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A Step by Step Guide on How to Taste Wine

Updated: Jan 29

This post may slightly deviate from the typical destination-based content on Idreamofmangoes, but for me, food and wine are a huge part of travelling.


With my experience as a Sommelier, I would like to share some insight on how to taste wine, which will hopefully enrich your experience when travelling to vineyards in wine-producing countries, or even just help you make informed decisions on which wine to buy in your local shop.


For anyone who drinks wine, the actions of swirling, sniffing, sipping, and swishing would be familiar to you. But it may just be wine enthusiasts and those working in the industry that know the actual meaning behind these actions. So let me break it down for you...


A wine cellar

 


What is wine?


So as you probably know, wine is made from grapes.


These grapes are then crushed into a juice, and yeast is then added. This could be any old yeast that’s just bobbing around in the air, which is normally the case in natural wine-making, or it could be cultivated yeast, the same strain used for bread-making.


The yeast then consumes the sugar naturally present in the grape juice and turns it into alcohol and carbon dioxide.


This process is called ALCOHOLIC FERMENTATION.


If the carbon dioxide is then trapped in the grape juice, this will become a sparkling wine (Prosecco, Champagne...) or if it is instead released into the air, then it will be a still wine.


The process is obviously a lot more complicated than this, otherwise, all wine would taste the same, but this is the basic idea, and it is enough information to get you started when learning how to taste wine!


 

Grapes


There are over 1000 varieties of wine grapes in the world, and none of these are table grapes you see in your fruit bowl, as they are not sweet enough!


It’s interesting to know that nearly 400 of these 1000 grapes are native to Italy, which is why it’s the most complicated country when it comes to learning about wine.


Different grapes offer different characteristics to the end product. For example, Riesling, being an aromatic grape variety, already contains vibrant aromas of fruit and flowers that will be expressed later in the wine. Riesling grapes are also quite fussy and will only grow well in colder climates.


On the other hand, Chardonnay, being a 'blank-canvas', can be manipulated by the wine-maker into a variety of wine styles, like a crisp Champagne, a buttery and oaky affair from California, or a subtle and elegant Chablis. Chardonnay grapes are less difficult than Riesling and can grow in any climate, which is why it is such a popular grape to grow worldwide.


The grape harvest

 


A Step by Step Guide on How to Taste Wine


This is a systematic approach for how to taste wine, which will eventually become like second nature the more you practice.


First, we pour a little bit into the glass, something like 50ml.



 


APPEARANCE


For the first step in learning how to taste wine is to look at it.


Take a look at the wine with the glass angled away from you, ideally positioned over some white paper. We are looking for three things here, the first is clarity.


Is the liquid clear?


If it has a cloudy appearance, it could be a natural, unfiltered wine. It could also mean it’s had some time ageing and sediments have formed from matter in the wine coming together over time.

We’re also going to look for colour. If you're looking at a white wine, the colours range from green-lemon-gold, with lemon being the most typical colour. If it’s gold it could indicate it’s had some time ageing and the wine has oxidised slightly, just like when an apple turns brown when it’s exposed to the air over time.


Red wine colours range from purple-ruby-garnet. Most wines are some form of ruby, and again, if the wine is garnet and has some browning at the edges, it could mean the wine has some age.

You’re also going to want to look at depth of colour. For red wine, if you place the glass on the table and look down the bowl, can you see the stem through the wine? If you can, it’s a pale wine, if you cannot, it’s a deep wine.



 

NOSE


The second step in learning how to taste wine is to smell it!


So first you should release some aromas by swirling the glass. Make sure to try swirling with the base of the wine glass on the table first, before you pick up a technique of swirling mid-air without spilling. As a rule, never hold the bowl of the glass, even when casually drinking, always hold the stem.


So the magic question is, what’s actually happening when we are swirling the glass?


When the wine is making contact with the air as the glass is being swirled, hundreds of unique aromatic compounds that were previously trapped in the liquid bind to oxygen in the air and are released. This makes the wine more expressive and it's, therefore, easier for your olfactory bulb to detect aromas.


pouring red wine from a decanter

 

A NOTE ON DECANTING


If you are swirling the wine to aerate it, why would you bother decanting it?


Usually, during aeration, the more volatile, undesirable compounds will evaporate faster than the desirable, aromatic and flavourful ones.


An example of this is that some wines smell eggy when you open them, due to the sulphur dioxide preservative used in almost all wines, even the biodynamic wine. If you decant the ‘sulphurous’ wine for 30 mins, all of the egginess will evaporate and you’ll be left with the desirable aromas.


Other than giving time for the undesirable aromas to dissipate, why else do you decant a wine?


Other reasons to decant may be:

  • To separate the sediment that has gathered over time.

  • To warm it up e.g. a rich white wine that has been in the fridge, the flavours will be much more pronounced if it is left to warm up by a few degrees.

  • To let it breathe, making a ‘tight’ wine more expressive, by letting more characteristics show, or waking up an aged wine from its long sleep.

  • To soften tannins (more on that later).

So when you are smelling the wine, apart from looking for different aromas, what else are you checking for?


 

WINE FAULTS


When learning how to taste wine, the number one fault you will want to look out for is that it is not corked (if the bottle is sealed with a cork).


No, 'corked' does not mean there are bits of cork in the wine, in fact, if there are bits of cork in it, you can normally just us a coffee filter to strain those out and the wine will be fine.


The term corked means that the wine has been tainted by something called TCA.


This is a chemical compound formed when harmless fungi living in the cork find contact with certain bleaches used for sanitisation in a winery. This TCA gives a bad taste to the wine.


It is normally very obvious to even the most novice of noses when a wine is corked because it smells very badly of musty, damp newspaper.

Another wine ‘fault’ to look out for when learning how to taste wine is if the wine smells of nothing. If a wine has been open for too long, the beautiful flavours of flowers, fruit and everything else disappear. This is not as obvious as cork taint, especially if you have never had the wine before, and doesn’t really apply to cheap wine as they often smell very simple anyway.


 

WHY DOES MY WINE SMELL LIKE MANGOES?


Have you ever heard anyone say: "Ooh I’m getting peaches on the nose, or white pepper" and you’re sitting there thinking, how is it possible for grape juice to smell like pepper? It must be all in their heads…


Well actually no… and here’s why:

Wine is made from grapes, and grapes draw on the same set of elements as all other fruits and plants in nature. In unfermented grapes, most aroma molecules are bound up with sugar, so you cannot smell them.


However, once fermentation turns sugar into alcohol, those volatile flavour compounds are set free and can be detected by our sense of smell.


There are lots of different types of aroma compounds, such as terpenes e.g.the smell of rose petals, aldehydes e.g. nuttiness, or even esters e.g.the smell of pineapples.


 

OTHER SMELLS...


If you can smell dairy in a white wine, this is influenced by the winemaker. He or she have made a stylistic choice, allowing something called malo-lactic fermentation to occur, which is when Malic acid (like that in apples, which feels tart and sour) is converted to the softer feeling lactic acid, which gives flavours of butter, yoghurt and cheese.


If you can smell things like bread, pastry, and biscuit, that comes from lees-stirring. Remember that yeast that ate our grape sugar and produced alcohol? Well, when it’s finished its meal it dies, and the dead yeast is then named LEES. The winemaker can filter it out of the wine straight away, or he can first stir up the lees for a while in the wine, which imparts these bakery flavours.

If you can smell charred wood, then this wine may have spent time in an oak barrel. If you can smell vanilla, it’s American oak, if it's a more subtle and spicy wood aroma, then it's likely to be French oak. There are so many things to look out for, and everything comes with practice, your nose is a muscle that needs a regular work-out.


Oak barrels storing wine


Aroma and appearance are good indicators of where the wine is made, and what type of grape it is. If this was a blind tasting, and your white wine had tropical fruit aromas like mango and pineapple, you could make an educated guess that the grapes are probably grown in a hot place to achieve full ripeness.


Remember there are always exceptions! There are lots of clues like this to look for, which takes a lot of studying and practice.


 

PALATE (TASTE)


Finally the third step of learning how to taste wine - you can actually now take a sip! Try to take in a small gulp of air with the wine, to maximise your ability to detect flavour. There are lots of things to think about here.


SUGAR


Firstly, is the wine dry?


This means there is little to no sugar left in the wine, the yeast ate it all. If the wine is on the sweet side, it’s likely the fermentation was stopped early by killing the yeast, so they can’t get all the sugar (you’re not allowed to just add sugar to wine, it has to be done this way).


This must also mean that the wine is lower in alcohol right? If the yeast didn’t get all the sugar, then they can’t have made the ‘normal’ amount of alcohol with it!


If you’re in the store and you’re not sure if the wine is sweet, check the ABV. If it’s less than 11% it’s likely to have some sweetness, and this cheat is especially helpful with Riesling!


Remember that fruity doesn’t mean sweet! In the past lots of people have asked me for sweet red wines, but in actuality, they don’t mean sugary, they just want a fruity wine. These are still normally dry wines, but the fruit gives the illusion of sweetness and can make the wine feel more smooth and juicy.


ACID


To check for acidity, take a small sip, swallow it, and then tip your head forward.


How much saliva gathers in your cheeks? If it’s something like a Sancerre, you can expect your mouth to salivate like crazy because it's a high-acid wine.


Champagnes are also high-acid, which is why they go so well with fatty food like pizza because acid compliments fat. If the wine is high-acid, it normally indicates it was made in a cold region (like the Champagne region of France), which is also helpful with blind tasting.


Somebody smelling a white wine

BODY


You’ve probably heard people talk about the body of wines. This is when you hold the liquid in your mouth and it feels thick like mango juice. Medium bodied? That’ll feel like milk. And if it feels like water, it’s light-bodied.


TANNIN


All the colour in wine comes from the skins of the grapes, the flesh is always clear.


This is why white wine is sometimes made from red grapes, for example, in many Champagnes, they just remove the skins before they crush them.


Rosés are normally also made from red grapes, they just leave the skins and the juice together for a few hours to leach some colour.


Tannins are a group of biomolecules that live in grape skins (and stems, and tea, and other things) They are actually a defence mechanism for the grape because they're hard to digest for animals.


The only way humans can digest tannins is with saliva, which is why high-tannin red wines draw all the saliva from your mouth when you swallow, creating a drying sensation. This adds an astringent and bitter complexity to the wine.


So for detecting tannins in red and some rosés, you take a sip and swish the liquid around your gums. If your mouth is extremely pap-pap dry, then it's likely to be a high-tannin wine. If this action has a subtle sensation of drying your mouth out, maybe it's medium or low-tannin.


*LEGS*


Anyone who knows anything about wine never talks about legs! This is the liquid that falls down the side of the glass after swirling, I mean it could indicate sugar and alcohol content but it's really not an important part of wine tasting and rarely discussed.


FLAVOUR


Next up in this step by step guide on how to taste wine, you think about what kind of things you can taste, and if it’s the same or different to what you could smell. You’re not really looking for how ‘strong’ the flavours are, more like how many different flavours you can easily detect, and how clear they are.


A wine could smell very strongly of wood and vanilla, but it doesn’t mean it’s a good wine, the maker could have just chucked a lot of oak chips into the mix to give it that flavour, and the wine could still be cheap and poorly made. It’s about elegance and a balance of distinct flavours.


 

FINISH


Again a very commonly used term, but what does it mean?


Have a sip, swallow it, and count how many seconds you can still taste the flavours in your mouth.


Not the flavour of wine, but the actual different flavours you detected before, like pepper, liquorice, and prosciutto; maybe if it was a good Syrah.


Is it longer than 6 seconds? That's a long finish, and all high-quality wines have long finishes. 3-5 seconds? That's a medium finish. Less than 3 seconds? Short finish.

 

Four wine tasting glasses

So this is how you practice when learning how to taste wine!

However, if you're in a restaurant, and the waiter is offering you a taste, you don't need to do all of these things.


It's likely the Sommelier has already tested it before they've served you. All you do is swirl and sniff. If it doesn't smell old or corked, then simply say "Yes, that's fine".


What's important to know is they're not offering you a taste to see if you like the wine. If you don't like it, well, you ordered it and that's your problem. You're just double-checking it's what you actually asked for and that it's not faulty.


And Voila! You're on your way to understanding what's actually going on during a wine tasting. As I said before, if you're not detecting the aromas everyone is discussing, don't worry, you just need to drink more wine to practice :)


 

It was living in Central Otago in New Zealand that first sparked my interest in wine, as we often visited the famed Pinot Noir vineyards in this region, and one year I even helped out with a grape harvest.


Since then I have always tried to incorporate a vineyard trip into my travels to wine-producing countries. Some highlights include The Hunter Valley in NSW Australia, and Jerez in Andalucía in the south of Spain, which is where Sherry is from. (Yes, Sherry is wine!) Other wine regions I would love to visit are Margaret River in Western Australia and Mendoza in Argentina!


 

Thank you for reading my step by step guide on how to taste wine! If you have any wine-related questions please let me know!


If you enjoyed the read , check out some of my other articles, and perhaps consider subscribing to my blog, where I post new articles every 1-2 weeks.


Happy Travels

xxx


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