You're having a first date at a nice restaurant, and you ask the waiter to bring you an expensive bottle of wine -- you want to impress the lady, right? The waiter arrives with a towel on his arm and presents the bottle to you. You smile assuredly. The waiter pops the top and hands you the cork. You're not sure what to do with it, so you stick it in your pocket. He then pours a splash of wine in your glass and you toss it back like a shot. He stands looking expectantly at you, while you stare blankly at him. Now your date is watching you, too. As your confidence fades, a little trickle of sweat slides down your temple. You have no idea what you're supposed to do. This was not quite what you had planned.
The world of wine can be overwhelming for a beginner, and as far as knowing what to do when someone pours you a 1977 cabernet, forget it. There's some high-brow swirling and sniffing, that much you know. But truthfully, you're more comfortable gulping down the cheap stuff.
Rest easy wine-o-phobes, because help is on the way. The process of tasting wine is actually a relaxing, highly pleasurable, multi-sensory delight. You don't have to be an expert to enjoy what wine has to offer. A little practice and a lot of intuition go a long way. Read on for some helpful tips that demystify the process of tasting wine.
What to Look for When Tasting Wine
You can tell a lot about a wine simply by looking at it, so give it a good once over. Is it clear and bright, or does it look a little murky or dull in color? Even if you're not a wine expert, your instincts will tell you if it looks appealing to drink. You'll also want to make sure the wine doesn't seem fizzy, like a glass of soda is when you first pour it. A few bubbles around the edges are normal, but if your glass of cabernet looks more like purple champagne, there's probably something wrong.
Check for clarity. Light passing through a wine with great clarity should make the wine look clear and sharp -- this even goes for red wines with a deep color. You shouldn't see any sediment or specks floating in your glass.
Next, inspect the color, which gives you the first hint of a wine's depth. A wine with good depth has a rich color and allows less light to pass through it. To get a good look at the true color of a wine, find a place with natural light and hold the glass up to a white background. Tip your glass to an angle of around 45 degrees to spread the wine out over the surface area, so you can see its range of colors.
The color of wine comes from the skin of the grape. Generally, white wines begin their lives with a pale hue and deepen with age to more of a caramel color. In contrast, young red wines start off purple or ruby, becoming paler with age and. Keep in mind that these are good guidelines to use, but know that the color of a wine can also vary depending on what techniques were used to make it. A darker wine isn't a sure sign of age. For example, whites that seem more golden have probably been aged in oak for a more full-bodied flavor, while wines with a green tint were probably made from grapes that were not fully ripe, creating a more acidic and tart wine. You wouldn't necessarily be able to tell that one is older than the other simply based on color, but don't let that stop you from making an educated guess. Becoming an expert in tasting wine is something that's learned through experience and observation.
How Our Sense of Smell Works When Tasting Wine
As tempting as it is to tip the glass to your lips, the next step in tasting wine involves your nose. It seems logical that our mouth does most of the work when tasting wine, but it's actually our nose that delivers the results. Think of when you have a bad cold and can't taste anything. This is because most of what we taste, we're actually smelling.
There are two ways that you experience a smell. The first is directly through your nostrils, when you inhale a scent. And the second is through the retronatal passage, also known as the area in the roof of your mouth that leads directly to your nasal cavities. Before doing anything, you should take a quick sniff of your wine to make sure it doesn't smell bad. You'll immediately know if the wine smells off.
Next, swirl the wine around the glass, allowing it to go up as far as possible on the sides. The aromas of wine are known as the bouquet, which is the scent of the actual grape combined with flavors that are created in the winemaking process during fermentation and aging. Swirling aerates the wine and releases its bouquet, letting your nasal cavity draw up the scents into your olfactory system, which is essentially the control panel for your sense of smell. Your olfactory interprets what you smell, immediately comparing it to other familiar smells. The technical term for this is recognition threshold, and a good example of this is how a random smell can snap you back to a specific childhood memory in a flash.
After you swirl, put your nose in the glass and take a gentle but long, deep sniff and make a mental note of what you smell. Does it remind you of anything? Wine is made up of more than 300 different organic chemical compounds that are similar to those found in nature, particularly in food. That's why aficionados describe wines' aromas in terms of fruits, vegetables, herbs and spices.
Wines, much like people, have unique personalities that are made up of many different qualities. If you give it another swirl, you might be surprised that you're able to pick out different smells than the first time. The ritual of smelling wine is very intentional and helps you learn a lot about the wine that you are about to drink.
How Our Sense of Taste Works in Tasting Wine
So, now comes the fun part. Take a big slurp and slosh it around in your mouth. If you only take a sip, you won't be able to get an overall impression of the things that you're looking for. If you're feeling particularly adventurous, you may want to try what's called mouth aeration. To do this, hold a sip of wine in your mouth and breathe in through pursed lips. This aerates the wine and has the same effect as swirling it in the glass. As a cautionary note, beginners should be careful not to inhale the wine and choke.
You'll notice the sweetness first because the taste buds that recognize this are located on the tip of the tongue. This is the easiest taste in wine for us to identify because we learn to recognize sweet things at an early age.
Next, you'll pick up on the acidity, which is detected with the sides of our tongue. It's more of a feeling than a flavor, and you'll know it because it makes your mouth water. The acid is actually an important ingredient of the wine, because it holds the flavors together and balances the other components. High acid makes a tart wine, and if it's too low, the wine will taste flat and flavorless. Acid also acts as a preservative.
Tannin in wine is also something that's felt more than tasted and is mostly found in red wines. Tannin has a mouth-drying effect that can create a puckery sensation, similar to putting a tea bag on your tongue. If a red wine is going to be stored in a wine cellar for a long time, it starts out with a high level of tannins. This makes the young reds undrinkable until they mellow and soften with age.
Your palate can also detect the weight of a wine, which is indicated by a feeling of fullness and usually indicates a full-bodied wine. Wines with high alcohol content also feel heavier in your mouth. Ethanol is the main alcohol in wine and can be detected by a warming sensation on the sides of the tongue.
Wine making is a lengthy process with many variables, each of which has a noticeable impact on the final result. Most wine makes it into the bottle with little issue, but occasionally a batch will run into some problems. These are referred to in the trade as wine faults.
If a wine smells musty or moldy it is considered "corked," and should not be consumed. This happens when a traditional cork, which is made from the bark of an oak tree, is infected with mold. This used to be a bigger problem and is the main reason why many ready to drink wines on the market today have switched to plastic corks or the controversial screw top.
As we previously mentioned, a few bubbles are normal, but if you notice excessive fizzing in your wine, there could be secondary fermentation taking place. Fermentation is a part of the wine making process that converts the sugars to alcohol using a yeast culture. Sometimes the wine will hang onto residual sugar, which makes it unstable. Combined with active yeast that didn't make it through the filtration process, further unwanted fermentation can happen. This is a rare occurrence that is most likely to happen in medium sweet wines.
If wine is exposed to too much oxygen, it will become brown and dull in appearance. Leave a glass of wine out overnight and you can see for yourself what an extended period of oxygenation does to wine. If it comes out of the bottle that way, it's not suitable to drink. Overall cloudiness also indicates a fault, or may just be a poorly made wine.
Related HowStuffWorks Articles
- "Evaluating Wine." Drinkwine.com Wine Guide. http://drinkwine.com/wine_guide/evaluating_wine.html
- "Learn to Taste Wine Like An Expert." Wineloverspage.com. http://www.wineloverspage.com/taste/
- Spence, Godfrey. "Teach Yourself Wine Tasting." Contemporary Books, pp. 1-12.
- "Wine 101: Education Wine Lovers About Oregon Wines." Oregonwines.com. http://www.oregonwines.com/wine101.php
- "Wine Tasting Toolbox." Musingsonthevine.com. http://www.musingsonthevine.com/tips_too1.shtml