In five simple steps, you can learn how to use your sight, smell and taste to become a more adept taster ready to experience the wines of the world.
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People learn how to taste wine for many different reasons. Professional wine writers do it to provide accurate reviews, sommeliers in order to make the optimum recommendations, and of course, winemakers to make the best wine they can for their consumers.
However, it isn’t only wine professionals who can benefit from learning tasting skills. Anyone who enjoys wine will appreciate the wine in their glass if they know a little bit about how to successfully judge its qualities, good and bad.
Most professional tasters use a systematic method to evaluate a wine. With practice, you too can use this method and it will help you understand, appreciate, and enjoy any wine by learning the Five S’s: See, Swirl, Sniff, Savor, and (A)ssess.
STEP 1: SEE
How a wine looks can tell you a good deal: its color and intensity, along with its viscosity (the “legs” or “tears” on the side of the glass) the presence of sediment, cloudiness, or in the case of sparkling wines, the fineness and persistence of the bubbles — all important facets.
Find some good, white light. Romantic restaurants are fine for, well, romance, but effective tasting requires clarity of vision. Always pick up the glass by the stem not the bowl; your fingers on the bowl will raise the temperature of the wine and smudge the glass. Hold the glass at a 45 to 60 degree angle away from you, preferably against a white background (a piece of paper will do).
Look at the color. It should match your expectations for the wine. Red wines come in three basic colors: garnet (Pinot Noir, Barolo, aged Rioja), ruby (cabernet sauvignon, merlot, Chianti), and purple (Zinfandel, Syrah, Carmenere, Malbec.) Some dessert wines made from red grapes end up brown (tawny ports).
White wines also come in three main colors: lemon green (Sauvignon Blanc, Gruner Veltliner), lemon yellow (Chardonnay, Riesling) and gold (most white dessert wines, such as Sauterne). Some white dessert wines (Sherry, Madeira) are amber.
Intensity – How deep is the color? Can you see the stem of the glass if you look down from the top? If so, the wine is pale. Oregon pinot noirs are often quite pale garnet, while Italian Pinot Grigios are pale lemon. Most wines are medium, including the majority of California Cabernets and Chardonnays. Deeply colored wines include Paso Robles Syrahs and French Sauternes.
Aging clues – with the glass still at a 45 degree angle, compare the “rim” of the wine (the outer quarter of an inch) to the “heart” or center of the wine. As the wine ages, the heart tends to lighten and the edge tends to brown in both whites and reds, so there will be a greater difference between heart and rim.
Legs – tip the glass to 45 degrees, then bring it back to upright. Look at the “legs” or “tears,” which are composed of glycerin and are an indication of the alcohol level. The bigger and slower moving they are, the higher the alcohol. Higher alcohol is often a sign that the wine comes from a hotter climate, like Paso Robles, SW Australia, or the Southern Rhone region of France.
An important quality to notice is if the wine is cloudy. Cloudiness can indicate that the wine was deliberately unfiltered, but it can also reveal a wine that has gone bad. If you find a cloudy wine, look to see if it says “unfiltered” on the label. If not, be careful with that first taste. One note: cloudiness, which is a general hazy quality, is different from sediment, which is a natural agglomeration of wine solids. Sediment is common in older wines, especially reds. It is almost mandatory in aged vintage ports.
STEP 2: SWIRL
Swirling mixes some of the wine with the air in the bowl, and as a result you get a more intense aroma out of the glass. Holding the glass by the stem, and keeping the base flat on the table, rotate it so the wine moves around in a circle. Move your arm as little as possible. It can be hard to do at first, but practice, practice, practice. You’ll get it. By the way, some tasters find it useful to keep one hand over the bowl while swirling, to trap the air/wine mix better and get an even more powerful aromatic experience.
STEP 3: SNIFF
The aromatics are a wine’s most complex aspect. After swirling, put your nose above the bowl of the glass and inhale deeply. What do you smell? Medicinal, rotten, or corky aromas may indicate the wine is faulty, but don’t jump to conclusions. Surprising aromas are common in certain wines. Petrol/diesel, for example, is often found in high quality Rieslings, great Burgundies can sometimes smell like barnyards, and almost all New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs carry at least a whiff of what the French call “Pipi de Chat” (cat pee). It’s true! In any case, if the wine smells funny/bad, give it 5 or 10 minutes to breathe and then try it again. Many times the smell will go away. If it doesn’t, and if you’re in a restaurant, call the sommelier and ask that person to try it. You will get a good second opinion.
Assuming the wine is good, pay attention to your first impression, which often indicates a major characteristic of the wine. Earthier wines tend to come from Europe, fruitier ones from the New World (everywhere else). In a young wine, fruit aromas are generally pronounced, while older wines tend to give off earthier aromas of nuts, mushrooms, leather, tobacco, wood, and smoke.
Don’t try to identify the aromas all at once; go one at a time. As a rule, professional tasters start with categories and work their way down to more specific nuances. The most common category for all wine is fruit. In white wines, the fruit aromas will generally include citrus, apples, pears, and stone fruits, like peaches and nectarines. Red wines are characterized by red and/or black fruit notes, like strawberries, cherries, blackberries, blueberries, and plums. Many wines carry floral aromas. White wines have white and yellow flower scents, while red wines may have rose petals and violets.
A third category is spice. Black and white pepper are common, as are cloves and cinnamon, especially in reds. Minerality is often found in white wines: wet stones, for instance, or sea brine. By contrast, red wines, especially older reds, frequently show notes of saddle leather, tobacco leaf. Both reds and whites can have oak notes from the aging process.
Remember, though, one aroma at a time. Ask yourself first, “What fruits are here?” then take a sniff. Or, just think “apples” and take a sniff, then think, “citrus fruit,” take a sniff, then “flowers,” etc. Go slowly. It will take time for you to unpack all the aromas of a good, complex wine.
STEP 4: SAVOR
Put a good sip of the wine into your mouth. Swirl it around. Many tasters find that literally chewing the wine, as if it were solid food, can help provide a more powerful experience of the tasting elements. Try to identify the following:
Sweetness level – Is the wine dry, off dry, medium sweet, or very sweet (like dessert wines)?
Acid – This is a sharpness that is generally felt on the sides of the tongue. Acid will cause your mouth to water.
Alcohol – Alcohol is experienced as “heat.” The more alcohol the wine has, the hotter will be the sensation in the mouth. This is why spirits, like whiskey, burn when they go down: they have significantly higher alcohol levels.
Tannin – Tannins are a class of chemicals found in the skins and seeds of grapes, so they are experienced only in red wines. White wines are fermented without the skins and seeds. Tannins dry out the mouth, like tea that’s been soaked in a bag too long. It’s usually felt on the gums.
Body – Body is the overall mouth-feel. It’s experienced as fullness or weight. Think about herb tea; it is very light and without much body. A milkshake, by contrast, is thick. It has massive body. The body of some wines will be greater than that of others.
Flavors – The flavors are often referred to as fruit concentration. How much flavor is in the wine, and what, precisely, are the flavors? Usually they’ll be the same as the aromas, especially fruits, nuts, and spices, but there can be some differences between the aromas and the tastes.
Finish – Here the question is: how long do the good fruit flavors linger? Does the wine remain sweet and flavorful, or does it turn bitter?
STEP 5: ASSESS
In this final step, you put together all you’ve experienced so far and draw your ultimate conclusions. Professional tasters often use the acronym BLIC or BLICE as a guideline to help make their overall assessment. Here is what those letters stand for: balance (between flavor and structure), length of the finish, intensity of the flavors, complexity (the number of different aromas and flavors), and expressiveness (of the grape variety and the place it came from: the terroir).
There is one more quality that needs to be taken into account when rendering a final judgment on the wine: the cost. A wine that costs $15 is never going to be the same quality as one that costs $150, but the expectations for the pricier wine will be significantly higher. So your evaluation should take into consideration the quality of wine relative to its price.
Given all that you now know, just how good is this wine? Did you enjoy it? Would you want to drink it again? Is it worth what you paid? How does it compare with other wines you’ve had, or with your expectations? Using the Five S’s — See, Swirl, Sniff, Savor, and (A)ssess — you’ll be able to tell if a wine is a real oenological unicorn or if it is just another alcoholic donkey with a horn taped to its head. Remember though: nothing beats experience and the more you learn how to taste, and the more you practice what you’ve learned, the more you’ll appreciate the many fine wines the world has to offer.
Copyright © Michael Pariser/2015 Singular Communications, LLC.
Dr. Michael Pariser has been passionate about wine since 1988, when he was bowled over by a bottle of 1980 Chateau Latour. Since then, he has been tasting wine seriously, and he is an avid collector and investor in fine wines. In 2011, he began training with the Wine and Spirit Education Trust, the world’s largest organization devoted to wine education, and he is now a student in its highest tier, the Diploma level. In addition, Michael is a sommelier with Wine Elite a company specializing in private tastings and corporate events.
Finally, Michael is someone who once drank what has to be the single worst wine in the entire history of oenology: Gallo “Twister”: peppermint wine! It is the only wine he ever regrets tasting.