An Easy Guide to Understanding the Basics of Wine Tasting

Here’s a quote from an expert describing a wine as, “a core that’s as soft as molten chocolate and yet a frame that’s structured as a New Yorker skyscraper”.  Wow!! The questions are how long does one have to study wine to produce such a complex evaluation and does it make any sense to 99% of people who appreciate a decent glass of wine?

As a university teacher for over three decades, my role has been to breakdown complex topics into understandable blocks of knowledge that can be stacked so that in the end the learner has a better understanding of the topic.  So, in this column, I will try to provide an introduction to a structured way of wine tasting that is rooted in sense perceptions rather than extravagant language.

Here are the basics – in wine tasting we use our senses to see, smell, taste, and feel the wine (after a few too many glasses, you even hear the wine speak to you).  The first thing we do when we are presented a glass of wine is to look at the color and clarity.  White wines range from pale yellow to deep gold, while reds range from bright red to dark brownish red.  Rose’ wines usually are in various hues of pink.  For the novice, color may not mean much but as you develop your knowledge, you better understand the signals sent by the color of wine.

The next step is the smell the wine for its aromas. Our sense of smell is our most powerful sense and a human can be taught to identify around 1000 distinct aromas. For the novice, this can be a difficult to master but almost anyone with a normal sense of smell can develop this skill with practice.  A useful tool is the Aroma Wheel, developed by Ann Noble at the University of California, Davis (http://winearomawheel.com/).  This wheel has of a set on concentric circles with innermost tier consisting of general basic aromas (such as, Fruity, Spicy, Floral among others) while the outer circles get more specific.  For example, if one describes the aroma as Fruity, the next step is to further narrow it to a family of fruits – such as citrus or berry or tropical fruit.  Finally with practice we get to the specific fruit – let’s say, strawberry. Mastering aromas takes time and practice to develop our smell memory.  Familiarity with aromas comes over time but most of us can identify the smell of commonly encountered fruit – strawberry, cherry, lemon/lime, banana, and others.

The next is our sense of taste – as we swirl the wine in our mouths and expose it to our taste buds.  It is widely accepted that our tongues can sense only five tastes – bitter, sour, sweet, salt, and umami (the Japanese word for savory). Flavor, on the other hand is of a combination of taste and smell where our tongues and noses work together resulting perceptions of thousands of flavors.  To understand wine tasting it is imperative to know the differences between smell, taste, and flavor – for example, we do not actually taste strawberries (since there are only five tastes) but we can smell and perceive the flavor of strawberries as we eat them.  If the strawberries are unripe, their taste will be sour, if ripe, their taste will be sweet. When combined with their smell we get the flavor of strawberries. (A great exercise is pinch your nose tight and close your eyes and have someone give you a glass of fruit juice and then to try and identify it.  Without your sense of smell, all you will get the taste – i.e. sour or sweet but you may be hard pressed to identify the fruit).  So, in summary, we can perceive thousands of aromas and flavors but only FIVE tastes.

To understand the taste of wine, we need to know the components of wine.  Like almost everything in the world around us wine is made of a group of complex organic components.  Usually, around 75% of wine is water and the remaining 25% is made up of a combination of alcohols, sugars, acids, tannins, and other compounds.  Water and alcohol in their purest forms are tasteless but from the sugars we sense sweetness, from acids we sense sourness, and from tannins (usually found in red wines) we get bitterness.

So the next step in structured wine tasting is to identify the different tastes, sweet, sour, and bitter.  Our taste buds determine our individual sensitivity to these tastes and some people may be more sensitive to sweetness while others to sourness.  Generally speaking the acids in wine will bring out sourness and our mouths start to salivate (think of sour candy) while tannins bring out bitterness and our mouths feel coated and dry (think of strongly brewed tea).  As you practice the structured tasting method, you will understand your own taste sensitivities and then your own preferences for these tastes.

Finally, there is the sense of touch or feel as we swirl the wine in our mouths.  Is it dense and heavy or light and watery or somewhere in between?  This is referred to as the body of the wine and maybe one of the most difficult skills to develop because body may be overwhelmed by everything else that is going on in your mouth when you swirl the wine.  Flavor and taste may be more predominant thus making it difficult to focus on body.  To practice the structured wine tasting method we need to follow the evaluation method on a consistent basis and keep good notes that answer the following questions as we use each of our senses.

Sight:

What is the color of the wine?

Is it clear?

Smell:

What are the predominant aromas?

Taste:

On a scale of 1 to 10 how sweet is this wine? (presence of sugar)

On a scale of 1 to 10 how sour is this wine? (presence of acid)

On a scale of 1 to 10 how bitter is this wine? (presence of tannins)

Feel:

Does it feel heavy (full body), light (light body) or in between (medium body)?

Finally, the most important part of the evaluation – DID YOU LIKE IT?  So in the end it does not matter what anyone else says (molten chocolate and skyscrapers notwithstanding) in wine tasting what really matters is if YOU liked the wine.

Harsha Chacko, Boone Cuvée Wine Director

 

 

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