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Whenever I’ve conducted wine tastings in my store, or at events, the one thing that comes across from the new or inexperienced wine drinker is almost a sense of daunting dread. You don’t know the language. You don’t know what you’re looking for. You don’t want to say anything because you may feel embarrassed that you will say something wrong.
The first thing I tell people, to help alleviate any fears is that, within reason, ‘There are no right or wrong answers’ when it comes to wine tasting. Wine tasting is very subjective. We all smell different things. We all taste different things. I’ve been doing this for a long time now and there are general, basic characteristics in wines that I just don’t get. I’ve learned to adapt my wine language to suit how I smell wines and taste wines.
Be assured that when it comes to educating your palate it takes a long time with a hell of a lot of wine tasting involved. Believe me, Oz Clarke or Jancis Robinson didn’t wake up one day with the palates they have. It took a lot of time and practise.
In short, don’t get fazed by it and enjoy it.
We do this, first to judge the clarity of the wine.
All wines should be clear. Any form of mist, greyness, throw the wine away.
Secondly, depth of colour. Descriptions for white could be, clear, light, pale lemon, straw, green, yellow, golden. Descriptions for red could be, clear, light, cherry, ruby, purple, black, tawny.
Colour will indicate age too. Whites get darker and reds go lighter. Another sign is when you tilt a glass, like the one pictured here, you will get a halo effect around the rim of the liquid. Young red wines will be pink and as they develop the colour will change until it gets to a shade of tawny.
The next thing we do is get our noses in to the game.
In order to benefit properly from this we only pour a small amount in the glass. This allows for maximum liquid
exposure to the glass when swilling it around. By spinning the glass around we are aerating the wine, releasing the aromas. A tip here, if you find that the wine is ‘closed’, in other words you can’t smell anything, place your hand over the top of the glass, swill it around, take your hand off and get your nose in.
A bit like looking at the wine, we do this firstly to detect any defects. The biggest fault you may find is cork taint, a musty aroma derived from natural cork. Wine will lose its fruit aromas and be generally unpleasant.
If the wine is clean the aromas you may find are-
Grass, nettles, apricots, apples, pears, elderflower, stoned fruit, stewed fruit, honey, marmalade, figs, guava, gooseberry, oak, cinnamon, old spice, raisin, butter, cream, green pepper, lemon, pineapple.
Cherry, plum, spice, black pepper, tobacco, chocolate, cassis, coffee, cedar wood, cheese, red fruits, meat.
Toast, yeast, biscuit.
The list can go on and on. It really does depend on your sensory levels.
Lastly, the fun bit, Tasting.
This is probably the hardest part. What you get on the nose you don’t necessarily get on the palate. There is an integral link between your sense of smell and sense of taste. So one might think that whatever you smell you should taste, not that easy.
Some wines could be big and punchy when you smell them but as soon as you taste you may find a bland and ordinary wine. It could work the other way too. I’ve had many wines like that. If it was easy, it wouldn’t be interesting.
When you taste, don’t put a whole mouthful in, just a sip. You can glug the rest once you have established the kind of wine you are drinking. As you take in your bit of wine try and inhale some air as you do so. This is where the professionals start pulling faces on TV. By doing this you are oxygenating the wine and releasing those aromas plus flavours on to your palate.
Swill the wine around in your mouth, spit or swallow, your choice.
What do you taste?
You may be picking up some of the aromas listed above.
You may be picking up other sensations.
Tannins, this is the furriness you get around the gums and other areas of your palate, more associated with red wines than white. All plant life has tannins. Tea stains in your cups are from the tannins in tea leafs.
Was it dry on the palate, medium or sweet? Was it full bodied, medium or light? Be wary here though. A lot of people misinterpret fruit for sweet. The best way I can describe the difference is a sweet wine will be sweet from the tip of your tongue to when you swallow. Imagine taking some honey. Where as fruity wines will give you an initial blast of sweetness when you first taste it but as you swallow you get a dry finish.
So how do you judge what is a good wine and what isn’t. Ideally you need a well-balanced mixture of good fruit, tannins and good acidity. If you have these then the wine should be well made and potentially last for years.
Remember. It’s all about what you experience and taste. Don’t let anyone tell you that you are wrong. You know your senses, others don’t.
Now it’s time for you to go and experiment and play.