Inside the Bottle: How to Taste Wine
Bridgette McAuliffe teaches us the key to tasting wine.
When you pour yourself a glass of wine, how do you determine if you like it or not? Do you just take a sip? Do you down that sucker like it’s a drinking game? Like I’ve said before, wine is an art, and I like to take time to appreciate what’s in my glass. But how can you appreciate it if you don’t understand what you’re tasting? That’s why I sat down with my friend Chris Davis.
Chris isn’t your traditional sommelier. Sommeliers, by definition, are wine stewards. They work in the service industry, typically in a restaurant, helping you decide which wine is perfect for you and your meal. They curate wine lists and menus, they could be beverage directors and wine buyers. Chris took a different approach by becoming certified with the WSET - Wine & Spirits Education Trust.
In short, you don’t have to work in a restaurant to become a wine expert or to start educating yourself. That fact definitely gives me hope in my journey. So how can I figure out what I’m tasting in a glass, and from that, determine what I like in a wine, and where my favorite wines are from? That’s why in our tasting, Chris walked me through the WSET Systematic Approach To Tasting Wine. A bit more intense than your wine-novice tastings, we approached ours at his current certification - Level 3. So here’s how you taste, and by the end, rate, each wine you’re drinking.
Step 1 - Analyze The Wine’s Appearance
Though it may seem strange, the first thing you need to look at when you pour yourself a glass is the wine’s appearance. We’re going to go past just red, white, and rose - we’re looking at its clarity, intensity, color, and any other physical observations that can be made on the wine.
The first physical appearance we look at is Clarity - is the wine clear or dull? When you’re first starting the process, this might be hard to tell. But what you’re looking for is whether the color of your wine is clear and bright, or if it’s dull and hazy. It’s not always a major flaw, but sometimes a dullness in the wine’s appearance could be indicative of flaws in the wine itself. We look at these things not just to know what we’re drinking, but if the wine is off.
The next physical appearance we’ll look at is Intensity - and just like it sounds, we’re looking at the intensity of the color. This ranges from water-white to opaque. If you look at the tasting guide, there are 7 options to compare between water-white, pale, medium(-), medium, medium(+), deep, and opaque. It takes a lot of practice to understand how to compare these, but looking at tasting guides or watching videos as you walk through tasting your wine is a great way to start.
You’re then going to look at the Colour, but it goes way beyond just red, white, or rose. Have you ever thought of white wine being “lemon-green,” or red wine being “garnet”? When you’re rating a wine, it gets that specific. There are five colors alone you can use to describe red wine. When I was walking through this with Chris, we concluded that the Nebbiolo we were tasting was a garnet color. To do this, you’ll tilt the glass about 45 degrees and examine the color at the center, where the highest concentration of the wine will be. This holds for most of the examinations you’ll do.
There are other physical characteristics you can look at, too, when describing a wine. You’ll examine the meniscus or the watery rim of the wine where it touches the glass. You can swirl the wine and examine the legs/tears, which will tell you a lot about the amount of alcohol and residual sugar in the wine. You can examine if there are any deposits in the wine, which at times could be indicative of flaws.
Step 2 - Nose
I know that’s already been a lot, but it just goes to show just how much you can learn by simply taking the time to look at the wine in your glass. I spent about 20 minutes during my first tasting, still struggling with describing appearance, but it comes with practice. When you’ve examined its appearance, you’ll move onto the nose, or smelling it (not getting to taste yet, sorry folks).
Before you start to smell, give your wine a nice swirl. I know you’ve seen people do this before and it looks sort of snobby, but I promise there’s a point! When you swirl wine in the glass (in the proper glassware for that wine), you’re both incorporating oxygen to open up the wine, allowing you to experience all of the aromas that the varietal has to offer, and coating the glass with the wine, allowing you to more easily get the smell in your nose. This wasn’t mentioned by Chris, but something I found in other videos that helped me a lot - when I smell, I inhale through both my nose and my mouth. You know how a good chunk of your taste comes from smell? That’s because your olfactory senses are activated. If you activate those senses while you smell a wine, you may have an easier time detecting some of these notes.
First, you’ll smell for the Condition. All this means is detecting if the wine is “clean” or “unclean.” You’ll be trying to identify if the wine is off, or has “cork taint,” undesirable aromas or tastes like spoilage that can only be detected after bottling, aging, and opening.
You’ll move onto Intensity, which is just like it sounds - how intense the aromas are on the nose. Some wines can be very light on the nose, while others almost punch you in the face and leave you a bit taken aback. Again, you’ll rate these on a scale from light to pronounced. My biggest struggle is differentiating between medium(-) and medium. It seems so subjective, but this is all a learning experience.
Development is the category I have the hardest time calculating on the nose. You know how some wines were made just one or two years ago, and some have a lot of age? This is what you’re trying to determine. Is it youthful, developing, or fully developed?
Finally, the thing that most people immediately hop to are the Aroma Characteristics. You’ll use adjectives to describe the wine like fruity, floral, spice, vegetal, oak, and countless other adjectives. You’re smelling more than just “wine.” For example, when I smell a Rioja Tempranillo, I think of earth and black pepper. Chris and I were tasting a Cesconi red blend, and we encountered notes of bright red fruit and damp forest floor. Those may sound pretty obscure, but with enough practice, you learn to associate what you’re smelling with experiences you’ve had before. I recommend when starting out to use a tasting wheel. You can walk through the different types of smells (fruit, spice, etc.) and use the layers of adjectives given to narrow down exactly what you’re experiencing. Think of the last time you had a Cabernet. Odds are you probably experienced notes of black cherry, dark plums, black currant, and a little bit of cocoa, which are common in that varietal.
Step 3 - What’s On The Palate
FINALLY! We get to taste the wine we’ve been swirling in our glass for God knows how long. There are 9 characteristics on the palate that the WSET chart has us rank, but I won’t go into as much detail on each of them. I just want to highlight how you should taste to be able to identify these characteristics.
When you take your first sip, swirl the wine in your mouth to cover all of your taste buds. You know how different parts of your tongue can detect different types of flavors? This will give you the chance to identify everything that you’re tasting in the wine. Now, why do wine experts slurp in oxygen while they taste? Again, just like swirling, this is going to open up the wine, allowing you to experience every note and characteristic the wine has to offer.
If you follow the WSET chart, the first thing you’ll try to identify is the Sweetness. You’ll get more specific than just sweet or dry. You’ve got a scale you can rate it on. This gets easier once you’ve had experience tasting a lot of wines because you have a lot to compare it to. If I drink a Port, I’m going to likely rate that as luscious - incredibly sweet, something I’d pair with rich, chocolate cake. But if I have a Tempranillo from Rioja (recently, one of my favorite wines), I’m probably going to rate it as dry.
Next, you’ll move onto the Acidity. Acidity isn’t a bad thing and really adds character to wine if it’s well balanced. This is easier for me to detect when I’m tasting white wines. I like to think of the “zing” on the sides of my tongue and mouth when I’m tasting for acidity.
Moving onto what I love in wine, and what can give it so much character, Tannins. Tannins are a naturally occurring chemical in the skins of the grape, but can also come from the seeds, stems, and if they’re barrel-aged, the barrels they were aged in. They add texture and mouthfeel, weight, and structure to the wine. You know how sometimes you’ll drink dry red wine, and you get sort of a papery feel on your tongue or between your lips and gums? That’s because of the tannins in the wine.
Be sure to taste for Alcohol content. On the palate, you may be able to tell how much alcohol is in a wine. Even beginners seem to be able to detect if a wine is more alcoholic than others they’ve had before.
You’ll then move onto describing the Body of the wine. Is it light-bodied or full-bodied, and what does that mean? Think of the difference between a Pinot Noir and a Cabernet Sauvignon. Typically, a Pinot Noir is going to be more on the light-bodied side of the spectrum. When I taste a Cabernet Sauvignon, it ends up being more towards medium(+) or full. These distinctions will become easier to identify the more you taste.
Mousse relates more so to mouthfeel and can be delicate, creamy, or aggressive.
Flavor Intensity, like when we rated intensity on the nose, is how pronounced the flavor is on your palette. Is the flavor light? Does it give you a good punch in the face? When I did the tasting with Chris, we tried 2 Italian wines - a Cesconi red blend and a Nebbiolo. The Nebbiolo ended up being a medium(+), and the Cesconi was very pronounced. You can check out the full video for exactly why these distinctions were made, and follow along with the full tasting.
Flavor Characteristics are where determine the notes of exactly what we’re tasting. With fruit, you’re going to try to distinguish between dark fruits, red fruits, berries, and you can even get baked fruit notes. Is it floral? What spices, if any, can you detect on the palate? You’ll taste for vegetal notes, oak, and an array of other flavor profiles. A lot of experts will tell you there is no wrong answer. What you’re trying to do is identify tastes that are familiar to you that become pronounced in the wine after aging. Like I mentioned before, a helpful tool in discovering what you’re experiencing is an aroma or tasting wheel. You can easily find these on Amazon if you’re looking for one to keep at home, or just take a peek at one in a quick Google search.
The last thing you’ll pay attention to is called Length. This just means how long the flavor lingers in your mouth after you’ve taken a sip.
Step 4 - Drawing Conclusions
We’ve reached the end of the tasting and what the real point of the Level 3 tasting is - drawing conclusions about the wine. What this means is assessing the Quality, rated from poor to outstanding, the Price Category, from inexpensive to premium, and the Readiness For Drinking, from needing time to develop to too old to drink.
The whole point of these tastings, besides a way to discover what you like, is to rate the quality of a wine. A lot of people, especially novice enthusiasts, actually prefer inexpensive wines. They’re often less complex on the palate and do one thing really well. I, however, have caught myself having a very expensive taste, loving complex wines that confuse my palate and have flavor characteristics that come with age.
If you’re interested in becoming certified, or just want to take a class to learn more about wine, check out the Wine & Spirits Education Trust. They offer classes, resources, and ways to get started in teaching yourself about wine.