What is the “Right Way” to taste a wine?
Learning how to taste wines is a straightforward adventure that will deepen your appreciation for both wines and winemakers. Look, smell, taste – starting with your basic senses and expanding from there you will learn how to taste wines like the pros in no time! Keep in mind that you can smell thousands of unique scents, but your taste perception is limited to salty, sweet, sour and bitter. It is the combination of smell and taste that allows you to discern flavor.
Look: Check out the Color and Clarity.
Pour a glass of wine into a suitable wine glass. Then take a good look at the wine. Tilt the glass away from you and check out the “color” of the wine from the rim edges to the middle of the glass. What color is it? Look beyond red, white or blush. If it’s a red wine is the color maroon, purple, ruby, garnet, red, brick or even brownish? If it’s a white wine is it clear, pale yellow, straw-like, light green, golden, amber or brown in appearance?
Still looking? Move on to the wine’s opacity. Is the wine watery or dark, translucent or opaque, dull or brilliant, cloudy or clear? Can you see sediment? Tilt your glass a bit, give it a little swirl – look again, is there sediment, bits of cork or any other floaters? An older red wine will be more translucent than younger red wines.
Our sense of smell is critical in properly analyzing a glass of wine. To get a good impression of your wine’s aroma gently swirl your glass (this helps vaporize some of the wine’s alcohol and release more of its natural aromas) and then take a quick whiff to gain a first impression.
Still Smelling. Now stick your nose down into the glass and take a deep inhale through your nose. What are your second impressions? Do you smell oak, berry, flowers, vanilla or citrus? A wine’s aroma is an excellent indicator of its quality and unique characteristics. Gently swirl the wine and let the aromas mix and mingle, and sniff again.
Finally, take a taste. Start with a small sip and let it roll around your tongue. There are three stages of taste: the Attack phase, the Evolution phase and the Finish.
The Attack Phase, is the initial impression that the wine makes on your palate. The Attack is comprised of four pieces of the wine puzzle: alcohol content, tannin levels, acidity and residual sugar. These four puzzle pieces display initial sensations on the palate. Ideally these components will be well-balanced one piece will not be more prominent than the others. These four pieces do not display a specific flavor per se, they meld together to offer impressions in intensity and complexity, soft or firm, light or heavy, crisp or creamy, sweet or dry, but not necessarily true flavors like fruit or spice.
The Evolution Phase is next, also called the mid-palate or middle range phase, this is the wine’s actual taste on the palate. In this phase you are looking to discern the flavor profile of the wine. If it’s a red wine you may start noting fruit – berry, plum, prune or fig; perhaps some spice – pepper, clove, cinnamon, or maybe a woody flavor like oak, cedar, or a detectable smokiness. If you are in the Evolution Phase of a white wine you may taste apple, pear, tropical or citrus fruits, or the taste may be more floral in nature or consist of honey, butter, herbs or a bit of earthiness.
The Finish is appropriately labeled as the final phase. The wine’s finish is how long the flavor impression lasts after it is swallowed. This is where the wine culminates, where the aftertaste comes into play. Did it last several seconds? Was it light-bodied (like water) or full-bodied (like the consistency of milk)? Can you taste the remnant of the wine on the back of your mouth and throat? Do you want another sip or was the wine too bitter at the end? What was your last flavor impression – fruit, butter, oak? Does the taste persist or is it short-lived?
After you have taken the time to taste your wine, you might record some of your impressions. Did you like the wine overall? Was it sweet, sour or bitter? How was the wine’s acidity? Was it well balanced? Does it taste better with cheese, bread or a heavy meal? Will you buy it again? If so, jot the wine’s name, producer and vintage year down for future reference.
Why do I need to let my wine “Breathe”?
The whole concept of letting wine breathe, or aerate, is simply maximizing your wine’s exposure to the surrounding air. By allowing wine to mix and mingle with air, the wine will typically warm up and the wine’s aromas will open up, the flavor profile will soften and mellow out a bit and the overall flavor characteristics should improve.
Which Wines Need to Breathe?
Typically red wines are the ones to benefit most from breathing before serving. However, there are select whites that will also improve with a little air exposure. In general, most wines will improve with as little as 15-20 minutes of air time. However, if the wine is young with high tannin levels, it will need more time to aerate before enjoying. For example, a young cabernet Sauvignon will likely require around an hour for proper aeration and flavor softening to take place. Not that you cannot drink it as soon as it is uncorked, but to put its best foot forward give it more time to breathe. Mature wines are another story all together. These wines will benefit most from decanting and then will only have a small window of aeration opportunity before the flavor profiles begin to deteriorate.
Some erroneously believe that merely uncorking a bottle of wine and allowing it to sit for a bit is all it takes to aerate. This method is futile, as there is simply not enough room (read: surface area) at the top of the bottle to permit adequate amounts of air to make contact with the wine. So what’s a Wine Lover to do? You have two options: Decanter or Wine Glass.
Decanter – use a decanter with a wide opening at the top to pour your bottle of wine into. The increased surface area is the key to allowing more air to make contact with your wine. Keep this in mind while setting up proper “breathing” techniques for your favorite wine.
The Wine Glass – Pour your wine into wine glasses and let it aerate. This is certainly the low-maintenance method and typically works quite well. Just be sure to keep the glass away from the kitchen commotion, while it breathes in peace. A good tip for pouring wine into glasses make sure that you pour into the center of the glass with a good 6-10 inches of “fall” from bottle to glass to allow for further aeration during the actual pour.
In general, the Aeration Rule of Thumb: the more tannins a wine has the more time it will need to aerate. Lighter-bodied red wines that have lower tannin levels, will need little if any time to breathe.
How do I know if my wine is “corked”?
Fresh picked blueberries, juicy peach, toasted vanilla bean, or mold, which one does not belong? The first three flavors are great descriptors for wine; unfortunately, the last one is a pretty accurate descriptor for a corked bottle of wine. Nuances of mildew, no matter how slight, are an indication of TCA, a bleach-loving mold that infects corks and bottling facilities. As revolting as a corked bottle can taste, TCA starts out as a loss of fruitiness with no ill flavor. So that highly recommended, highly disappointing bottle may still be a great wine, just not the one you opened.
Even though it tastes like it could kill you, you can drink the wine. A faint cardboard flavor can be tolerated when the wine is still tasty enough to drink. When you encounter a bottle that is too far gone don’t dump the wine down the drain. Pour it back into the bottle, put the cork back in, and return it to the store where you purchased it. Retailers get credit for bad bottles of wine. Some experts estimate that one bottle in twelve is tainted with TCA. Just because one bottle has it, doesn’t mean that another bottle from the same case does too. TCA mold takes effect by coming in contact with the wine in the bottle. Mold on the top of the cork is usually not an indication that the bottle is corked.
[Mr Zimmerman owns and operates Liquors Galore, 1418 Avenue J (between 12th and 13th Streets); Brooklyn, NY 11230-3702; Telephone: 718.338.4166. The above post is part of a multi-part series we’ll be posting once a week on these pages]