Good news is that the off-putting sulphury smell of cooked cabbage or rotten eggs might just be ‘bottle stink’ which usually dissipates if you allow the wine to breathe for a few minutes.
What else does your nose detect?
- A solvent-like sharpness probably indicates excessive amounts of acetic acid – better known as vinegar. This is known as volatile acidity and indicates that the wine is unstable.
- If you sneeze or cough, you are picking up free sulphur (i.e. sulphur that has not combined with any other chemical component of the wine). This is a serious problem for drinkers who suffer from asthma (click here for an-depth look at sulphur dioxide in wine).
Not too dainty – you need to be able to taste something, after all – but also not such a big gulp that there’s no space left for rolling the wine around your mouth.
Is the wine sweet or dry, acidic or bland, bitter or even salty?
- The tip of the tongue picks up sweetness, the rear bitterness, the centre saltiness and the sides sourness (the acidity that makes your mouth water).
What flavours can you taste?
- Is there a follow-through from the nose to the palate? (To link what you’re tasting with your sense of smell, take another sip and draw air through your mouth at the same time, a bit like sucking in a piece of spaghetti.)
- Is the wine fruity or dull, straight-forward or complex?
- How long is the aftertaste or ‘finish’? (The longer the better.)
Consider the mouthfeel of the wine (i.e. texture and body):
- If it has tannins, do they manifest as a dryness in your mouth, or are they smooth and soft? Does the wine feel light and juicy or heavy, rich and full-bodied?
Can you pick up any sugar or alcohol?
- A dry wine has very little residual sugar (i.e. the sugar that hasn’t been converted into alcohol during fermentation). Wine always has a sweetish warmth of flavour from its alcohol (even a burning sensation if the alcohol is excessive, i.e. without enough fruit concentration to balance it). Alcohol also adds to the viscosity or body of a wine (this is why low-alcohol wines are usually unpleasantly thin).
Is everything in balance?
- If fruit concentration, wood character, acidity and alcohol are in harmony, you’ve got a good wine.
From day one, you know what you like and what you don’t. But how do you express how much you like a wine other than ‘bad, okay, good’ – or even using the more flowery descriptions you’ll pick up along the way?
It’s useful to employ some sort of rating system, almost as a frame of reference.
The most popular types of scoring systems used by wine critics around the world include:
- Scoring wines out of 100, whereby 80 to 90 might equate to a silver medal with 90-plus denoting gold or trophy standard.
- Using a 20-point system, with 18 points or more regarded as a 5 Star wine (superlative, top class, a masterpiece), 17 points as a 4½ Star wine (on the cusp), 16 as a 4 Star wine (excellent, recommended for special occasions and cellaring), 15 points as a 3 Star wines (good to very good), 14 points as a 4 Star wine (above average, appealing) and 13 points as a 1 Star wine (average, acceptable). A wine that fails to score even 12 points/1 Star is regarded as below average (no redeeming attributes or unacceptably faulty).
In a formal tasting, wines are usually assessed ‘blind’ (without the labels in sight) which guards against prejudice and bias.