Wine tasting can seem intimidating, but it doesn’t have to be. Like everything in life, wine tasting takes practice, and lots of it! I’m constantly learning new techniques and expanding my palate all the time. Do not give up. The more wines you drink, the better you will become at deciphering varietals, aromas, and flavors. Also, drink what you love! Don’t feel like you have to order an expensive glass of a wine you’re not particularly fond of because your date is raving about it or you’re trying to impress your boss. Life is too short to drink wine you’re “meh” about. Own your wine preference, whatever that may be!
Just as Star Wars and fashion lingo puts you in conversation with other fanatics in that field, “wine speak” conveys a sense of knowledge, interest, and appreciation for what’s in your glass. Many people I’ve talked to express the most uneasiness when it comes to putting this vocabulary into play. “What if I say sauvignon wrong?” “What the hell are tannins?” “How is this wine dry?” Relax, you’ve got this! I don’t have a degree in wine studies or consider myself a professional sommelier by any means. I’ve simply taken my personal experience of growing up with a family of farmers and applied it to tasting wine. Books like The Wine Bible by Karen MacNeil and a subscription to Wine Spectator have also helped me feel more comfortable with the vocabulary. Latch on to the vocabulary that makes the most sense to you and the rest will come. To those who find talk of brix and bouquets snobby, I won’t force you to join a conversation you don’t feel like joining, but I cannot stress enough that wine tasting is not meant to intimidate or exclude anyone. Drinking wine is meant to be social. There’s a varietal for everyone to enjoy (except for those not of age, sorry!) so grab a glass if you feel like being a part of this scrumptious journey!
Most know that wine tasting is a sensory experience; we use our eyes, nose, and mouth to access a glass of wine. Yet tasting and smelling all too often become mindless activities. Scientific studies suggest that the more we know about flavor, the more intense flavors become. Basically, you’ll enjoy each glass of wine so much more if you slow down to actually taste it. Below is the guide I like to use when tasting wine. It definitely is not the only way to taste wine, as some people follow these steps in different orders, but nevertheless a great place to start. If you can remember to put the five steps below into play each time you drink wine, whether it’s at a restaurant or night in with friends, you are well on your way to getting the most out of your wine experience.
- Acknowledge the color: Some people address color at the end of their tasting, but I think it makes sense to acknowledge it first because it’s what’s staring back at you from the glass. Most obviously, color indicates the type of wine, but also if the wine is old. For example, zinfandel is a deep, electric purple, while pinot noir resembles a brick-red or even ruby shade. Red wines get lighter, sometimes even a brownish tint, as they age; you may have noticed this if you’ve ever not finished a bottle of red and left it in your kitchen to eventually cook with or pour out in the sink. White wines, which are meant to drink right away, get darker with age.
- Assess the aroma: Swirl the wine in the glass to aerate the aromas; all wines should get the swirl treatment. Next, really get your nose in there! No cursory whiffs and no assumptions. Your brain needs to gather the most information it can from these aroma molecules in order to indicate what the wine will eventually taste like. There are several tiers of wine aromas. The primary aroma deal with the particular varietal and the fruit, flower, or herbal aromas that go with this type of wine. The aromas that follow deal with the fermentation process (ex: oak or steel barrel, and the aging) and more unique aromas (ex. baking spices or caramelized sugar); this is often called the “bouquet” of a wine.
- Measure the body weight: This can be a confusing one and is often a step not talked about enough. For the longest time, I thought this referred to a wine’s intensity, as in, the darker bodied a wine is, the more intense its flavors will be. Wrong! A wine’s weight can be light, medium, full, or somewhere in between and is meant to tip you off about how much alcohol is in the wine itself. Rule of thumb: High-alcohol wines have a full body, whereas low-alcohol wines have a light body. Sugar a.k.a. brix converts into alcohol during the fermentation process so if the wine is high in alcohol, you can bet that there was a lot of sugar in the tanks. Furthermore, this signals to the taster that the grapes got very ripe, and typically grapes ripen quicker in warmer places so you can ultimately make an educated guess about what region the wine is from.
- Describe the “mouthfeel”: Some call it texture; I like to use the term “mouthfeel.” This refers to the sensation of wine in your mouth – crisp, syrupy, hot, rough, the list goes on. This is one of my favorite steps because it has prompted the most interesting descriptors; people often refer to fabrics like wool and flannel to describe their favorite wines. For example, pinot noir has a silky mouthfeel. The mouthfeel also ties into a wine’s “finish,” which is essentially the lasting impression a wine leaves on your palate. Is it a clean finish, a crisp finish, a long and bold finish?
- Address the tastes: Sweetness, sourness, saltiness, and bitterness tend to be the most common ways we consider the taste of a particular wine. With this step, don’t throw your wine back like a whiskey shot. Swish it in your mouth to get the most out of your tasting. Although you’d think this would be the easiest step (quick fact: the ability to taste is fully developed in utero with the exception of saltiness), your taste buds can sometimes be extremely misleading. Just because you taste something salty doesn’t mean actual salt exists in the wine. Odd, right? Because there’s no one way to describe how a wine tastes, most of us latch on to phrases such as “like berry jam” or “like dark chocolate.” You can always check the back of the label to confirm if what you’ve tasted is, in fact, what the winemaker intended.
If you can visit the winery and surrounding vineyards where the grapes are grown, you can really get the most out of your tasting experience. August is a very popular time to plan a winery visit or a weekend trip to Santa Ynez or Napa Valley because harvest is near. I highly suggest a vine-to-wine experience where you taste the grapes and then sip their end result, the wine. While I’m more familiar with Northern California’s lay of the land, I am really looking forward to visiting wineries in the Temecula Valley, as well as those in Malibu and San Diego.