Developing your wine tasting skills requires practice and dedication. Not all wine tasters will have the ability to detect the more intricate elements of a wine overnight. Therefore, in order to refine your palate, you must be willing to invest both time and effort to understand how and why wines are different.
This article will discuss techniques and exercises that you can employ when you are a tasting a wine to improve not only your tasting abilities but also your overall wine knowledge.
A Taster Is Made, Not Born
Honing your wine tasting ability is not only about being able to tell if a wine is from Rioja or the Loire. It is also about being able to detect the subtle differences between a Cabernet from Napa Valley and one from Bordeaux. Or a cool vintage and a warmer one.
An expert taster should be able to decipher a wine’s biography and pick out features such as grape variety, region, age and possibly even the specific winery it was produced in by using just their senses and memory. This allows you to make evaluations about a wine’s quality and ageability.
In order to assess and evaluate a wine effectively, it is important to familiarize yourself with the various elements that vary from one wine to another. These elements can interact with each other to make wine tasting a difficult exercise, but ultimately, these skills are learned, not ones that anyone is born with.
Wine Tasting: Improving Your Skills
When tasting a wine, it is useful to have a system, a mental checklist of elements against which you assess each wine. We are all familiar with the fact that when tasting you should focus on a wine’s appearance, nose and palate. However, in order to really assess a wine, it is important to delve deeper into each of these areas to attain a better understanding of a wine’s complete nature. Each of these areas tell you something about either a wine’s provenance or quality, which we will go into in later posts.
Before tasting, make sure to take note of observations such as a wine’s clarity, intensity and the colour. The clarity of a wine will be easy to ascertain as it most often will be either clear or hazy. In regards to intensity, the appearance of wine can be either pale, medium or deep.
For colour, it is important to note more than just initial observations. For example, a white wine may be described as lemon-green or gold in colour. And a rosé may be noted as having a salmon or orange hue. Make sure to take note of other observations you may have such as a wine’s deposit, legs or pétillance.
The nose of wine can tell a taster a lot about the wine’s profile. A wine taster should be able to identify the following when smelling a wine: condition, intensity and aroma characteristics. The condition of a wine will most often be noted as either clean or faulty. Similarly to the appearance of a wine, the intensity of wine’s nose can be described as light, medium or pronounced.
The aromas in a wine are very important to determine. When trying to describe aromas you should be as specific as possible, which means building a mental library of smells. Every time you go past a fruit market or flower store, go in and make mental notes of what certain fruits and flowers smell like. Then ask yourself the following questions:
- Are the aromas delicate or intense? Ripe or overripe? Simple or complex?
- Are there aromas other than fruits or flowers, such as yeast, butter or oak, which may be evidence of certain winemaking processes?
- Are the fruits dried or are there characteristics such as mushroom, leather, wet leaves, etc. which may indicate that the wine has spent some time in the bottle?
Lastly, when assessing the palate of a wine, it is important to pay particular attention to a wine’s structural components such as the sweetness, acidity, tannin, alcohol levels, body, texture, flavour intensity and length.
In order to refine your wine tasting skills, you need to be able to think beyond the bigger picture and use this system to drill down and classify the more subtle attributes of a wine. Trying to pinpoint the full complexities of a wine’s profile on first taste will only lead to frustration.
To hone your tasting skills, there are exercises you can follow that will help to guide you in understanding the structural components of a wine.
For example, if you are having trouble identifying the acidity and sweetness levels of a wine, practice by tasting water with lemon juice. The lemon juice should make your mouth water and cause a reaction on the sides of your tongue. By mixing in sugar, you can see how it counteracts, or balances, the acid. But the acid is still there. Swallow or spit out the mixture and bend your head forward while keeping your mouth open. The faster you have to close your mouth to prevent yourself from dribbling the higher the acid. Over time, you will recognize how you react when tasting wine, helping you better identify acidity levels.
The tannin level can also be very hard to determine during a wine tasting especially as they can’t be smelt and they are often confused with acidity. A great exercise to help you identify tannin levels is by practising with tea. Swirl a mouthful and then spit it out. Typically you will notice the tannin in the front of your mouth above your teeth. The higher the tannin level, the greater the reaction.
Your Wine Tasting Abilities Are In Your Hands
French oenologist, Emile Peynaud once said that “fine wine should not be drunk without comment.” In order to properly comment on a wine, you must be able to identify and assess the specific elements of a wine and be able to describe it to someone who has never tasted it. As mentioned above, a taster is made not born.